Policy Description

Educational Policies: Switzerland (2014)


In Switzerland, the main responsibility for schooling lies with the 26 cantons, which coordinate their work at the national level. For post-compulsory education, the cantons and the federal government each have their own responsibilities, and thus bear the overall responsibility for these levels of education together. The Swiss nation-building process occurred as a gradual integration of autonomous cantons into a confederation. Thus, the Swiss cantons claim a strong degree of sovereignty, especially in matters of education (Rosenmund 2011). Switzerland was constituted as a federal state in 1848. After several failed attempts to harmonise the educational system on national level, compulsory primary school attendance was established in the Federal Constitution in 1874 (ibid.). In 1898, the cantonal ministers of education decided to form a political body to coordinate their educational policies: the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) (ibid.). Its resolutions were not, however, legally binding, and each canton's authority over education remained unrestricted (ibid.).

A vital turning point in Swiss educational policy was the implementation of intercantonal agreements, called concordats by the EDK. These agreements have been a key component of Swiss educational policy ever since (ibid.). A concordat is legally binding for the canton that decides to sign it (via a decision of the parliament or a cantonal popular vote), and it comes into force as soon as a certain number of cantons (defined by the concordat) have adopted it.

The first concordat, adopted in 1970 by the EDK, contained very basic regulations on compulsory education, and was legally binding for the 25 of 26 cantons which decided to sign it (ibid.). Since then, educational policies in Switzerland have been implemented at two levels: on a federal level via the federal constitution, and on an intercantonal level via concordats (ibid.). 

On the federal level, setting the beginning of the school year in the autumn was legally implemented in the federal constitution in 1985 (ibid.). In 2006, the Swiss population approved in a popular vote some broad rules on compulsory education in the federal constitution. Cantons are now legally obligated to regulate certain benchmarks of their educational system, like quality or permeability, on a uniform basis across the country. In cases in which there is a failure to achieve adequate harmonisation on questions regarding the school starting age, the duration of schooling, and the objectives of compulsory education, the confederation has the right to issue regulations to achieve harmonisation (Art. 62(4), Swiss Federal Constitution 2006). 

This federal law provided a basis for the development of measures for educational monitoring and of a new concordat adopted by the EDK in 2007: the Intercantonal Agreement on Harmonisation of Compulsory Education (HarmoS Agreement). It came into force in 2009. The 15 cantons that have signed the agreement to date have agreed to harmonise the structure, the duration, and the most important objectives of compulsory education (curriculum, competencies). The implementation is to occur by the start of the 2015/2016 school year. In this context, the development and the implementation of the curricula of the linguistic regions (French, Italian, German) is currently in progress.

Organisation of the educational system

Because in Switzerland the main responsibility for education lies with the cantons, the level of standardisation of input (curriculum) as well as of output (central examinations, testing of educational performance) has always been relatively low (Bol & Werfhorst 2013), except for vocational education and training (VET), which is regulated by federal law (Hannan et al. 1996). The level of stratification is, however, generally considered high, as tracking starts at a very early stage (Bol & Werfhorst 2013). In most cantons, after attending one to two years of preschool and six years of primary school (which is to be harmonised with the abovementioned HarmoS Agreement), students are, at around age 12, assigned to different lower secondary programmes based on their performance levels (ISCED 2).

After completing their compulsory education, about 90% of young adults complete upper secondary education (Swiss Education Report 2014), which can be subdivided into general education programmes (one-quarter to one-third of youths) and vocational education and training (VET) programmes (two-thirds to three-quarters of youths) (Imdorf et al. 2014) (ISCED 3). 

General education schools include baccalaureate schools as well as upper secondary specialised schools with specialised baccalaureate programmes, which students attend for three to four years. These schools are regulated by cantonal law. 

In the German-speaking cantons, vocational education and training (VET) is mainly organised in a dual system: apprentices are formally hired and trained by a company, spend one to two days a week at school, and earn a modest wage (ibid.). VET lasts between two and four years, and prepares students to take up an occupation (ibid.). In the French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland, one-quarter of the apprentices pursue vocational training in full-time vocational schools. In addition to receiving a VET certificate, learners who attend the FVB preparatory course, which consists of general education subjects, have the option of earning a federal vocational baccalaureate (FVB).

Tertiary-level education is subdivided into a higher education sector (tertiary level ISCED 5A) and a professional education and training sector (tertiary level ISCED 5B). In the tertiary higher education sector, universities offer degree programmes leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Universities of applied sciences (including universities of teacher education) offer degree programmes leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The tertiary-level professional education and training sector covers the non-university sector of the tertiary level (PET colleges; Courses for federal VET diploma) (ibid.). With a VET diploma or a diploma of an upper secondary specialised school, students have access to tertiary-level ISCED 5B. The track of baccalaureate schools provides direct access to universities and universities of teacher education (ibid.). The upper secondary specialised baccalaureate and the federal vocational baccalaureate tracks provide students with access to universities of applied sciences. Permeability between the two tracks is ensured. 

Compulsory Education

In Switzerland, the responsibility for compulsory education and preschool lies with the cantons. They define the curricula, the hours of instruction for each subject, and the teaching materials used. Public compulsory education is free of charge, and is to date attended by 95% of the children living in Switzerland. The remaining children are educated in private institutions or through home-schooling. The obligation to attend school also applies to children without legal residency status. Children who differ from typical children in terms of their stage of development, capabilities, or social or linguistic background usually attend the same school as typical children, but are sometimes educated in classes for special needs.

Compulsory education lasts at least nine years, and is subdivided into the primary school level and the lower secondary level. In 22 of 26 cantons, children are required to attend one or two years of preschool as well (as of 11/2014). Primary school starts at age six, and the subjects taught are languages, science, social sciences, music, art, and physical education.

To date, the primary school lasts six years and the lower secondary school lasts three years in the majority of the cantons. After children finish primary school—which usually means after the sixth grade and around age 12 in most cantons—they are placed on an educational track. As part of their compulsory education, children are assigned to different lower secondary programmes, in which the instruction is aimed at different performance levels. There are three different structural models of lower secondary education (streamed, cooperative, or integrated), and the cantons are free to implement either a single model throughout the entire canton, or to allow the municipalities to choose between the various models. Around two-thirds of all students are assigned to lower secondary programmes with "extended performance requirements", and the remaining one-third are assigned to programmes with "basic performance requirements" (Hupka et al. 2010). Non-selective lower secondary programmes with no tracking implemented are the exception (ibid.). 

At the lower secondary level, the subjects taught do not differ fundamentally from those taught at the primary school level, but lessons in home economics as well as career guidance and vocational preparation are added to the curriculum. After completing their compulsory education, Swiss students receive their regular semi-annual school report, and "graduate" without receiving a special certification (Hupka et al. 2010).

The cantons which have signed the HarmoS Agreement) have committed to harmonising the duration (preschool: 2, primary school: 6, lower secondary education: three years) and the most important objectives of compulsory education by the start of the 2015/2016 school year.



Sandra Hafner
University of Teacher Education, Basel

Regula Julia Leemann
University of Teacher Education, Basel

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Educational Policies: Switzerland" (Information provided by Sandra Hafner & Regula Julia Leemann). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].