I have lived in three quite diverse Swiss neighbourhoods since arriving here in 2002. The differences among them, in hindsight, are further accentuated for parents considering schools for their children. Any school has implications for a child’s future, so unless the parents gain an understanding of how their children learn, which style of learning and which system would probably suit them best, choosing a school can be difficult. Fortunately there are key transition points at which children can change systems: before and after kindergarten and once during the primary phase (at the end of the third primary year in the Swiss system). The challenge when moving to a Swiss neighbourhood is to make the best decisions you can about the children’s schooling in advance of choosing where to live. If you do not give it due consideration, be prepared to move again before their secondary phase of learning, as they will benefit from staying in the same school system from age twelve on.
In the sticks
We first chose to live in a breathtakingly beautiful farmhouse. It was next to the river Aare, roof down to the ground, swans flying serenely past our window…. And it seemed, after a few months, that we had chosen to live in the middle of nowhere. We thought that being only 10 minutes’ drive from Bern would be as good being in the city. After all, Bern is the capital of Switzerland, albeit not a commercial centre. We could not imagine moving to a crowded block of flats after living in a house in the UK. However, it proved difficult to convince people to visit us after dark, as there were no streetlights on the lane, and the nearest bus stop was 10 minutes’ walk away. A car was absolutely essential.
Interestingly, needing a car to live here increased our school choices. We could consider the local village school, a five-minute drive away, and the British school. The British school would have been a home away from home but with not enough German or Swiss language instruction to suit our adventurous and multi-cultural family values. There used to be an international pre-school with a Montessori curriculum when we were there (2002 – 2005), which has since turned into a Swiss bilingual Kita (daycare with English pre-school classes).
Our mental horizons shrank, surprisingly, when walking to school (the Swiss way) became possible after moving into town. Using the car for a short school run felt almost immoral. As a working woman at this point, trying to fit in school runs when it was possible to “go local” contributed to my decision to let my child walk to school like our local Swiss neighbours. I had not anticipated, however, that my child’s mental horizons would also shrink. In fact, he came home from his local Swiss school one day and made a comment parroting an “anti-foreigner” attitude that I had to nip in the bud! After a year and a half, he really did not want to speak English much at home, as he became increasingly immersed in Swiss German in his thoughts. At that time, he had no siblings at home.
As I had not anticipated that teachers and children would be mixing their Swiss and High German, I was glad that he was a year too young for his Swiss class (having attended an international pre-school), so he could repeat a year (fifth class) when it was clear to all that he would be suited to the more academic Gymnasium (high school) route in the Swiss system. At his next (private bilingual) school from the fourth class, the teachers were, in my opinion, more accountable for ensuring his verbal and written High German would improve to Gymnasium entry-level.
The big smoke
To those from outside Zurich, moving to the city seems a big step. Being from London, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was again possible to see signs of life after 20:00, rely completely on a range of public services and hear three or four languages being spoken around us everywhere we went.
We moved to Kreis (city district) 7, where there is possibly the highest concentration of small schools both public and private in the whole of Switzerland. The language choice here is good – Swiss German, standard German, and English are used or taught everywhere; the French school is just up the road if you have a car; and some of the best bilingual primary schools are located on this side of the lake in nearby suburbs. There is also Hull’s School, an English school just down the road, where students can study in English for A levels even if they have not progressed to Gymnasium in the Swiss system.
However, even in this part of town, there are hardly any truly international schools, just two: one on each side of Lake Zurich, both huge and outside of the city (Zurich International School and Inter-Community School Zurich). Most Swiss bilingual (private primaries) and Swiss local primaries with English teachers prioritise verbal fluency in English, and written English is not to a transferable school standard. Teaching English as a foreign language does not automatically create a multi-cultural school community. Nevertheless, the options for children aged 12 and up are amazingly diverse and include a lot of English teaching (some schools have an immersion option) in free state Gymnasien. There is also a local private Swiss Gymnasium which has a bilingual stream up to Matura level (Freies Gymnasium Zurich).
To find your place in a Swiss neighbourhood, try not to apply the criteria you would use at home. “Going local” in schooling is not a decision that will necessarily bring your family social integration as if by magic. It is true for non-German speakers that choosing international schooling usually means sacrificing learning the local language to the highest standards. But it does not mean your child will not make local friends – many Swiss families use international schools (just sadly not in canton Zurich any more, where it is currently forbidden). International schools can therefore sometimes be the most diverse and tolerant school communities in Switzerland.
Each school system has implications for the universities your child will be able to apply to later, so when you choose a school system, facing your own expectations and open-mindedness, or lack thereof, will help.
By Monica Shah
Monica has lived in Switzerland since 2002. She founded Children First in Zurich, where teaching is both in English and German from pre-school age through grade one. The Children First nursery for babies and toddlers opened in 2012. Her handbook for secondary school teachers, Working with Parents, was published in 2001 (Heinemann Educational Management series).
Illustration by Lemady Rochard
Lemady is an artist who also runs Storycraft classes for children aged one-and-a-half to eight years in Ruschlikon, ZH. She is currently studying a masters in fine arts and also has a background in theatre arts and children’s literature. Lemady lives in Thalwil with her two young children. Contact her: email@example.com