Swiss Education: Local, Bilingual, or International?

Topics covered

  • How the Swiss school system works
  • Advantages of international schools
  • Advantages of bilingual schools
  • Factors to consider when choosing a schooling option
  • Homeschooling in Switzerland

Who We're Speaking With

We speak to the Swiss education consultant Stefanie Busse about local, bilingual, and international schools in Switzerland.

Stefanie runs Swiss Education Consulting, a company that helps expats understand the Swiss school system and find the right school for their children. As a former German teacher, she has first-hand experience teaching in both public and international schools in Switzerland. She has been advising expat families for over 10 years about the Swiss education system and collaborates with educational authorities and schools.

About the Episode

For people who move to Switzerland with children, finding the right school is one of the most important tasks. There are three options: local schools, bilingual schools, and international schools.

While integrating into a local school is great for long-term expats and those with younger children, short-term residents or those with teenagers may find an international school more suitable. Bilingual schools are an intermediate option as they teach both international and local curricula.

Here's how the various school types differ: 

  • Local school: The school system is different in every canton. In German-speaking areas, there is a big focus on vocational training. The majority of students do an apprenticeship instead of attending university. In French and Italian-speaking areas, there is more of a focus on general education and university access. Local schools are a great long-term solution because they offer high-quality education for free, and they allow expat children to integrate into their  communities.
  • International school: You can find international schools teaching the IB curriculum in every large town in Switzerland. They are suitable for families who plan to stay in Switzerland short term because the education is international, classes are in English, and there is a built-in expat community.
  • Bilingual school: Bilingual schools typically teach the local language and English, although the split may not be 50-50. They teach the Swiss curriculum, so they are a great option for expats who would like to stay long-term and integrate. However, students may not be as fluent in German, French, or Italian as those in public school since they don’t speak the language all day. Therefore, switching from a bilingual to a local school can be challenging.
  • Homeschooling: Homeschooling isn’t possible in all areas of Switzerland, and there are often specific requirements. In many cantons, parents who want to homeschool their children have to hold a valid teaching degree and adhere to the local curriculum. However, there are some exceptions. Cantons like Geneva and Neuchâtel have more lenient rules.


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- Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of Living in Switzerland. The series is brought to you by Rigby. We are a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich.

If you or anyone you know of is looking for a new role in Switzerland, or if you're looking to hire, let us know. We'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is by sending an email to

Today we are joined by Stefanie Busse from Swiss Education Consulting. As a former German teacher, she has firsthand experience teaching in both public and international schools in Switzerland. She has been advising expat families for over 10 years about the Swiss education system and collaborates with educational authorities and schools.

Stefanie, welcome to the podcast.

- Yeah, hi, thanks for having me.

- Let's start by just briefly going over the Swiss school systems. So can you explain how the public school system works in Switzerland?

- Okay, right, Kathrin. So I think first of all, like, listeners have to know that there's no such thing as one system because as you know, Switzerland is a federal state, it's more like 26 systems.

And what's really important or like, interesting is that every region mirrors its neighbours. So for instance, you have the strong, the German part, the biggest part like, of German- speaking cantons, who actually mirror a bit their German neighbour in that they have a very strong vocational-academic split.

That means the majority of students are still leaving school after secondary. So we're talking around the age of 16, to start a so-called apprenticeship. And in Switzerland, or at least in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, that is very on-the-job training. So they are not in a vocational school, they're actually on the job in a company, trained there, and go to school.

And that's really still the choice for the majority of students. I think like, what is important, though, is to say that that's more true for rural than urban settings. Yeah.

- Right.

- And I think like, what's really interesting is, if you look at the French Italian speaking parts, again, they mirror their neighbouring countries, France and Italy, in that they have a much bigger focus on general education and university access. They also do some vocational training, but it tends to be not in company, but in-school training. And yeah, like a lot more general education until the age of 18. And then university or a job choice.

I think, well, that's a bit like, sort of, in terms of the regional differences.

And then in most cantons, what you do get that's also quite unique, I think, is so-called ability streaming after primary school. That means at the age of 12, children are placed into different ability sets with high-performing, sort of intermediate… So there is, depending on the canton, there can be up to four different ability sets in secondary school.

- Oh, right. OK. I know that in Bern, there used to be three. When I was in school, there were three, but now many of them only have two. So I didn't know that you could also have four.

- Yeah. In Zurich, that's still the case. A lot of parts, yeah, especially in Zurich. And what is really interesting, mentioning Zurich, is that in Zurich, in the canton itself, you have variations. So in some schools, there are only three ability streams and others, there are four, I’ve even come across one secondary school in the canton of Zurich with only two.

So you see, like, sort of, this is why it's a bit tricky to talk about one education system in Switzerland.

- But typically a bigger focus on vocational training than in other countries like maybe England or America, where most students complete high school up to age 18 or so.

- Absolutely. At least that is certainly the case in Zurich and in neighbouring German-speaking cantons.

Absolutely. And there is, for instance, if you're looking at Geneva, the numbers are looking quite different. So there really is quite a considerable difference.

- Yes, because that's sort of modelled, probably off the French system, which is then quite different.

- Yeah.

- How about if an expat family comes to live in Switzerland, they have the option not just to enrol their child in a public school, but they could also choose an international school. How does that work and how does that differ?

- Yeah, I think the focus is quite different. So I think international schools, they target globally mobile expats. And I think many expat families find that quite attractive because they have a really ready-made school community for the whole family.

- Right.

- Also, usually the schools offer the so-called IB curriculum, IB, International Baccalaureate.

And the advantage of having a school with an IB curriculum is that curriculum is going to be the same wherever you go. So if you have a globally mobile family relocating from Dubai to Switzerland and then maybe to Singapore, their children will have a seamless education all the way through.

And I think that's one obviously, of the main advantages. And I would say like, sort of, probably international schools are very popular with expats, mainly with short to midterm assignments, but also families who maybe were just going to stay for a couple of years and then end up settling in Switzerland and have their children here.

Yeah. So it's really like, it's very, very international, as the name says.

- That's right. Because if a child goes to an international school and then the family decides to settle, I suppose it would then be quite disruptive maybe to switch schools or what do you think?

- Yes. Are you talking about moving a child from an international school to a local school?

- Yes. If they then decide to stay longer-term.

- Yeah. There are some challenges with that in that international schools, yes, they do teach the local language. So if you're in Zurich, you will get your four lessons per week German, or if you're in Lausanne, you will get your four lessons of French.

But that is obviously, I would say the language and the whole environment is English-speaking. So children coming out of that school, they will usually not have a very strong command of the national language. And obviously, for one of them to go to local school, that can be a bit tricky.

You know, so I think it kind of depends on the age. I've accompanied families through that transition and seen success stories, especially, but I think there is a… age limit really.

- Right.

- Yeah. I suppose it's very individual If you've got a family who already speaks the language, then it's different, or if they have strong ties to the country.

- Absolutely. And I mean, you can see in international families where German wasn't the household language, but where children were joining local clubs and, you know, and for those children, it's a lot easier. If you have some local ties already, then making that transfer is easier.

Or maybe even if you have household languages that like, one of them being the national language or for instance, Dutch is quite similar to German. And for those children, it's a bit easier, you know.

- Yes, that makes sense.

And then there's a third option, maybe sometimes considered somewhat of an intermediate option, which is bilingual schools. Can you just talk about those?

- Yeah. Bilingual schools are actually becoming increasingly popular in Switzerland. This has to do with the fact that A, in some cantons, for instance, in Canton Zurich, children starting school in Switzerland can only attend an international school for a maximum of five years because Canton of Zurich is saying, well, we want children to integrate.

And if you're here long-term, that means like, five years plus, we expect you to integrate and learn the local language and attend a school that teaches the local curriculum. And this is something that bilingual schools do.

So that's the main difference between what is an international school and a bilingual school is that the first, the international school, they have their own curriculum. But they don't teach the Swiss curriculum, whereas the bilingual schools do.

So they're 50 percent. And they, well, for instance, in Zurich will be German, and they follow the national curriculum. Or in Lausanne, it will be French, English. But again, they will follow the national curriculum. And that means the five-year limit doesn't apply.

- Right. That makes sense.

So we've previously talked about on the podcast with Margaret, we talked a lot about the public school system, but we didn't really touch on the international school system and how that works in Switzerland so much.

So when an expat family comes to Switzerland, what factors influence this decision? When is it better to choose an international school?

- Yeah, Kathrin, I think there are several factors. So first of all, yeah, your so-called global nomads who know they're not going to stay in Switzerland for the long term. That might be a viable option. Although I would also caution that I've had so many families who were… fully intended to move away after two years and ended up staying.

So like, don't make that assumption either.

But it's certainly the case if you're saying like, well, actually, we're not going to stay here for the long term and our children are older. That's certainly a valid reason.

And I think for me, the main reason is or… the argument is age of the children.

So that means if you have very young children, say like, sort of up to the age of eight, I think it might also be a good idea to have a look at, as Margaret would say, it… like, going local because these children, they integrate better. They learn the local language.

And then if after a couple of years, your situation changes and you feel like, well, actually, we're not going to move away, we're actually going to stay here, then your child has all the options open, you know.

But for older children, I think international school can be the better option because if a child arrives at the age of, let's say, 12 or 14 without the language skills, it's going to be very difficult to succeed in the system, and the local system.

- Right. And also with the streaming, they might not have an opportunity to go into a higher stream, even if they're quite bright.

- Correct. Yeah, the streaming is really, I think in other countries, other countries do make it easier. I lived and taught in the UK, for instance, and I think in the UK school system, it's easier for children without proper or without the language skills to succeed in the system than in Switzerland because you don't have that streaming.

And in these cases, I would… So my clients… I have many clients with older children who want to know if it's feasible to integrate them. It's a bit of a like… case by case. So again, it depends on the background, language skills, is the child happy to experiment, etc.

But in those cases, I would always say have a plan B. And I think the international school is really easier for a child to slot in beyond a certain age.

- Yeah, that makes sense.

- But I think, yeah, it's also obviously the school community. So for children who are maybe not that outgoing, I think international school really offers a very welcoming atmosphere because you have so many new arrivals and it's quite normal to mix.

Whereas at a local school, children tend to start school together in kindergarten and largely stay together. So basically getting in as an outsider when your child is older is quite tricky. And I think in that case, for a child in terms of integration or settling in, international school might be easier.

- Yes. I mean, it depends on the region. Again, maybe in places like central Zurich, there's more movement than in rural locations, I'm sure. But yeah, I had that experience because I went to international school for part of my schooling.

And absolutely, every year the class would be completely different with maybe four or five new children and four or five who left out of, say, 20. And so, yeah, the class totally reoriented itself every year, which is not the case in a regular local school.

- No, exactly. Absolutely. Yeah.

- And something that I suppose used to be a consideration, which maybe it isn't as much anymore, especially in urban areas, is the fact that a lot of Swiss schools, the children go home at lunch to eat lunch. But I suppose nowadays you would have Mittagstisch, so like, a lunch group in almost every school. Is that right?

- Yeah, that's actually, I think that's the main like, that sort of, expat families find really, really strange. The fact that their children, they have a 90-minute lunch break and they come home. And I get many families saying like, but how does that work? We're both working or, you know…

Thank God, at least like, as you're rightly saying, in urban areas, that has changed a lot ever since, I don't know, when I first came here, I relocated to a quite rural area in Switzerland. And that was really, really a worry for me as a working parent to say, what, how is the childcare, you know, how's that going to work with the hours that local school offers and children coming back for lunch?

But in the meantime, I mean, in Zurich, you have lunch clubs everywhere, after-school care and holiday care. So it's no longer really an issue.

And also in Zurich, for instance, in the city of Zurich, they're rolling out day schools throughout the city. So in Zurich and other like urban centres are good places for working families.

And there's not much difference in terms of like, you know, being at a Swiss school and having all the packages or at an international school. That's no longer so much of an issue.

- Yes. I mean, I remember in my school, we had a, we already had a lunch club. I was in quite a rural school. But there were only about… out of the 20 children in my class, maybe only two or three ever went to it. So I think nowadays it would probably be the other way around.

But yeah, it shouldn't be such an issue. Maybe a bigger issue is the financial consideration of sending your child to an international school. So I know some jobs, some employers pay for international school if they relocate an employee. But if not, it can be quite hefty, the cost, right?

- Absolutely.

And this is also something to really consider because I think parents looking to send their children to international school, they really need a long-term plan and budget, you know, because you just… you have the international school, but then you also have obviously university because your child will not be able to study in Switzerland in most cases where university is pretty much free.

So you have to factor all of that in.

And I've had many clients who unfortunately lost their jobs or were made redundant, or the family situation changed dramatically. And in that case, like, you can end up in a situation where you have a child at international school, you're no longer able to pay for fees, but your child does not speak the language necessary to attend or to then join local school.

So I would really urge parents to say, OK, let's sit down, make a budget, a long-term budget, but also factor in things like sort of, I don't know, unemployment, divorce, like obviously, in most cases, that's not an issue. But I think it really needs to be a feasible budget because the costs are very, very considerable.

- Yes. I mean, if you're relocating to Switzerland for two to three years, maybe not so much. But if the child is going to be at the school for sort of, five or more years, you just don't know what your situation is going to be like.

- Correct. Yeah, exactly. Very good point. Exactly. Yep.

- So what about bilingual schools? Is there ever a reason to choose a bilingual school? As you said, they teach the national curriculum. But other than that, any other sort of… reasons?

- Well, these schools are obviously extremely popular with binational parents or families because you have, especially in the Zurich or in urban areas, you have many, many mixed nationality families and children speaking maybe even both languages or one of the languages.

It is, as I'm saying, like, it can be the best of both worlds because you get very decent German or like, French if you're in Lausanne or Geneva and good English. So in a way, like sort of, parents can leave their options open.

However, like, I think what parents need to know as well that these schools are not always fully bilingual.

So in some cases, I've worked at different bilingual schools and I think really English tends to be the very dominant language.

So again, like, if you joined the school hoping to then rejoin the local system at some point, that can also be tricky, making that transfer to local public school beyond a certain age because your child will have a very good knowledge of German, but not quite the kind of skills needed to succeed in the local system.

- Because they are fully German or French-speaking. And so obviously the children get almost double the exposure.

- Correct.

- As well. Yeah.

- And especially with the ability streaming and secondary, hoping to be in a high ability stream aiming for further studies, they would need an excellent command of German. In my view, sometimes bilingual school can actually be a better option for then secondary onwards. So having… starting local and then switching at a later stage.

- Right. Okay. That's an interesting idea. What is the transition from bilingual school then to university? Like, is it possible to go to a Swiss university after bilingual school?

- Yes, it is. So there are a number of bilingual schools in the country and for instance, in the Canton of Zurich that offer both the national, sort of, high school degree, which is called the Matura. Matura is the… opens doors to Swiss universities, but even with an IB.

So most of these schools, they offer either Matura or IB or both. With the right language skills and the right subject combination, it is possible to open… or to study in Switzerland with both degrees. So it is quite flexible in that respect. Yeah.

- Yes, that's right. And that's what I did. I went from international school then to study at a Swiss university. And there were just certain requirements of subjects you had to take, subjects you couldn't take. So it's just important, I suppose, to be aware if your child is thinking of studying in Switzerland to make that decision at age 15, 16 of which subjects to study.

- Absolutely.

- But as long as you do that and keep that in mind and study the right subjects at the right level, you should be able to then with an IB still study at Swiss university.

- Absolutely. Exactly.

And I think that is quite an attractive proposal because again, like in international schools, unless of course you join with a very good level of German or you have a sort of, one of the household languages is German, it is hard to actually acquire a level of German needed to study in Switzerland.

And in bilingual school, because 50% of the curriculum is in German, even though you're not a total native speaker, but usually by and large, your German will be good enough to study at a local university or for instance in Zurich.

- Yeah, that's right. One thing I noticed in sort of, English-centric education systems. There's much less emphasis on grammar. So when I went to do the IB, we had basically zero grammar, even though I did one of the highest levels possible of German. I did native-speaking German, but we didn't have any grammar. We just analysed books and did that kind of thing.

And then when I look now, when I teach students going to the Gymnasium, to the Swiss system, they're doing so much grammar. So that's one thing to keep in mind, maybe where bilingual schools would teach more of that than an international school.

- Absolutely, absolutely. But I think, yeah, it is still obviously like the grammar is a factor, but yeah, probably not necessary for university studies.

- Yes, depending on your studies. But yeah, you just have a deeper knowledge of German, I suppose.

- Yeah, yeah.

- So let's talk a little bit more about people who maybe changed their minds or made a mistake. What do you do? Is it possible to sort of, reverse a decision if you've made a mistake? I'm sure that's what you deal with a lot when you're speaking to expat families who maybe then have decided that they are going to stay in Switzerland or they would like to have their children integrate into the traditional system.

- Yes. So do you mean like coming from international and bilingual school or bilingual school only?

- Either, either or. If they then decide maybe either they can't pay the fees anymore or their family situation has changed or they've decided to stay much longer than anticipated.

- Yeah, I think in that respect, really bilingual is a lot easier because the problem with international school is not just the language of study.

So the first national language, for instance, if you go to an international school in Zurich and you transfer your child, your child needs a very good knowledge of German, but not only German but also the main language… then apart from English, is French.

So French is quite important.

And I think in Zurich, the first national language is, sorry, the first foreign language is English and only the second one French, but in other cantons like Bern or Basel, unfortunately the first language is, the foreign language is French.

And so most international schools don't teach French as a foreign language.

So you then have a child with… lacking the knowledge of the language of study, so German, but also with very little knowledge of French, which is a language that is actually very important in Swiss schools.

- Yes, it's taught to quite a high level as well in the higher years. So it might take a while to catch up.

- And so it is possible, but in my experience, it is really… beyond third, fourth grade. So age sort of, eight, nine, it just becomes harder and harder. And again, like sort of, I've seen, I've had like sort of, even success stories with older children.

So I would always say, this is why I'm always looking at the case by case basis. And say, this is what the child brings to the fore, you know, so it's difficult to make general statements.

But I think like, in general, like, the younger, the better.

- Yes, I mean, it's really also based on the personality of the child, I suppose. I mean, I've seen children pick up an incredible amount of a language in three months, where basically they went from zero to sort of, A2 or even more.

And then other children, they just, either they don't maybe have so much interest. If it doesn't appeal so much, learning a language, then they'll have a much harder time as well. So maybe motivation and personality also.

- Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I'm just working with a family who relocated here with a 12-year-old. And now three years later, it's amazing like, that child, she is absolutely fluent, not only in German, but also in Swiss German. She is great. Yeah, she's playing local clubs here at Lake Zurich. And I think she's a real… so and I've seen, as I'm saying, older children like, making a big success. So I would not rule it out.

But as you're saying, like, certainly a lot depends on the child's personality and knack for languages.

- Exactly.

Sometimes an important question that maybe people from other countries where homeschooling is a big topic, that's maybe a question.

Is homeschooling possible in Switzerland if none of these options maybe are suitable or you can't find another perfect option? Can you homeschool your child?

- Yeah, again, as everything… That very much depends on the canton. So I would say with the exception of a handful of cantons, it is very restricted. So most cantons, parents either need to teach the local curriculum, i.e. also the language. So you can't just go and say, well, I want to teach sort of, I don't know, coming from the UK, I want to teach the national curriculum in English. That's not possible.

Or in other cantons, also people sort of… the authorities ask parents to hold a valid teacher certification.

So it is like… it becomes easier beyond compulsory school.

I'm currently assisting, I have a family from the US who's just looking into homeschooling. And so we're just putting in a request and given the age of the child, it's looking very good, you know, like that could be granted. But in general, like sort of, it's not that common here.

- Okay. So again, it's just important to look at your own cantons, rules and regulations instead of the country as a whole.

- Exactly. Correct. Yeah, yeah.

In Switzerland, I think that is very, very important whenever it's about like any anything schooling related, don't look at the country, look really at your canton and ask local people or people who actually have the knowledge of the local context.

- That's right. Yeah. So you're obviously a great person to ask for that.

- Yeah.

- So can you tell us a little bit about your services and what services you offer and how listeners can find you if they would like to contact you?

- Okay. So what I do is I offer orientation guidance, mainly for parents relocating to Switzerland. So typically, parents contact me and… either wanting to go to private school, looking for a good private school or looking to join a public school, sort of state school.

And what I do is because I have the knowledge, I have the local context, I can then tell them like, look, these areas might be a little bit better for you because they offer… meet some of your requirements or this is where you will find a school where they offer good German as a foreign language courses for your older child.

Or this is the kind of like sort of, the canton or the school where you will get good support with your special needs child.

So I think it's really so what I do, I do a lot of research. So if parents approach me like, oh, I want to relocate to Zurich or to Zug or Basel or wherever, it's about like, looking, okay, what might be a good option for them?

And like, what are their specialist… their requirements and just tell them about, give them very local, localised information and guidance, you know, and the area they're looking or even like, direct them to other areas and say, well, maybe like, yeah, this might be a better setting… education setting for you, this might be easier in terms of languages, etc.

So I think my services are very, very personalised.

- Yes, right.

- What I really love about my job. This is, actually the best part because, yeah, so there's so many like, you know, sometimes it's challenging, but it's almost like, so interesting, because every family has their own requirements, their own story. And I love it, just like sort of saying, okay, how can I find a really good solution that works for that family’s needs.

And I think that's what I'm offering. And I think I obviously have the advantage of being a teacher, being a language teacher. So yeah, that background. Yeah, … children. So I've taught German for children who don't speak any German. And I have these different settings and different schools, from public to international. So like, I think I can offer a lot of first-hand insight.

- That's amazing. Yeah, exactly what someone needs, who is maybe confused about the different rules and the different systems, because it can be quite complex if you haven't sort of, grown up with it.

- Yeah, absolutely.

And I think it's also, that's actually my biggest client base.

But I think the second part is also parents that are settled in Switzerland. So it might be, I don't know, coming to Switzerland with small children, and then some years later, your children join local school, and this is when you need some advice.

I've had children in the local system, and then you're looking for options, private options, post-primary. And those are also parents who approach me and say like, well, we want our children to look into maybe private, like, high schools, because they want to study in the UK or somewhere. What is the right degree to study in Switzerland?

So it's very much so for relocating parents, but also for settled parents who need like targeted advice when their children grow up.

- Yes, any kind of transition. It can be challenging. Yeah.

So how can people get in touch with you?

- I think the best thing is to check my website and you find all the information and contact there.

- Perfect. And we'll put that in the show notes. So listeners can click on that directly through our notes.

All right. That's it for today. So thanks once again to our guest, Stefanie, for joining us.

- Thank you so much for having me.

- And also thank you to the listeners for joining us. We'll include links in the show notes to our guests and to further materials about some of the topics that we've spoken about today.

Once again, this podcast was brought to you by Rigby. We are a staffing and IT services company here in Zurich. If you would like our help either to hire or to be hired, let us know.

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So thanks and until the next time.