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How long does compulsory education last? What forms of education and training are possible after the compulsory school years? Where do the responsibilities lie?

Switzerland is a multilingual country with four official national languages. It has a federal structure. Further important features are the cantonal autonomy in the education system and the decentralised organisation of schools. With regard to post-compulsory education (upper secondary general education, vocational and professional education and training, universities), the cantons and the federal government each have their own areas of responsibility. Overall, the cantons and their municipalities finance 90% of public-sector education spending.

Compulsory education

The total compulsory school period amounts to eleven years. Generally, compulsory education sets in for children at the age of four. 95% of students in Switzerland complete compulsory education at a state school in the municipality in which they live. Roughly 5% attend a private school. State schools play an important role in integration. Children who have different social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds all attend the same school.

Primary level: Primary level – including two years of kindergarten or a first learning cycle – comprises eight years. In addition to the two compulsory years of kindergarten, the canton of Ticino offers an initial, voluntary year for children from age three.

Lower secondary level: Lower secondary level takes three years. At lower secondary level, pupils are taught in all or some subjects in performance-based groups. Different organisational forms apply (e.g. separate classes or joint classes with separate teaching of certain subjects). In the canton of Ticino, lower secondary level (scuola media) lasts for four years.

Languages: The language of instruction is German, French, Italian or Romansh, depending on the language region, though Romansh-language municipalities represent a special case. Traditionally, language learning has an important role in Switzerland. Students learn a second official language of Switzerland as well as English during their compulsory school years.

Responsabilities: Responsibility for compulsory education lies with the cantons. In accordance with the federal constitution, they are obliged to ensure nationwide harmonisation of important targets and structures. The local municipalities run the schools. Because education is locally rooted, tailor-made solutions can be implemented.

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Post-compulsory education

Intercantonal or national legislation generally forms the basis for the education on offer in the area of post-compulsory education (upper secondary level and tertiary level). The cantons are responsible for enforcing this legislation and for the organisation of the schools. The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology  are in the charge of the federal authorities.

Upper secondary level: After the end of their compulsory school years roughly two-thirds of adolescents in Switzerland switch to a form of education which combines classroom instruction at a vocational school with an apprenticeship in a training company (dual-track system). This provides them with a VET (vocational education and training) diploma and can also be concluded with a federal vocational baccalaureate. Around one-third opts for continuing school education at an upper secondary specialised or a baccalaureate school, which prepare them for tertiary education at a university.

More than 90% of young people complete upper secondary education, which facilitates direct entry into the job market, enables them to attend a college of higher education or – with a baccalaureate from a baccalaureate school (Gymnasium/gymnase), a specialised baccalaureate (Fachmaturität / maturité spécialisée) or a vocational baccalaureate (Berufsmaturität / maturité professionelle) – allows them to continue their education at a university. Altogether, 40.9% of adolescents in Switzerland acquire one of these forms of baccalaureate.

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Tertiary level: The tertiary level comprises universities (incl. universities of applied sciences and universities of teacher education) and, as a second important pillar, institutions providing professional education. The latter is aimed at people with professional experience, enabling them to gain specialist education and additional qualifications. It comprises diplomas from a college of higher education and federal or advanced federal diplomas of higher education.

The graduation rate at tertiary level comes to 45%, with around two-thirds of these graduates gaining a university degree and roughly one-third a degree in professional education.

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Special features of the Swiss education system

The Swiss education system is characterised in particular by

  • a high degree of permeability: There are many ways to enter or transfer to a training programme or school or to attend a catch-up training programme.
  • open access to the various types of education: Anyone who has the necessary qualifications can generally attend the course of his/her choice, and the university attended can also be freely selected. Vocational education and training is subject to some restrictions due to ceilings on apprenticeship positions. At some universities, access to specific subjects is also limited.

Status: December 2020