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  • Writer's pictureKeren-Jo Thomas

Education in Switzerland: Public or Private?

I recently asked a parent, Victoria Dlensi, to provide her experience from both the private and public school experience in Switzerland as a parent. Here, she explains...

Should I send my child to public or private education?

Perched precariously on a child’s chair opposite my daughter’s class teacher and the “special education” (Heilpädagogin) teacher feeling belittled whilst they sat on adult chairs, listening to them say that I should give up work and only talk German to my child from now on. “The only way I could see that happening is if we go on social aid”, I said. There was stunned silence substantiated by a glare of shock emanating from the close-to-retirement “special education” teacher.

As a full-time working mother, main breadwinner, and mother of two daughters, myself educated in the international private system in Switzerland before entering university education in the U.K., brought up by several generations of matrilineal women educated over and over at some point in their lives in Lausanne, as well as the U.K., I was no stranger to the fact, we are not your typical Swiss and not your typical foreign family. We are neither and both, and have no box to fit in. And more importantly, do not want to fit into other people’s ideas of boxes. Eccentric, may be.

Here begins the journey...

What is your intention?

The first question I would ask you is what is your intention for your child/children’s education? Then, I might follow-up with additional questions.

  • Do you intend to be here longer than 5 years?

  • Are you planning to return to another country and by when? E.g. by retirement or within the next 5 years?

  • How old will your child / children be when you plan to move?

Then I might ask you: What you think, feel or see as the gain your children will have with an international education?

And what might you see, feel or think you will lose by entering your children into international education?

Then there are other important points to perhaps consider when deciding on the right path for your child.

  • Is your child academic, sporty, or creative?

For entrance into good Universities in Switzerland (or abroad) a strong academic child who is top in their class and does very well in all subjects may be eligible. The remainder, whilst they have options, the journey begins to twist and turn like the Alp's mountain roads, and with a few barriers and rickety old wooden bridges with steep inclines on the way, the plot thickens.

What will you or your child gain?

Your child may gain access to foreign university education if you follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) or iGCSEs and A-Levels, or if possible at the institution, US SATs or ACT, each with different opportunities. The Swiss Matura can in some circumstances be recognised outside Switzerland, although not as well-known and will depend on the institution’s understanding of the Swiss system (e.g. Thirty years ago, the IB, whilst widely accepted was not well-known or understood either. I was able to also find a way through the lack of clarity and gain access to a University that then ended up, during my time, receiving a top research rating for our school of biological science. Since then, many universities have become more familiar and in some cases more stringent with their criteria. There are possibilities no matter which route you or your child may take.

The IB is more holistic in its teachings, requires time-management, incorporates philosophical aspects and extracurricular activities and credits. The iGCSEs and A-Levels of the UK system (as an example) are more traditional, in-depth academic learning where the final exams are the main contributor to grades for many courses (e.g. except art and design, biology, chemistry and physics A-levels). Whilst the IB is more commonly accepted by other countries, the A-Levels are often too, including in Switzerland and the U.S. The Swiss Matura has more subjects than the others.

One winter’s evening whilst visiting the UK, I remember speaking with my father, about my observations of whether our International education was worth the trouble. He was curious to understand my perspective. Over the years, I had noticed that my friends who had left one year earlier having taken their SATs, unless they were in the top 2% academically, generally ended up with average, normal level jobs or lives compared with the general population (e.g. in the US). However, the ones that had completed the IB, no matter whether they had virtually failed or been top of the class, generally faired well above average in their careers, if they chose to work. He then responded with, “That is funny, your brother said the same thing”.

What will you gain by having a private / international education? This will depend on many factors, whether your child is someone who questions everything or who fits into and will obey what teachers request specifically. Learning the local language though, is a strong recommendation even when in the international system.

If you are planning to move to another country during your child’s schooling, then an international education may be a smoother transition. However, even here, we have had friends transferring to and from other local schooling systems. There can be delays and a lost year or two along the way with the upside of more maturity.  These experiences gained may serve them well in their future lives as well as the linguistic skills and adaptability. There have been publications showing that bilingual or multilingual people are more adaptable and flexible to change and multicultural environments. No matter the route, these options are all possible.

What you and your child will gain depends on many factors. An international private education for sure is useful for many. However, this is not true for every child who goes through it. My sister, perhaps has a different view, she chose to raise her children. Afterall, it is their choice what they do with their education, we can enable the choice.

Where there is a will, there is a way

My husband and I have often made decisions based on our family’s needs or work. I started my own business when I was on garden leave due to a company closure. When I did so, I took over an empty shell of a business from my fiduciary. Opened a bank account within a matter of two-three weeks for the business. The bank had many requirements, so I simply located the person who was on the file, and apparently absent that day, spoke with a kind, helpful lady, and asked her what was the intention of all these documents? It turned out, their main concern was whether I was going to move large amounts of money they couldn’t support, and they would meet every two days to discuss new bank account requests. So, I simply provided a short summary and description of the amounts likely with the types of activities by email and a week later received my package in the post (or rather my fiduciary did), to my surprise (and his) it had a heart-shaped post-it wishing me good luck for my new business. He said he had never seen anyone open a bank account for a business that fast (and others have since said the same). Following this, I declared everything on my unemployment forms, including the hours I would dedicate to working for my business. Yes, you get capped further, but I wasn’t asking to support my business I still had to apply for full-time jobs. I was constantly told by trainers and other unemployed people who had looked at the option of starting their own business, that what I was doing was not possible. Yes, it is. I just went and did it, declared it and learned.

My daughter was put into Realschule, along with another friend of hers who had a previously tested IQ of 140. Yet, we had moved her out of the public primary system and into the private system before heading back into the public school. How did they end up there? If a child questions and tries things out for themselves without following what the teacher asks first, the teachers do not seem to be able to handle this natural inquisitive perspective and respond by saying “you don’t know anything, and I am here to teach you”. There tends to be a constant negative approach (even though they implemented a new mindset approach of “you don’t know how to do it yet”), negative encouragement is still the default attitude of the teaching system. If your child asks a question, one or two times is ok. We have had, “your daughter never asks questions”, and then we have had the situation that she asks too many questions and the same teacher(s) gets fed up and says “go ask another student”. In short, we had two good teachers one in the public school and one in the private school. What message would you get from the teacher about asking questions?

Many of my former colleagues (and acquaintances), including myself, who put our children either into the local or international schools (as even the international schools have to incorporate local Swiss ways in some cantons), were informed our children have ADHD, at some point. Yet, these very same parents working in global or international companies, often had multiple degrees, whether scientific, medical or commercially oriented. Our children don’t fit in their boxes. This is common throughout Switzerland, and having worked in the ADHD space with a specialist psychiatrist, friend and former colleague, we set about fighting the system and diagnosis, as the school psychologists or “special education” teachers believe they can diagnose this on their own. Using innovative techniques we have finally overcome this label with our daughter and avoided formal diagnosis, even though at one point we had in our hands emergency medication should the teacher complain (I have since disposed of this). They couldn’t handle my child’s cerebral light bulbs of questions and ideas. Today, she continues to go from strength-to-strength.

When she entered primary school from one year in public Kindergarden, she stopped drawing, stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus (Father Christmas) and magic, and was only seven years old when the light left her previously gregarious, doggedly determined personality. She was broken in one year, and the light was gone for over three years. Both my daughter and her friend, who entered the system with reports saying they were highly confident children, were broken. They no longer had the confidence in their own abilities, and would not do anything unless a teacher had told them to do it. And more importantly, they lost the motivation to even study or learn because they would be told to their faces they were stupid. Today, my daughter, thanks to my colleagues in my profession using the innovative techniques alongside me we have worked with my daughter with her guiding us through the process. The results have enabled her the confidence to stand up and sing in public, challenge an avid ice hockey skater to a race and win, and know when she doesn’t need to study for her French test, because she knows she will get a 6. All that within a week of the protocol. Her German improves all the time and like any child, now teenager, has her preferences and dislikes for certain subjects. We are now investigating the options of studying online at her own leisure to do a basic set of iGCSEs, which is now possible, so that she can obtain the opportunity to do A-levels. All this, whilst she remains in the Swiss system. Her dream, is to study in the U.K.

Costs of private vs public system?

It is clear that for many, the cost of private education can be very high, ranging from over 30,000 CHF per year to over 100,000 CHF, with discounts for the third child being slight in comparison. Whilst private Swiss schools exist and are usually at the cheaper end, they may only take on students that would be eligible for Secondary or Gymnasium level studies once you get beyond primary school level. Furthermore, in the primary school setting, school starts with half-days and means parents have to scramble for options to cover lunchtimes and afternoon care. In Zug, the public option is cheaper and may cover just under 1000 CHF per semester, except for school holidays which have a separate application and cost around 150 CHF or so per week (prices are rough costs and may not include everything from memory). However, depending on your catchment area, there may not always be every slot or day available. It is a lottery, that can change from year-to-year. In other cantons, the costs may be 1200 CHF or even up to and over 3000 CHF per month, depending on your earnings. Depending on the Canton there may be all-day state school options, like in Zug, for working parents.

What would be your main takeaway message?

My advice, just because someone tells you it is not possible to do or is too difficult, doesn’t mean to say it is true.

The answer will depend on your needs, your financial flexibility, your children and your ability to juggle, fight, be resourceful and your energy to stand up for your child at every step. Know when to fight, and when to play the dance with the teachers and the system, even in the private sector!

Would you like further information or support?

If you would like help with finding out what is best for you and your child. You are always welcome to reach out. Whether it be finding the right path or helping your children in need as they each grow and learn at their own pace.

I have spent the last 30 years navigating the grey and turning the grey into amazing technicoloured works of art, full of sensual textures and beautiful songs guiding our journey through life.

You can message me via LinkedIn or via email:

Victoria Dlensi

April, 2024


Victoria Dlensi is a scientist with an MBA, hypnosis practitioner and new code NLP practitioner coach with over 30 years across industries (20 years in the pharma biotech arena). As a hypnosis practitioner and coach she enables individuals, teams, families and children the choice of a better future. Connecting the dots to new paths.

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