Curricula, subjects, number of hours
The Intercantonal Agreement on Harmonisation of Compulsory Education (HarmoS Konkordat) harmonises the education objectives (educational standards) of compulsory education. It lays down the areas in which all pupils should receive a basic education in the course of compulsory education. These are: languages, mathematics and natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, music, art and design, and exercise and health. If required the cantons and schools may add additional educational areas. In order to harmonise teaching objectives throughout Switzerland, in 2011 national educational objectives were laid down for some areas in the form of basic competences (Nationale Bildungsziele). The proportion of pupils who achieve these basic competences is regularly monitored. The first surveys were carried out in 2016 and 2017. These tested the language of instruction in the school and the first foreign language at the end of the primary level (2017) and mathematics at the end of compulsory education (2016). The next reviews of the basic competences will take place in 2023 (at the end of compulsory education) and 2024 (4th school year).
The cantons are responsible for drawing up the curricula. The curricula regulate teaching by defining the educational concepts and objectives of teaching and weekly teaching periods per subject and class (Stundentafeln). However, they allow schools and teachers leeway in teaching.
The curricula are drawn up by panels of experts (which include professionals, subject specialists and teachers). Once drafted, the curriculum undergoes a consultation procedure in which various groups (teacher associations, professionals, etc.) can comment on it. After revision the curriculum is implemented by the cantonal authority. To date each canton has had its own curriculum or various cantons have worked together on regional curricula.
Newly developed curricula for different language regions are currently being introduced.
The French-speaking cantons have introduced the Plan d’études romand (PER). Since 2015 all pupils in compulsory education (including the École enfantine) in the French-speaking part of Switzerland have been taught according to the PER.
All 21 German and multilingual cantons have adopted curricula that are based on the Lehrplan 21. Their introduction is currently under way.
In the canton of Ticino, the introduction of the new Piano di studio was completed in the 2018/2019 academic year.
These language-region curricula are geared to the educational areas defined in the HarmoS Agreement and the national education objectives (educational standards). They contain descriptions of subject areas, cross-disciplinary contents and cross-disciplinary skills. The language-region curricula also lay down framework guidelines on approximate times to be allocated to each subject area and school year. The specific design of the class timetables (Stundentafeln) continues to rest with the cantons. Cantonal decision-making freedom and room for manoeuvre of the local schools are not affected by the language-region curricula.
The following subject areas and subjects are normally taught at primary school:
- languages: language of instruction, foreign languages (a second national language and English)
- mathematics and natural sciences
- social sciences and humanities: including geography, history
- music, art and design: music, artistic design, textile and craft design
- physical education, body and health
Various topics such as health promotion, education for sustainable development and political education may be taught as a separate subject or integrated in other subjects. The teaching of media and information technology is usually interdisciplinary, but sometimes also takes place in a separate module.
The Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and conscience. The legal status and the content of religious instruction vary from canton to canton. Only a few cantons have a purely secular school legislation, without religious sections in the curricula. There are different models of school and/or denominational religious instruction. School religious instruction within the meaning of interdenominational teaching, which addresses different faith communities and teaches basic concepts of ethics, is generally compulsory. It may be taught as a separate subject or integrated into a subject area. Participation in religious denominational teaching, which is the responsibility of the religious communities, is not compulsory.
Coordination of language teaching is particularly important in multilingual Switzerland. The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) adopted a national Strategy for the Development of Language Teaching in March 2004 (Sprachenunterricht in der obligatorischen Schule). The language strategy has the following objectives:
- to improve language learning as a whole (including the language of instruction),
- to benefit better from the potential offered by previous language learning,
- to respect Switzerland’s multilingualism,
- to remain competitive in the European arena.
The key content of the strategy has been incorporated into the HarmoS Agreement:
- from primary level two foreign languages (a second national language and English) are taught,
- the first foreign language is taught from the fifth school year at the latest, and the second foreign language from the seventh school year,
- throughout compulsory education a third national language must be offered as an optional subject if there is a demand for that language,
- the cantons decide which foreign language is taught first. They coordinate this on a regional basis;
- the national education objectives (educational standards) prescribe which skills and abilities and knowledge virtually all pupils have to acquire. In both foreign languages at the end of compulsory education comparable knowledge is required.
In 2017, the EDK issued recommendations on the teaching of the national languages and of English in compulsory education (Empfehlungen). These concern the specific implementation of the language concept in schools. They are designed to support the cantons and teacher training institutions in achieving good foreign language teaching and developing it further. The recommendations focus on the promotion of exchange and mobility: schools and pupils in compulsory education should participate more frequently in class or individual exchanges within Switzerland’s different language regions.
In addition to the recommendations, examples of good practice in language teaching have been published on behalf of the EDK (Gute Praxis im Sprachunterricht). They are aimed at teachers in the language field as well as at those who train teachers, and are intended to support them in their work.
The language concept is currently being implemented in 23 cantons. In 22 cantons, children learn their first foreign language from the fifth school year at the latest and their second foreign language from the seventh school year. The canton of Ticino requires pupils to learn three compulsory foreign languages and thus has its own model. In 14 cantons English is the first foreign language, while in twelve cantons the first foreign language is a second national language (German, French, Italian or Romansh).
Foreign-language children are provided with support measures within the language of instruction. Pupils with a first language other than that taught as the language of instruction can in many places attend voluntary instruction in their language of origin (Unterricht in Migrationssprachen). This instruction is offered by state or non-state maintaining bodies of the migrant communities and occasionally by cantons/school communities and charities. The cantons are responsible for its regulation.
In immersion/bilingual teaching a particular subject (e.g. geography, history, sport) or certain lessons are taught in a foreign language. The focus of the teaching is not on the foreign language, but on the topics of the subject in question. Immersion/bilingual teaching projects in compulsory education are found above all in multilingual cantons.
Schools employ language portfolios (Sprachenportfolios) to assess and document the foreign language abilities of individual pupils. In the sphere of compulsory education Switzerland has developed the Portfolio (European Language Portfolio [ELP] for children aged 4 to 7), ELP I (children aged 7 to 10), ELP II (children aged 11 to 15 and young people) and ELP III (for young people and adults aged 15 and above).
Teaching methods and materials
Teachers are free to choose their teaching methods. They choose methods which are best suited to the objectives, content and topics. Extended learning and teaching forms, differentiated teaching and independent learning are an important component of everyday teaching. This enables the different needs and individual learning abilities of the pupils to be addressed. Foreign-language pupils, particularly talented pupils and pupils with special educational needs, are helped by corresponding support programmes.
The cantons are responsible for regulating homework. They may lay down guideline values in the curricula for instance. Teaching staff are responsible for the specific implementation.
The cantonal education departments usually define the compulsory teaching materials or give recommendations on the selection or a list of the permitted teaching materials. Teaching materials are issued by cantonal and intercantonal teaching material publishers or private publishers.
Under the HarmoS Agreement, the language regions are to coordinate the development of the teaching materials. The teaching materials are geared to the new language-region curricula and the national education objectives (educational standards).
Teaching materials are as a rule made available free of charge. In some subjects (e.g. textile design) certain contributions may be charged. Depending on the canton the school materials (e.g. exercise books, writing implements) may be provided by the public sector or be paid for in part by parents.
Information and communication technologies are integrated into teaching from the primary level onwards (see also the chapter on Teaching subjects). Access to digital teaching materials and online services is provided by Educa, a specialist agency of the Confederation and the cantons for ICT and education. Educa also defends the interests of schools against commercial providers by negotiating framework contracts.
The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) adopted a national Digitisation Strategy in 2018. This follows on from an earlier ICT strategy, but also sets new priorities in areas such as data use or data security. As part of the implementation of the Digitisation Strategy the EDK is currently working, for instance, on a Framework for digitally competent schools and on Recommendations regarding the equipment of schools with ICT (e.g. 1:1 computing, Bring Your Own Device, Cloud services etc.).