The Swiss Education System

The Swiss school system distinguishes, in principle, between the following stages 

  • preschool (2 years)
  • primary (6 years)
  • lower secondary (3 years)
  • upper secondary (of variable length and focus)
  • tertiary (university, higher technical colleges)

Primary responsibility for state schools lies with the canton. Thus the system can vary slightly from one canton to the next.

School attendance is compulsory through the first three stages (up to and including lower secondary). Children start preschool at the age of 4 or 5.

There is no ability-based streaming during the elementary stages. When children reach the secondary stage, however, they are re-grouped according to their ability. The designations of these different streams (Realschule, Sekundarschule, Bezirksschule, etc.) vary from region to region.

After completing their compulsory education, students have to choose between several options for further education at the upper secondary stage, such as

or they embark on apprenticeship-based, vocational training, with the option of further education afterwards.

Baccalaureate school (Gymnasium)

For young people intending to go to university, baccalaureate schools – leading to the Swiss baccalaureate examination (Matura / Maturität) – are the standard path to follow. Passing this examination entitles them to study at Swiss universities, independently of whether it is taken in a state school or in a private school.

In several cantons (e.g. Zurich) these schools may be referred to as Kantonsschule or Mittelschule.

High performing pupils can transfer straight after their 6th year in primary school to the Langzeitgymnasium (six-year baccalaureate school).

Otherwise they can first complete their 2nd or 3rd year at secondary school before switching to the shorter Kurzzeitgymnasium (four-year baccalaureate school).

There is a choice between several baccalaureate profiles with a focus on

  • Ancient and modern languages (A)
  • Modern languages (N)
  • Mathematics and natural sciences (MN)
  • Economics and law (WR)
  • Arts (M)
  • Philosophy / education / psychology (PPP)

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Upper-secondary specialised school (Fachmittelschule FMS)

Upper-secondary specialised schools (also known earlier as Diplommittelschule) follow on from the compulsory education phase. They provide a good general education. Depending on the direction they mean to take, students choose one of the following options:

  • Health/natural sciences
  • Communication/media
  • Education
  • Social work
  • Design/art
  • Music/theatre/dance

This 3-year programme leads to an Upper-Secondary Specialised School Certificate (Fachmittelschulausweis) which is recognised throughout Switzerland and entitles students to study at colleges of professional education and training (PET) in their occupational field. A one-year optional, additional programme prepares them for a Specialised Baccalaureate examination (Fachmaturität) – an entry qualification required by some PET colleges.

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Upper-secondary business school (Handelsmittelschule HMS)

Business schools (or vocational high schools, also known as Wirtschaftsmittelschule) provide an education in business administration, combining this vocational training with a high level general education. This 3-year programme takes over where 2nd or 3rd year secondary school left off and leads to the Eidgenössisches Fähigkeitszeugnis Kauffrau/Kaufmann (the Swiss federal certificate of competence in commerce, otherwise referred to as the Upper-Secondary Business School Certificate). A one-year optional, additional programme prepares students for a Vocational Baccalaureate examination (Fachmaturität). This makes them eligible to enrol in colleges of vocational education and training (VETs) without sitting any further examinations.

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Vocational apprenticeship

Many young people in Switzerland complete an apprenticeship. This takes over where their compulsory education left off and lasts three or four years, depending on the trade. One or two days a week the apprentices attend an upper-secondary vocational school; for the rest of the week they work in their apprentice-training firm, where they gain practical experience of their trade. Authorised apprentice-training firms can be found both in the private sector and in the public sector. Apprenticeship training is monitored by the state and leads to a Federal Vocational Education and Training (VET) Diploma (Eidgenössisches Fähigkeitszeugnis EFZ). Young people with lower ability levels can do a shortened apprenticeship, which leads, on completion, to a Federal VET Certificate (Eidgenössisches Berufsattest).

In certain vocational sectors it is possible to obtain the Federal VET diploma within the framework of a private school programme.

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