Key features of the education system
Switzerland is a federal and multilingual country with a decentralised education system. The primary responsibility for education lies with the 26 Cantons (states). While the Cantons are responsible for compulsory education, the Cantons and the Federal Government share responsibilities for post-compulsory education (general education schools, vocational and professional education and training, universities). Decentralisation is reflected in the fact that the cantons and their municipalities finance 90% of public expenditure on education.
The Confederation and the Cantons have a joint obligation to ensure a high degree of quality and permeability within the education system. In the performance of this duty, the entire education system in Switzerland is systematically monitored, key challenges are identified and the achievement of policy goals is evaluated on a regular basis. The Swiss Education Report, which is published every four years, is one result of this monitoring process.
In compulsory education 95% of all children attend public schools in their local municipality. There is no free choice of school in compulsory education. Public schools play an important role in integration. Children who have different social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds all attend the same school. Public schools in compulsory education are free of charge. Each Canton is responsible for drawing up the curriculum including the weekly teaching periods per subject and class. There is no national curriculum. However, the Federal Constitution obliges the Cantons to coordinate and harmonise their educational systems with regard to structure and objectives. The Cantons have, for instance, developed language-region curricula for compulsory education, which are currently being introduced.
The language of instruction is German, French, Italian or Romansh, depending on the language region. Traditionally, language learning is important in Switzerland. Students learn a second official language of Switzerland as well as English during their compulsory school years.
Switzerland has a strong vocational and professional education system (VET). It offers mostly dual-track VET programmes at upper secondary level (combining an apprenticeship in a training company with 1-2 days of classroom instruction at a vocational school) and broad tertiary-level professional education programmes. Two thirds of all young people coming out of compulsory education enrol in VET, which provides them with a solid foundation in a given occupation (there are about 230 professions to choose from). Around one-third opts for continuing education at an upper secondary specialised or baccalaureate school, which prepare them for tertiary education at a university.
Open access to various types of education and a high degree of permeability between programmes play an important role: Anyone who has the necessary qualifications can generally attend the courses of his/her choice. With a few exceptions (numerus clausus in specific programmes) a baccalaureate diploma allows for free choice of the university as well as the study programme. VET is subject to some restrictions due to ceilings on apprenticeship positions. There are many ways to enter or transfer to a training programme or school or to attend a catch-up training programme. A federal VET-diploma combined with a federal vocational baccalaureate, for instance, opens the way to universities of applied sciences. By passing an additional aptitude test, students have the option of enrolling in a university or in a federal institute of technology.
More than 90% of all young people acquire a certificate or diploma at upper secondary level, which facilitates direct entry into the job market or enables them to continue education at tertiary level.
Stages of the education system
There are various childcare facilities and services (Kindertagesstätten / crèches / nidi d’infanzia [day-care centres] and Tagesfamilien / familles de jour / famiglie diurne) as well as informal care arrangements such as care by private individuals (e.g. grandparents, neighbours, friends), playgroups etc. All these childcare services are voluntary and parents use them at their discretion. The share of informal care in Switzerland is comparatively high. Parents using formal childcare pay a share of the costs. There is no legal entitlement to an ECEC place for children under the age of four.
Compulsory education sets in for children at the age of four and lasts eleven years. Primary level (Primarschule / école primaire / scuola elementare) includes two years of kindergarten (Kindergarten / école enfantine / scuola dell’infanzia) or a first learning cycle and comprises eight years (seven years in Canton Ticino). Lower secondary level (Sekundarstufe I / secondaire I / scuola media) takes three years (four years in Canton Ticino). In lower secondary education, teaching is realised at different performance levels (tracking). Pupils complete compulsory education at the age of 15/16.
Upper secondary education
Upper secondary education is subdivided into general education programmes and vocational education and training programmes (VET). The general education programmes include the Gymnasiale Maturitätsschulen / écoles de maturité / scuole di maturità [Baccalaureate schools] and the Fachmittelschulen / écoles de culture générale / scuole specializzate [upper secondary specialised schools]. They do not lead to professional qualifications, but prepare for tertiary level education programmes. In the berufliche Grundbildung / formation professionnelle initiale / formazione professionale di base [VET] adolescents learn a profession. VET is mostly completed at training companies (apprenticeship) combined with education at a Berufsfachschule / école professionnelle / scuola professionale [VET school]. The adolescents complete upper-secondary education at the age of 18/19. About one-third of adolescents acquire one form of baccalaureate (gymnasiale Maturität / maturité gymnasiale / maturità liceale; Fachmaturität / maturité specialisée / maturità specializzata; Berufsmaturität / maturité professionnelle / maturità professionale [baccalaureate, specialised baccalaureate or vocational baccalaureate]).
The tertiary level comprises universitäre Hochschulen / hautes écoles universitaire / università; Fachhochschulen / hautes écoles specialisée / scuole universitarie professionali; Pädagogische Hochschulen / hautes écoles pédagogique / alte scuole pedagogiche [universities, universities of applied sciences, universities of teacher education] and, as a second important pillar, institutions providing professional education and training (PET). The latter is aimed at people with an upper secondary VET diploma and several years of professional experience, enabling them to gain specialist education and additional qualifications. It comprises diplomas from a höhere Fachschule / école supérieure / scuola specializzata superiore [PET college], an Eidgenössischer Fachausweis / brevet fédéral / attestato professionale federale [federal PET diploma] or an Eidgenössisches Diplom / diplôme fédéral / diploma federale [advanced federal PET diploma]. 45 % of adults obtain a tertiary education degree or diploma, 30% from a university, 15% from a PET institution.
Continuing education and training
Continuing education and training is characterised by heterogeneity, e.g. regarding responsibility, regulation, financing and types of programmes. Private parties perform a key role, bearing general responsibility, as well as providing and financing continuing education and training. The Confederation and the cantons mainly perform a subsidiary role.
Structure of the national education system
Further information on the Swiss education system may also be found on the websites of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education and the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. A general overview on the education system is also provided by the Swiss Education Server educa.ch.
Common European Reference Tools Provided by the Eurydice Network
- National Student Fee and Support Systems
- Organisation of the Academic Year in Higher Education
- Organisation of School Time in Europe (Primary and general secondary education)
- Recommended Annual Instruction Time in Full-Time Compulsory Education in Europe (Presented by grades/stages for full time compulsory education as well as by subject and country.)
- Teachers and School Heads Salaries and Allowances in Europe (Salaries and allowances of teachers and school heads at pre-primary, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education levels.)