Quo Vadis? Pathways at the Secondary School Level

For parents coming from other school systems, the high level of selectivity in Swiss secondary schools is something of an oddity. Add to this the fact that compulsory schooling ends after three years of lower secondary (expect for Ticino) – and not at age 18 after high school as in most other countries. Furthermore, the majority of students pursue a vocational rather than a high school path.

So, how does the Swiss system work?

All children attend the first six years of primary in mixed-ability classes. In the last year of primary (sometimes earlier, depending on the canton), students undergo a number of tests and assessments to determine their ability level. These are reflected in their grades, which, together with the overall assessment of the student’s motivation and level of independence, determine allocation to different ability levels in lower secondary school.

Ability grouping in secondary school

In Switzerland, there are usually four different ability levels in lower secondary school. Most notably in the Swiss system, only a small minority of very able and mature students may move directly into the highest academic track, also called Gymnasium/gymnase/liceo.

Academic track

Gymnasium is an academically selective high school intended to prepare students to attend university. Whereas in some cantons (e.g., Zurich) children have to sit entry exams to gain access, in others, receiving schools rely on grade scores and teacher assessment (e.g., Zug, Aargau). Gymnasium concludes with a nationally standardized exam, the maturité or Maturität, also called “Matura,” which if passed allows students to attend a Swiss university, typically to prepare for a more academic career as a lawyer, doctor, or in scientific research. “Gymi” is considered to be very demanding, and for your child to thrive, he should be a very self-motivated, autonomous learner who enjoys academic studies.

To make matters more confusing, some German-speaking cantons offer both a six-year Gymnasium programme as well as a four-year programme (also called Kurzzeitgymnasium, or “short” Gymnasium) after the end of lower secondary. French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland, as well as some other cantons, do not offer a six-year course, and entry into Gymnasium is only possible after completion of at least two years of lower secondary school.

As said above, only a minority of students directly enter Gymnasium, whereas the majority of students will go to one of the ability streams in lower secondary school described below:

Advanced requirements stream:

Depending on the canton, the advanced stream might be called Sekundarschule/Sek A (Zurich), Sekundarstufe (Zug, Schwyz), or Leistungszug E (Basel Stadt). This stream opens options for access to higher secondary education and a specialised high school degree or more demanding vocational training schemes (e.g., in informatics, banking or insurance) and – with an extra year – access to universities of applied sciences where students can earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fields ranging from information technology, engineering to health care, social work and business administration. Alternatively, students can also sit for an additional exam, the so-called University Aptitude Test, that qualifies them to enrol in any university in Switzerland. With good grades, it is also possible to change from Sek A to Gymnasium. For bright but less mature students this can actually be the better option!

Basic requirements stream:

For the basic ability level, you will hear different names ranging from Sekundarschule/Sek B (Zurich), Realschule and – rather confusingly – level A if you are in Basel Stadt. This stream prepares students for basic vocational training and a professional diploma. Very good students can complete a more demanding four-year apprenticeship followed by a specialised high school diploma and the option to access a university of applied sciences.

Special needs stream:

This stream offers additional support for students with learning difficulties.

Changing streams

Students may change ability streams during or at the end of the school year. For example, if your son entered the basic stream and his grades pick up during the first two terms, he may be considered for the advanced stream after the end of the second term. With very good grades, he might then even be able to sit the entrance exam for Gymnasium after one or two years in Sek A. Whilst the curriculum in the first two years of both streams is similar, the pace and the depth of studies as well as the level of support provided by the teachers is quite different.

Different ways of ability grouping

Different cantons or even municipalities within cantons (e.g., Lucerne) also have different forms of ability grouping: A few cantons or municipalities separate their students into different schools, whereas others keep them together in one class but put them into different subject performance levels (for example Lucerne and Bern city).

The majority of cantons or municipalities have a third way of grouping in form of a cooperative school, separating students into different classes (advanced and basic) but joint performance sets in some subjects, offering a high degree of permeability. In other words, students of both ability groups jointly attend three different subject performance sets in, e.g., languages and maths, ranging from basic to advanced. This enables students to change more easily between sets and also classes.

The Swiss system, while selective, is arguably one of the most flexible and permeable education systems, enabling learners to move within and across education, training and employment. Although there is what seems like a clear divide in the system between the academic and vocational, the system offers an impressive number of crosswalks and points of transfer between the two systems.

Susan, an expat from the U.S., agrees: “In terms of intelligence, perseverance, and motivation, there’s no clear dividing line. I work in a lab environment with people who’ve done apprenticeships (some with further education, some not) and people who have college degrees or even Ph.D.s. I have met creative, intelligent, and productive workers in every education category.” The Swiss system exemplifies the saying, “The road to success is not always a straight line.”

By Stefanie Busse-Dickinson

Stefanie, a qualified teacher and education expert, has worked in public and private schools in Germany, the UK and Switzerland. She helps expat parents to navigate the complex education landscape in Switzerland. Stefanie offers information events and private counselling sessions about education in Switzerland. For more information about her services visit: Living Switzerland or follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/schooladvice.ch/

Illustration by BVisual.

Beth (“BVisual”) graduated from university in 2012 after studying Visual Communication, specialising in Illustration. She has since gone on to do various creative projects including being shortlisted for the V&A Student Illustration Awards. Beth has a day job working as a teacher for a special educational needs provision for post-16 learners. She aims to inspire, engage and enable young people to learn and achieve their goals in life. To see more of Beth’s work or get in touch with her, visit her website: https://bvisual.uk/ 

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