The following post is written by April Remfrey who is an American ex-pat and a special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland.
Seven years ago we arrived in Switzerland with a 2nd grader and very limited knowledge about the Swiss educational system. Our first introduction, during our house hunting trip, was a quick visit to the city’s school office to ask if we could visit the various elementary schools in the area. In essence, we were told, you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit. Well then! This veteran teacher was not super comfortable with this answer, so I made it my mission to figure out this completely “foreign” public education system.
“Something very relatable to all of us expat parents out there, when I moved to Switzerland I faced a very similar dilema and after 4 years in this beautiful country I am still pretty confused when it comes to local schooling.” – Pragati
Fast forward seven years and our daughter is now 15 years old and just signed a contract for an apprenticeship. It has been a bumpy, yet educational, road getting her to this point. We started out attending every possible class that explained the school system offered by the Canton. Even with my limited German, I was able to glean quite a bit of information. While these information sessions have been useful, I’ve also been lucky to have many friends with older children who have shared their wonderful wisdom and filled in the gaps. It has been quite amazing watching their children take their own unique paths and successfully come out on the other side. Their paths illustrate the incredible variety of opportunities available to students such as attending a professional ballet school at the age of 15 to graduating from Gymnasium and jumping right into medical school.
There are many paths available to students in the Swiss system (in the Geman speaking region). But there are some key moments where decisions need to be made and the facts need to be known. Let’s start out by providing some basic terminology:
- Primarschule – Primary School – grades 1-6
- Oberstufe or Sekundarschule (Sek) – Middle school – grades 7-9
- Gymnasium (Gymi) – Elite high school including specialized schools in the areas of sports and art – grades 7-12, 9-12 or 10-13 (I know, it’s confusing)
- Fachmittelschule – Subject-based high school options including Business, IT, – grades 9-12 or 10-13
- Lehrstelle – Apprenticeship – grades 10-12/13
- Berufs Maturitate (BMS) – High school diploma course – grades 10-12/13 or after finishing an apprenticeship
- Hochfachschule – College in which an undergraduate degree can be earned
- Passerelle – This test allows students who have completed their BMS to attend university
There are many pieces to the Swiss public school, but there is a skeleton of dates that should be kept in mind as children progress through the years:
- 5th grade – conversation starts with teacher: Gymi or Sek?
- 6th grade – decision on Sek placement (A, B, or C) and/or take the Langzeit Gym test
- 7th grade – Called 1st Sek (A, B, C) or Langzeit Gym, parents attend classes at the BIZ (Job Information Center)
- 8th grade – In 2nd Sek, students start visiting possible Lehrstellen, creating their resume and cover letters, take classes at the BIZ, take the Handelsmittelschule test (one of the Fachschule options), or have the opportunity to take the Gymi test again.
- 9th grade – Apply for Lehrstellen, take the Gymi test, and/or take the BMS/Fachschule test
- 10th grade – Gymi, Lehrstelle (with or without BMS), or Fachschule
If you want more detailed information, you can check out the City of Zurich’s website.
Choosing the path that is right for your child
The best part about this system is that there is a path for most students and a corrective path if something doesn’t go their way at some point. Take for instance getting into Gymi which is such a huge topic for those of us that don’t understand the Lehrstelle system. When we arrived in Switzerland, I truly believed that Gymi was the only option for our daughter. Why? Because it’s the only path that looks similar to the school system I was used to. Is Gymi the only option? Absolutely not. In fact, it is only a good option for very few.
The Swiss system works to create trained individuals for all levels of the workforce. This means that about 20% of the population goes to Gymi. In some Cantons, there is a very difficult test that one must pass to enter and in others, it is a combination of your grades and teacher recommendations. Every Canton has a different formula for entrance, but the top 20% threshold is still maintained.
Breaking down Sek A and Sek B
In order to calm my nerves, I found it very helpful to understand the paths available after primary school other than Gymi. The focus for this section will be Sek A, Sek B. I am not including Sek C in this graph as it is typically a very specialized situation in which families work directly with the school and is therefore, very personalized.
The city of Zurich has a graph they’ve put together to illustrate the paths after Sek, but I find it a bit difficult to read and full of more information than needed. Therefore, I’ve put one for Sek A and and other for Sek B that makes more sense for our needs.
As you can see, there are so many options for our children as they move through the Swiss public system. This can be a relief for some and overwhelming for others. My biggest advice is to attend every possible parent meeting and parent class about the subject. Regardless of your level of German, most information can be found in multiple languages.
Support and Assitance
In addition to taking classes, it also helped me to join parent groups on Facebook and ask my friends questions as they came up. I am very lucky to have local friends that can tell me about their children’s experiences. Ask questions, search for answers, and most of all, let your child sit behind the wheel.
We are there to be supportive during this time in their lives as they make some of their first big life decisions. There will be many more significant decisions to come, so it is our job to help them understand all the options and encourage them to forge their own path. Creating a supportive yet informed decision making process will set your child up for a great high school experience while also preparing them for life.
If you have more questions, feel free to post them in the comment section we will be more than happy to answer them. I know the Swiss Education system is complicated but it is one of the best in class as it provides a path to every child and allows them to grow at their own pace.
April is an expert educational specialist and works with globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their child with special needs. Check out her website: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com
Follow me on Instagram: Pragati Siddhanti