What US schools could learn from Switzerland

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Play-based learning, apprenticeships, and affordable universities…As most of the students of the world return to school this month, our writer takes a deeper look at the Swiss education system.


Swiss schools do not push students to learn how to read until age seven.


Switzerland’s education system is one of the most exemplary in the world, but you won’t hear it described using the same adjectives you might for a Harvard or a Princeton.


No, the Swiss are more concerned with every citizen finding their right place in the framework which makes up Swiss society – whether that means becoming a carpenter or locksmith, professor or doctor. The Swiss education system offers an array of paths for students to consider no matter where they sit on the academic spectrum. Moreover, achieving higher and higher levels of education is not presented as the goal when it comes to aiding a young person on their unique path to fulfillment.


Kindergarteners walk to school alone, use knives and cook over open flames. Are Swiss children being given too much freedom or are the rest of us holding on too tightly?


First steps: Primary education


Children begin compulsory school at age 4. The first two years are play-based education, focusing on social skills and learning to take care of oneself. A formal curriculum – reading, writing and mathematics – does not begin until their third year of primary school, or about age 7. From age 7 to 9, children are only allowed to work on 10 minutes of homework — even if it is not finished.


There is no such thing as “kindergarten readiness” in Switzerland; parents and teachers are more focused on how independent a child is becoming in those first two years. Most Swiss children walk to and from school without adult supervision. Most Swiss schools give even their youngest students access to community gardens and kitchens where they use burners and knives.


The magic of growing up Swiss


Many primary schools have one day a week when all education is conducted outside. Students are expected to be able to walk great distances in all types of weather.


Swiss students will not be asked to take standardized tests until they reach their late teens — that is, if they opt for the more academic route.


Next up: Secondary education


Secondary education is divided into two levels: lower secondary education and upper secondary education.


Lower secondary education or ‘middle school’ starts between ages 11-12. The curriculum includes studying the local cantonal language – French, Italian, German, or Romansch, a second national language, and English. Languages are important in the Swiss education system, so it is common for Swiss students to be multi-lingual.


Additionally, students must take classes in science (chemistry, biology, physics), geography, math, civics, history, art, music, physical education, and home economics. There are no national exams or graduation diplomas after compulsory lower secondary education.


Around this age, students are divided based on their intended career paths and academic passions. Although it is optional, more than 90 percent of students continue their studies and move to upper secondary, which facilitates entry into the job market, and enables them to continue their education and attend university. Upper secondary education is divided into vocational training and education (VET), baccalaureate schools, and specialized schools.


It is worth noting that the individual cantons and the federal government manage upper secondary school education programs. Therefore, disparities exist in the curricula, but cantonal credentials are accepted across Switzerland.


Most Swiss teens choose a combined school and work apprenticeship track that puts them into the workforce in two to four years.


Vocational Education and Training (VET)


Most Swiss students choose the Vocational Education and Training (VET) route. These two-to-four-year programs offer both technical and practical training. This dual-track curriculum allows students to combine classroom instruction at a VET institution with an internship or apprenticeship at a training company.


Moreover, because college or tertiary education is not a requirement in Switzerland, apprenticeships and internships are common among students looking to start working immediately. Under this practical structure, students acquire theoretical knowledge and practical experience to move into a trade or profession.


Before the 1980s, most U.S. high schools offered courses for electrician and plumbing certificates, automotive repairs, wood making, etc., for students looking to work right away. In the past 40 years or so the country has seen a cultural shift to equating one’s worth with a college degree. And those degrees do not come cheap.


Students take a lunch break in downtown Zürich.


Baccalaureate Schools


Approximately one-third of Swiss students opt to go on to a baccalaureate school. This path provides general education to prepare students for a university. Students who choose this route typically enroll in a baccalaureate school during their last year of lower secondary school.


The duration of baccalaureate programs ranges from three to six years depending on the canton but typically lasts four years.


The curriculum includes the following core subjects: two national languages, a third language (Greek, Latin, or English), science (biology, physics, chemistry), geography, history, and music or visual arts. Furthermore, all students must take an introductory course in law and economics.


Pupils are tested at the end of each term to assess their academic performance. Furthermore, students must present a baccalaureate essay and take exams in at least five subjects at the end of the program. Those who pass both the exams and their thesis earn the baccalaureate diploma, or Matura, a requirement for entry into all Swiss universities – institutes of technology, cantonal universities, and teacher training universities — as well as international universities.


(Note: baccalaureate programs differ from the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, which is offered only at private schools.)


University of Geneva is especially international with often hundreds of nationalities represented in the student body.


Upper Secondary Specialized Schools – Professional Education and Training (PET)


Only 5% of adolescents choose to go to an upper secondary specialized school in Switzerland, which requires an entrance exam and interview for admission. Specialized schools are characterized by a general education coupled with a curriculum for professional education and training (PET) in specific occupations.


These professional occupations include careers in education, social work, and healthcare at PET universities and colleges of applied sciences.


The specialized school program’s curriculum includes core and supplementary subjects relevant to the student’s intended profession. Students are graded at the end of each term to assess their academic performance. At the end of the three-year specialized program, students must take final exams in at least six subjects.


Students who pass their exams earn the upper-secondary specialized school certificate and are eligible to study at PET colleges.


Qualified candidates who enroll in a supplementary one-year specialized baccalaureate course must complete an apprenticeship to gain practical experience in their chosen field and undertake additional course work.


At the end of the program, these students earn the specialized baccalaureate diploma or maturité spécialisée, which is a requirement for admission to universities of applied science, pre-med schools, and teacher training universities.


University of Zürich is Switzerland’s largest university, although many Swiss students choose to study at universities across Europe.


Switzerland’s practical approach to education 


According to a 2019 OECD report, 44 percent of the population between the ages of 25-64 have a university degree. While it is assumed higher education contributes to better job prospects, the tertiary or university degree did not significantly improve employment rates compared to individuals with an upper secondary education – only a three-percentage point difference!


This difference is insignificant and is primarily attributed to the prominence of vocational programs. Furthermore, it demonstrates a strong interest in students with vocational training and experience in Switzerland’s labor market. Most students who take the VET route engage in mixed school-and-work related programs, enabling a more accessible and less disruptive passage from school to work.


Once they enter the workforce, young people will earn at least $25 per hour (the average minimum wage) and about five weeks of vacation time.


After the graduation celebrations end in the U.S., young people must start paying back their student debt.


Education in the U.S.


The quality of education in U.S. academic institutions is highly valued and recognized globally. However, many disadvantages, such as eligibility requirements, soaring education costs, different curriculums, and lack of job guarantees from U.S. universities, do not effectively set students up for holistic success.


Let’s take a look:


  1. Eligibility requirements – pre-requisites for admission include passing standardized tests such as GRE, SAT, TOEFL, and GMAT, which can be challenging for students who do not speak English fluently.
  2. Cost of tuition – The cost of education is exorbitant. Students are often left with enormous debt that takes years and sometimes decades to pay off.
  3. Different curricula – The curriculum differs in each of the 50 states, which can lead to varying education standards.
  4. No job assurances – There are no guarantees of securing employment post-graduation. Factors such as the university’s reputation, education major, communication skills, job searching ability, and experiences determine whether students can find employment.


In 2022, U.S. universities experienced one of the most rigorous and competitive application years in history thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, among other factors. Once students are accepted into a college or university, mounting pressure to succeed in school adds undue stress for students who must secure employment to pay back their rising debt.


Currently, the U.S. offers few options which combine school-and-work programs to help students enter the workforce. As a result, students are often left in the lurch, unable to see the path to employment post-graduation.


The education system, which is equally as academically rigorous as Switzerland’s, is characterized by a low degree of flexibility, exorbitant tuition fees, and a narrow academic track that prioritizes students who intend to go to a college or university.


Perhaps the U.S. can learn something from Switzerland’s education system which values all professions and does not define success so narrowly. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Swiss citizens are some of the happiest in the world.


This article may be shared and re-published on other websites without our permission, so long as it links back to the original UltraSwiss page.




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