In Switzerland, and perhaps especially in canton Zurich, once teenagers have finished their compulsory school years at around the age of 15, the decision of what to do next can be quite daunting. Information is widely available on the Internet; however, many parents I have spoken to assume that there are only two options open to their children – either the university-focussed Matura qualification/baccalaureate at a Gymnasium/Kantonsschule, or an apprenticeship. The majority of adolescents decide on apprenticeships, with a small number attending the demanding Berufsmittelschule (vocational school) at the same time.
My own experience with my children’s teachers is that they heavily promote apprenticeships, which I personally think is good career pathway, but other options are still worth looking at. There are many other options that are not always listed on the flowcharts featured on websites. Three alternative options are: HMS – Handelsmittelschule, IMS – Informatikmittelschule and FMS – Fachmittelschule.
These schools are vocationally oriented with an academic outcome that allows students to enter directly into certain career roles, while still giving them the option of entering higher education.
Note: I am focusing on canton Zurich, as this is my home canton. Information may be completely different in other areas of Switzerland, so you might need to use this article merely as the starting point for your own further research.
Let’s start with the Handelsmittelschule. (Handel means business or trade.) The HMS lasts for three years plus a fourth year in a work placement. This starts after the second or third class of obligatory secondary school (Sek or Sekundarschule in German). Students receive two main qualifications at successful completion of the course: the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate (Berufsmatura) and the vocational education and training (VET) diploma (Eidgenossisches Fähigkeitszeugnis – EFZ).
Subjects are split roughly as follows: 37% languages; 26% economics and law; 13% maths and sciences; 11% information, communication and administration; 7% sport, and 6% history and politics.
Extra qualifications are also built into the course, such as the ABACUS Finance and Bookkeeping, French DELF B1-B2, IT: SIZ Anwender II (Schweizerisch Informatik Zertifikat) and Cambridge First Certificate in English.
This qualification enables students to enter into different sorts of office-based work such as human resources, finance and bookkeeping, customer service, marketing, etc. This work could be in a bank, hospital, insurance company, and so on.
The Informatikmittelschule’s (Informatik means information technology/IT, or computer science) structure is very similar to the HMS, in that it lasts three years with the additional work-placement year. However, you can only attend after the third year of the secondary school.
The main qualifications are again the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate (Berufsmatura) and the vocational education and training (VET) diploma for computer science, specialising in application development.
The course is roughly divided into the following subjects:
29% languages, 25% computer science, 19% economics and law, 14% maths and sciences, 6% history and politics, 7% sport.
The computer science part of the course, which is split into modules, is administered by a Berufsbildungschule (vocational school) and may take place at a different location to the other lessons.
Extra qualifications are Cambridge First Certificate in English and French Delf B1-B2.
Students at both the HMS and IMS are expected to go on a language study trip for French and English.
The Fachmittelschule is quite different to the IMS and HMS. Students can attend after the third year of secondary school. The qualifications achieved are the Fachmittelschulausweis (certificate) after three years and then the Specialised Baccalaureate after the fourth year. There is no VET Diploma (EFZ).
During the first year the students study languages, social sciences, maths and sciences, music and sport. This enables them to decide which profiles they will specify in the following two years.
After that initial year, students choose among five different profiles: pedagogy, communication and information, music, theatre, and health and science. The subjects offered may vary, depending on the specific school that your child attends.
After the third year of the FMS and receiving the specialised school diploma (FMS Ausweis), students can apply to Colleges of Higher Education (Höhere Fachschulen).
Further information on qualifications and further study after HMS, IMS and FMS:
After receiving the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate (Berufsmatura) from the HMS and IMS, or the Specialised Baccalaureate from the FMS, students may apply to the following types of institution: colleges of teacher education (Pädagogische Hochschulen), universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen), colleges of higher education (Höhere Fachhochschulen / Fachschulen).
However, in order to go to universities such as the ETH or University of Zurich, students would need to take an additional exam known as the University Aptitude Test (Passerelle) which requires studying an extra year at a KME – Kantonale Maturitätsschule, sometimes referred to as the “adult Gymnasium.”
At the HMS and IMS, you obtain the same qualifications as if you were to do a VET apprenticeship whilst studying for the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate. This is perhaps an advantage for students who are not ready to enter the world of work. They have three years to build confidence in their chosen career before they start their one-year work placement. One advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, is that students still have the same school holidays as during compulsory school. A large drawback, however, is that they do not earn any money for the first three years.
With the FMS it is worth noting that you do not receive the VET apprenticeship certificate (EFZ). I was recently advised by the local employment advisor that future employers may prefer you to have this.
Application and Entrance Exams for HMS, IMS, and FMS
As with the Gymnasium, HMS, IMS and FMS all have times frames for when you can apply. For instance in canton Zurich applications are between the middle of November to middle of January or early February. However be warned – the IMS application timeframe is the month of September. I have heard of students missing out because they had not realised this. Entrance exams take place at the start of March except for the IMS which take place earlier – at the end of October. For the IMS application you also need to supply a copy of the Multicheck aptitude test for ICT Application development.
It is also possible to jointly apply for either the HMS and Gymnasium or the FMS and Gymnasium, where you only have to do one lot of entrance exams. You can also apply to both the IMS and the Gymnasium, but these are separate exams, with the IMS’s exams having a larger mathematics section. You can only do one double application.
There are still further educational options that are not mentioned in this article. Please note that the above information is a rough guide and is no substitute for professional career advice, especially as rules relating to qualifications and entrance exams may change from year to year and vary from canton to canton.
Links and (re)sources:
By Clare Ferrari
Clare is an English teacher and playgroup teacher. She has lived with her husband and two teens in Zurich for 14 years.
Illustration by Gina Ferrari
Gina is 14 years old, attends a Swiss secondary school and loves to draw.