Chapter 1 Crash course in the Swiss school system
This chapter gives a brief overview of the stages of the Swiss education system, covering the ages of four to around 18 to 20, that is, from kindergarten until upper-secondary school. The terminology for all school stages in four languages can be found in Appendix 2 .
In Switzerland, 95% of pupils attend public schools as the education is considered to be of a high standard. Pre-kindergarten, day care and playgroups for children under four are available, but are not part of the public school system. They all have to be paid for by the parents. It is unfortunately not possible to go into these in this book.
I recommend the English Forum ( www.englishforum.ch ), a community website with 60,000 members, as a starting point to ask for information and recommendations regarding day care, playgroups and private schools in general where you live.
The political background
There is no national Ministry of Education in Switzerland. Responsibility for compulsory education lies mainly with the 26 cantons, in four linguistic regions. 63.7% of the population speak German, 20.4% speak French, 6.5% speak Italian and 0.5% speak Rhaeto-Romansch. 2 The cantons may make school laws, but they delegate the main responsibility for funding and running the schools to the municipalities ( Gemeinde (D), commune (F), comune (I) 3 ) that is, the town and village governments.
In 2012 Switzerland had over 2500 municipalities. Many small municipalities are merging and it is expected that there will be fewer than 2300 by 2020. They vary in size from 20 inhabitants to 370,000 inhabitants. No matter their size, the municipalities have a lot of political power. They use their populations' tax money to fund schools and employ teachers. They also take responsibility for quality assurance in accordance with cantonal regulations. In some municipalities schools are governed directly by an elected board of lay persons, others have professional school offices with the post of a head teacher. Citizens can vote on all municipal government decisions related to schooling, including how their money is spent on schools. Some municipalities have a more limited school budget than others.
How names are used in this book
With regard to people's names, parents are referred to by their first names and in some cases a pseudonym is used. Their children are referred to by their first initial to protect their privacy. Older children I interviewed may be referred to by their first name. I refer to teachers by their first name and the first initial of their family name. Experts and people in official roles are referred to by their first names and family names.
Harmonisation of school systems
Alignment of cantonal systems is currently moving at a fast pace, at least by Swiss standards. In the old system, compulsory schooling covers at least nine years, from primary school around the age of six to lower-secondary school, which finishes around the age of 15. In the new HarmoS system (see box on pages 14 - 15) compulsory schooling lasts 11 years for the cantons that are implementing it, as it includes two years of kindergarten. Upper-secondary school after the age of 15 or 16 is not compulsory, and lasts a further three to four years, giving a total of 12 or 13 years in the old system and 14 or 15 years in the new system.
Numbering the years of school
Some cantons are already using the numbering of school years in accordance with the new HarmoS system. It is the aim of HarmoS to refer to the two years of kindergarten as 1st and 2nd class, rather than calling them the first two years of pre-school. This means that, in the HarmoS frame, the first year of primary school is known as the 3rd class. In this book I use the