As Switzerland has developed from a loose confederation of autonomous republics to a federal republic there is a strong tendency to grant as much autonomy as possible to the cantons [federal states].
Education is one of the fields where cantonal autonomy has extremely visible effects. So there is not one but rather 26 different educational systems in Switzerland. Organisation of schools, curriculae and books differ widely. There is some cooperation and coordination between cantons, however, and financial pressure does have some effects: while almost every canton used to publish their own books even for basic courses like reading or elementary mathematics in primary school, regional cooperation is widespread today even in fields that used to be regarded as politically sensitive.
Nevertheless there are some common features. The federal constitution of 1848 stipulates that the cantons have to provide 9 years of free schooling for every child. Today one year of public kindergarten is standard (99%), 63% of the children even attend for two years. Nursery schools for children at the age of two to five are widespread in cities, but on a private basis and only for a very limited duration per day.
Most cantons divide the 9 years of compulsory basic education into two blocks: 4-6 years of primary school (all children of a village or a city district go to the same school) and 3-5 years of secondary school with usually three different levels (preparation classes for high school, leading finally to university studies, secondary schools preparing for demanding vocational training and schools with modest pretensions). While primary school lasts 6 years in eastern and central Switzerland, cantons in western Switzerland do split classes already after four or five years of primary education.
Some 20 % of the children attend high schools until the age of about 19 years and get a so-called federal maturity-certificate which entitles them to continue studies at any Swiss university, at a federal institute of technology (ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne) or at another institute on university level. Since the Bologna reform has been introduced throughout Europe, curriculae and titles have changed, Bachelor and Master degrees have replaced former diplomas with specific Swiss titles.
High school education comprises a minimum of languages (the language of the region, a second national language and English), history, civic education, geography, biology, some higher mathematics and science for all plus a variety of other language, business or science courses to choose from.
The majority of children leave school after 9 years, some add a tenth year. Vocational training for most professions in Switzerland is based on the apprenticeship model. On this level there are unified federal regulations for several hundred professions. The key element is practical activity, not school. Young people have to apply for a place of apprenticeship with a certified private employer who will train them on practical jobs during three or four days a week. For one or two days a week they attend a state-owned vocational school offering them basic theory related to the profession as well as languages, civic education etc. Depending on the profession, an apprenticeship lasts for two, three or four years.
The system is quite dynamic - for example FEAM (Fernmeldeelektronikapparatemonteur = telecommunication device specialist) was a brand new profession in the 1960's, but has been replaced after three decades by a couple of new, even more specialised professions in the field of telecommunication, informatics and industry automation. This does not mean, that a FEAM diploma would be completely outdated today, however. Switzerland's industry knows well, that life-long education is important and supports both formal courses and on the job training in new technologies.
Excellent professionals may get advanced vocational training at a technical institute leading to a diploma as specialist engineer. Similar institutions also exist for economics (trade, banking) and social workers. Recently these institutions have been reformed and students may now get a bachelor degree there, replacing the old diplomas Ingenieur HTL [HTL = Höhere Technische Lehranstalt = Higher Institute of Technical Education] or HWV [Höhere Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungsschule = Higher School of Economy and Administration].
For decades, a sound mix of different skills and levels of education has helped Switzerland's highly specialised industry to develop and produce sophisticated and reliable machines. University and ETH graduates design products from a more theoretical point of view, but always in close cooperation with HTL technicians knowing all the tricks (and pitfalls) of practical applications. Skilled workers assure high quality standards both in prototyping and production.
It is important to make a clear distinction here between Switzerland's own educational system(s) for their own young people and private institutes founded to earn money by offering education for foreigners. While the former are based on continental European school traditions and traditions common to German speaking nations in particular, the latter are designed to provide as much compatibility with curriculae and degrees of the countries their students come from.
Some private schools for Swiss students do exist, but they do not play an
important rôle and they are certainly not known as elite schools.
There are three major reasons, why Swiss parents send their kids
to private schools:
On university level, there are no private institutes providing education, all private institutions on this level are research oriented. Nevertheless there is some competition among public high schools and among public universities as the universities are operated by different cantons [federal states] and the two Federal Institutes of Technology Zurich and Lausanne by the federal government. Running an university is regarded not only as a matter of education politics but as an element in promotion of economic development.
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