The Swiss School System with Margaret Oertig

Today we’d like introduce you to another member of our team, who will be joining us on the podcast, Kathrin Spinnler!

Kathrin is Swiss, from Bern originally, currently living and working in the UK.  Kathrin has a background in the Swiss education system and is part of our content team here at Rigby.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about the Swiss school system, together with Margaret Oertig. If you have any interest in this topic, then we have a treat in store for you.

Margaret is the author of the brilliant book 'Going Local, Your Guide to Swiss Schooling'.

Originally from Scotland, today Margaret lives with her Swiss husband near Basel. She has lived and worked in Switzerland since 1987. Her two daughters, who are now adults, went through the Swiss school system.

Margaret has worked for many years delivering intercultural training programmes to international companies. She worked for 20 years for the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, lecturing, writing and working on projects related to intercultural collaboration.

If you have sent, or are considering sending, your child to a local Swiss public school, then this episode will be for you.



So, hello everybody and welcome to another episode of The Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland.

This is a series of conversations in which we speak with people who could be considered experts on different aspects of life in Switzerland and share what we learn with you.

This series is brought to you by Rigby. We're 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, I'd like to introduce you to another member of our team who will be joining us on the podcast from now on.

It's Kathrin Spinnler.

Kathrin is Swiss, from Bern originally, but currently living and working in the UK.

Kathrin has a background in the Swiss education system and is part of our content team here at Rigby.

Kathrin, welcome.

Thank you. Happy to be here.

In this episode, Kathrin and I are joined by Margaret Oertig.

If you have any interest in the Swiss school system, then we have a treat in store for you today.

Margaret is the author of the brilliant book which I read and enjoyed very much, Going Local, Your Guide to Swiss Schooling.

Originally from Scotland, today Margaret lives with her Swiss husband near Basel.

She's lived and worked in Switzerland since 1987, has two daughters who are now adults and went through the Swiss school system.

Margaret has worked for many years delivering intercultural training programs to international companies.

She worked for 20 years for the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, lecturing, writing and working on projects related to intercultural collaboration.

If you have sent or are thinking about sending your child to a local Swiss public school, then this is the episode for you.

Margaret, thank you for joining us.

Thank you for inviting me. It's great to be here.

First question I wanted to ask you, what's different about the Swiss school system, taking into account the regional differences between the 26 cantons and so on?

I think the big thing that's different is the very strong focus on independence, the child being autonomous, learning to take responsibility for him or herself and for their own learning.

And this I've now discovered as a grandmother starts shortly after birth. That's very early.

You can use it with playing and so on.


I think you had a story about that.


I noticed my son-in-law, he, you know, he did an apprenticeship as a carpenter and is now a timber engineer, a Hochbauingenieur, and when he plays with Duplo with my granddaughter from the age of one onwards, he had her putting the pieces together alone and he would say to her, "Draie, draie," which means turn, turn it, turn it.

And my approach would have been to move the piece of Duplo into a better position in her hand so that she could push them together and he didn't do that. She had to keep trying until she found the way by herself, and that for me epitomises the whole system.

It does. It sometimes, it helps. So instinctively you might have kind of done it for her, shown her how to do it.

Exactly, do it by myself first and then move either her hands or the little brick the right way, that she would be lucky that when she happened to push them together they fell into place, and he has no mercy.

He lets her try many, many times and she gets there, you know, and she's now building quite a lot of stuff at 18 months.



But actually, I think that does kind of sum it up really, doesn't it. The approach.

Yes, it really does.


And we have, well, English speaking countries, I think it's the whole thing of on-the-job learning.

His approach is more trial and error, where the person doing the thing is trying and having errors.

And our approach is maybe more learning by doing or you know, modelling, modelling so that they copy. Learning to copy what the adults are doing but just even generally the idea of the adults being involved. And I notice, if I can jump to kindergarten age kids, Swiss kids at kindergarten, they like building their own marble runs. You know, maybe plastic or wood, and then they run the marbles through it.

I've noticed that international kids want an adult to build it with them. They look at it and say, "This looks complicated. Mum, dad, come and help." There's a difference there.

And what about kindergarten? What kind of things are kids learning in kindergarten in Switzerland?

I think you could say it's intellectual rather than academic because they're officially not doing very much in terms of reading and writing.

Although, Kathrin, I think you said you noticed this changing now with doing work on syllables and letters and so on. But there's a lot of intellectual activity.

The language side is a lot of oral work, retelling stories, doing poems, describing pictures, objects, vocabulary building, acting out a role, learning to apologise, to thank people, what we'd call functional English. That's on the language side.

On the maths side, they're kind of buying and selling, playing shop, working with the numbers up to 10, using them actively. Maybe the teacher will put out some shapes, you know, circle, blue circle, green square, yellow triangle, yellow triangle, you know, a row of different shapes and the kids have to repeat it.

And if they're very bright, they might be sent across the room to repeat it by memory and set out the same shapes in the same order.

So there's a lot of kind of training of the brain, although it's not formal, the formal maths that you might expect in other countries.

And I have a nice story. One of the people that one of the kindergarten teachers told me about when Santa Claus, the time for Santa Claus was coming on the 6th of December, St Nicholas.

And she had her class sitting in a circle every morning on a cloth.

And one of the days, St Nicholas himself sent them a bunch of thin sticks and a picture of his house.

And they had to work as a group to break the stick to the right size, to copy the picture of the house, and I think that would be good team building for an in company training workshop. And I think, I need to think, you know what, the sugar cube building towers and things, so they have to work together.

And they also have to use their skills to decide that 'this stick’s too long. I'll break it off here', so manual dexterity.

And, you know, so they're learning to, you know, measure with their eyes to copy the picture.

And then the next day, he asked them all to draw a picture of their own house on the cloth and then draw the route from their house to his house.

So it sounds a bit like early learning, early lessons in cartography.

And then you've got parents that say kids are not learning anything in kindergarten.

So there's a lot going on there.

Yeah, and I mean one thing to say maybe is that kids enter the primary school in Switzerland a little bit later than in some other countries like in the UK.

Yes, yeah, generally to go into primary, go into kindergarten if you are four by the end of July in most cantons, you'll start kindergarten. If you're six by the end of July you'll probably start school. So they are that bit older.

My older daughter didn't learn to read till she was seven and she's a lawyer. She just walked through school and did it all. It was not a problem at all, but it was very embarrassing to visit Scotland and have her nephew the same age who had been reading for two years, the age of seven.

You know, it's kind of a slow start, but then it ramps up, it really ramps up in primary school.

That's one of the idiosyncrasies, isn't it, of the Swiss school system, is that it can seem to start slowly but then it ramps up very quickly.

That's right.

I think you can really see it a bit like when you walk past a building site and you just see people working down in a big hole and it doesn't seem to, there seems to be nothing happening. You actually have to stand and look down to see that the people are working there at all and then suddenly the hole reaches ground level and then you blink and then suddenly there's this big building there, and that's what it's like.

Before you know it.

The kindergarten parents are peering, they're not always understanding what's going on with all the playing, of what's actually being learned and then suddenly they're in primary school and in the fourth class of primary school the maths is really tough. They're doing mental maths, they're, you know, they're doing a lot, and then the fifth and the sixth class of primary they're being assessed for whether which type of secondary school, you know, what their academic ability is for which type of secondary school. That's a big shock because people have completely underestimated what's happening.

Yeah, that comes on very suddenly.

You go, you seem to go from 0 to 60 in three seconds.


Before you know it, there's a moment where they ask you in the evening for help with their maths homework, and you might struggle a little bit.

All right, okay.

Yeah, my husband did that. I handed that over to him.



And then, and then before you know it, there is this question about what secondary school do they go on to.

And they have to get ready for that.

Could you say a little bit about that please Margaret?

Well there's three different levels but in small communities they might all be even in the same classroom but working in different levels. And in some cantons they'll actually be in different school buildings.

So there's three years of lower secondary school, one level, they often call it the P, meaning pro-gymnasium, preparing for gymnasium which is the academic track or path.

And then the next level is, they sometimes call it E[M2]  or, you know, they have different names for it, then you're probably preparing for the tough apprenticeships.

And then there's another level, which is sometimes called the A level, and that's the one, where the kids get most support, the classes are very small, and they get more support in their learning.

And they're very porous, you can transfer from one to the other. In fact, you might have to transfer to a lower one if you're not performing.

So the performance has to be there.

You have to work hard. You can't just start working hard when you're in your university.

You're having to work hard all the way through, plodding through from the age of 12 to 15 in lower secondary school.

So to be clear, these conversations start happening around the age of 11 or 12.

By 12, you're already in the thick of it.

Yes, that's right.

So by 12, you're already entering your lower secondary school.

And the important thing to know is it's not just your academic ability, but it's also your sense of responsibility, your organisation and your motivation, that you look keen.

So if parents do want to make, do some impression management, it would be good to, you know, if the kid does a bit of extra homework.

If they have the option, the teacher, , "If you like, you can also do this page," then your kid should do it to make the right impression.

Yeah, if your kid really doesn't want to, then you might want to go with the flow of that. But if you are, your kid's keen to want to do more, it's worth showing that they're letting the teacher see that.

Yeah, I think that's great advice.

I personally went through the school system as a Swiss resident, but in terms of newcomers, what are the issues that they find most challenging when they start out in the Swiss school system?

I think one key issue for parents is they can't just walk into the classroom. Kids are dropped off at the school or the kids walk to school alone. They can't just pop into the classroom from day to day or week to week just to get very informal feedback.

It doesn't really happen.

The teachers, it's not their place to be in the school.

So it has to be organised more formally.

You can do it. I used to do it every year in primary school just to say to the teacher, "Could my husband and I have a meeting with you?" Just to see how our daughter's getting on.

And sometimes we found issues came out of that that we could address together.

So that's one of the things that you don't get a lot of informal feedback on a regular basis.

And I think another thing obviously that is challenging is the fact that the language is different and especially in German-speaking Switzerland do not underestimate.

They have the high German and the Swiss German and if they can start learning one of these from a very young age, doesn't matter which one, it will help them a lot once they start school, if they can be interacting with local students very early.

What are some of the different paths available in the Swiss school system?

The paths are basically, you could call it upper secondary school from the ages of 15 to 18 or 19.

You've got the gymnasium, they call it college, lycée, they give it different names in different parts of the country, but that's the academic path to university, which is only attended by 20% of the total population. So it's an elitist track.


Gymnasium is 11 subjects, at least, they have to pass them all or they can fail two, but they have to compensate for failure, failed subjects. And that's tough.

Then you've got different kinds of middle schools, a specialised school where you can do, you know, work towards primary school teaching or social work or healthcare and so on.

Then there's also a specialist area of business and a specialist area of IT. So that's another form of school that's a bit less academic.

The gymnasium is the truly academic one.

Then you've got the apprenticeships for 70% of the population and some of these are elite and it can lead to university.

In Switzerland, they call this University of Applied Sciences for those who have come through an apprenticeship So as I said, my son-in-law, he was a carpenter first or a joiner for the four-year course, I think, and then went to a university of applied sciences to be a Hochbauingenieur, or timber engineer, and he now works in building design.

So these are the three main paths.

Apprenticeships, for example Sergio Ermotti, the CEO of UBS Credit Suisse, the new bank, he did an apprenticeship and he never did a bachelor's degree ever.

He did a banking apprenticeship, but he did then do some advanced masters at Oxford University later on.

So their apprenticeships are not the same in this country. They're also called vocational education and training. That's another, the term, the official term that's used.

And it's funny because you think vocational, all that sounds as if it's for kids that are not very bright, but some of them are extremely bright, but they're not very good at the 11 subjects you've got to pass because to go to a gymnasium you would need to pass languages and maths and sciences and economics and law and so on.

And you would need Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

So I personally am one sided. I would not have passed gymnasium. I think I would have been one of the specialised schools.

Apprenticeships are quite often for people who are more, more one sided, but they can be extremely intelligent.

I mean, they could have an incredible aptitude but just one that points in a different direction towards a particular trade or something like that.

You mentioned Sergio Ermotti there, isn't it true that his predecessor, one of his predecessors, Marcel Ospel, was also an apprentice, came through the apprenticeship system.

Yes, he was an apprentice and he then attended what is now a University of Applied Sciences where I worked.

It was at that time a different name but he did a more specialised, yeah, also a more specialised route. And many others, there's lots of them.



You know, one thing that I've noticed is just anecdotally, coming from the UK, is that, I mean, we had apprenticeships, of course, but I think it's much more developed here in Switzerland.

Oh, yes.



There are national standards.

They last four years, they have class, they're in the classroom for a bit two days a week. And somehow, for some reason, this is not emphasised.

They always want to show pictures of them in the workplace, but actually for parents from abroad, they're relieved to hear that they're in the classroom and they're also doing the academic subjects, you know, the maths and the languages and the sciences and so on.

So, yeah, just less time in school, but still three to four years more in school.

That's right.

And yeah, I mean, an example of an apprenticeship is you can be a tax expert because you studied law. You can be a tax expert because you did a commercial apprenticeship and then started doing specialist training courses and you know, the highest tax experts in the land may or may not have gone to university.

You may have done an apprenticeship.

And you have the opportunity during an apprenticeship to earn a little bit, not much, though something.

Yeah, so at the age of 15 it's about 800 and by the time you're leaving at the age of 18 or 19 you're about 1200 and you get a lot of responsibility.

You get your own projects, you know, you get people doing apprenticeships with estate agents who are buying and selling houses at the age of 17, you know, you can get a lot of responsibility.

So let's go back to the Swiss school system and the selection criteria. So how are students selected for the various schools?

I think the teacher builds up a list of their marks over time or they make qualitative assessments of how the kid is performing.

They also look at whether they're organised, bringing all the right things to school, working neatly and so on and you know, taking responsibility for themselves in their learning.

So these are all considered. In some cantons, they will have an entrance exam to get into, to be selected for the gymnasium or the academic track and sometimes these exams take place after, when they're 12, and you can also try again when they're about 14 or 15. Cantons vary with this.

In Tessin, Ticino, and Jura, they actually postpone all the selection till about the age of 15, but the parents, they'll find it just as awful, you know, and the kids, you know, it's just as stressful, but it just they actually get three years, three years more to until this starts to happen.

But yeah, these various criteria and the whole thing of the independence, you know, if you're always looking after your child and making sure they've got everything you're not actually helping them.

If they learn to face the consequences of having forgotten something, it's better that that happens early and then they start learning to check.

My 12 year old used to write a list for herself on the day before swimming, so it should, all the things she needed for her school classes and her swimming class.

And I never suggested this to her. And she took her list in the morning, it was on the door frame, went through it, I've got this, I've got this, I've got this, and I found that quite interesting because at 12 I was in a lot of trouble at school about always leaving books at home or at school or not having a pencil or whatever.

Can't imagine that.

Yeah, it's that age when your brain is a building site, but the Swiss brain that's a building site, you have the compensation of post-it notes.

You learn strategies or tactics to manage your own inefficiency.

And that's also, it's sort of important to note that that's important for all tracks, because for example, some employers won't take apprentices who, sort of, don't communicate on their own. If the parents communicate, they automatically disqualify them.

Good point.

Yes, they can speak for themselves.

At every track you have to be responsible.

And that's hard because they're 13 maybe when they have their first contact with businesses.

That's a very good point. Yeah, parents have to learn not to speak for their kids.

And also they should look as if they've made the application by themselves. It shouldn't be too sophisticated if they're applying for their first taster or sessions in a company or something.

Did you have that experience Kathrin?

Yes, so that's a big unit in sort of eighth and ninth grade, that they learn how to write business letters and they learn how to communicate in a business setting. So actually that's taught quite extensively in many schools.

It's a very good point. And they are taking responsibility for themselves there too.

So what is upper secondary school in Switzerland?

So that's from the ages of 15 to 18.

You've got the academic track, gymnasium leading to university.

You may repeat a year there, and you may have to leave if your performance isn't good enough, but you get the time to improve.

Apprenticeships and specialised schools can both lead to studying at a university of applied sciences, but you also need a school leaving certificate or a university of applied sciences entrance certificate.

For example, with business, the area that I know best, this would be a Berufsmatura.

So after an apprenticeship, you would do a year of study and write a paper for this Berufsmatura.

And in a specialised school, you would be in school all the time and you would then spend a year in a company and write the, the paper.

So either way, you get the company experience before you go to the University of Applied Sciences.

Yeah, so that's what I've noticed as well. I did the Pädagogische Hochschule, so the teacher training university. And we did have a lot of, there's a bridge year that you can do from apprenticeship to this teacher training school.

And we had quite a lot of people who didn't go the traditional gymnasium route, but then still studied with me, like in the same year and became teachers.


And what did you do in the bridge year?

I didn't do the bridge year.

But what did they do?

To be honest, I'm not sure. I think they just caught up on academic subjects, because obviously they had more practical experience, but maybe not as much academic experience.

I think some maths as well, I think some of them struggled, I think with some of the maths, because they didn't have the background. But yes.

Yeah, so that's a viable path for people.

And they weren't, they were maybe one or two years older than me at the time. I think I entered it when I was 19. And they were maybe 20, 21.

And I think this is so typical of the Swiss system, these bridge years, they call them passerelle.

And like, you could also be in a specialised school where you're focusing on communication or health, and you want to change into gymnasium and your marks are good, you can end up in gymnasium.

So you can start one type of system and then switch over to another.

If your marks are good or you're working well.

Yeah, so it's very porous and I think that helps.

That's maybe important for newcomers to realise that you're not stuck then in a system.


And I think for international people, there are often a feeling of pressure to race through the system, get them into kindergarten early, get them into school early, get them out of school early and people get quite shocked if you need an extra year here or there and it can be quite, and if people feel this time pressure, the system doesn't work so well for them. But if you allow your kids to take their time and they're learning good things all the way, then they can really find their way through by changing path along the road.

So I know that many people want their children to go to the gymnasium. So what do you think parents should know about the gymnasium ahead of maybe the selection process?

I think first of all you should just have great respect for it and know it's very difficult and some of us as parents would not have managed it. It's very, very hard work.

There's a lot of subjects and a high standard in the subjects and a lot of self-responsibility again, that the teacher will be just saying things, they won't be giving you in writing, you have to write things down and note things, so I think there's a lot of independence required other than that.

I would say a very practical tip I would give is always make sure they're up to date with their maths.

If at some point anywhere along the school system they're not getting the maths, get them extra help. That's well worth the money. Maybe get two kids together to go to a Nachhilfe, a special after-school teacher, and just do it for as long as possible.

Every time something difficult comes up in maths, because maths is very important right up to the end in almost all school types, and in fact, I think in all school types.

And it's just a bill.

These are building bricks. You have to have a good foundation and it has to be strong all the way.

And what about, how does your advice change if the child is not a native of the language. Would you then advise language extra language training as well?

I think they get it from school anyway. If they're not a native speaker, they will start in a class that gives them extra German or French.

The French usually falls into place very quickly because it's not a dialect situation or very little.

The German I think is more tricky. Extra German could be good.

Maybe extra High German because they might be mixing a lot with other kids speaking Swiss German.

The Swiss kids, the German speaking Swiss kids, have got very flexible brains because they're often exposed to different dialects at the same time. Mum and dad from different places, mum and dad from one place, living in a different place. The dialects can be pretty different and the kids just soak that up and work with it.

So the local kids, they're jumping around in their brains, accepting all kinds of words as part of Swiss German. I think it's good.

And maybe as a last thing, Shall we just talk about the Probesemester?

So there's a trial period in Gymnasium.

What's that about?

Yeah, in the first half year of Gymnasium, you may be there a bit borderline, but they've let you come in, and you have to prove yourself and do well. And if you don't, they may recommend you leaving and going to another type of school.

So that's something that there's different approaches to it.

You can either work extremely hard and try and do your best to pass that, or you may find, 'the whole thing's just a bit too difficult for me. It turns out they're right. This is not the right kind of program for me.'

And then they accept that they go to a different kind of school.

Is that what you were thinking of? Or do you perhaps have something to add to that?

I think so because I teach, um, gymnasium entrance. I teach children who are about to enter the, the gymnasium or are taking the Zurich exam.

And I've had some successful candidates who have then entered and have had to deal with this stressful six months where they were really under pressure. And the mothers sometimes came back to me and said, 'Oh, it's very difficult. My daughter or son is struggling.'

But yeah, I think recently one girl, she just passed her this trial semester and she was very relieved because it's quite stressful. But I think well worth it if the child is academic and really wants it.

Well, there's still a lot that we'd like to talk about with Margaret, so I think the best thing is if we come back again in another episode. Some of the topics we'll cover then are the three types of tertiary education, university entrance requirement, tips for parents on how best to work together with the school and lots of other things besides.

So join us then.

Margaret, thank you very much.

It's been very interesting.

Very well.

It's been great to talk to you.

Thank you.

And thanks to you too, listener, for joining us.

This has been another episode of The Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland, brought to you by Rigby, a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich.

Catch you next time.

Thank you.

Bye bye.