GENEVA English-speaking families are often overwhelmed by which option to choose for their children: a local Swiss or French school, or an international one with English only, or bilingual options. The same goes for Germans, Italians, Dutch and other nationalities.
The Lake Geneva region is an exciting place for education because of the variety of systems available. For those considering either French or English, or both, the choice is even wider, and includes the possibility of selecting another national language alongside French. This is one of half a dozen programmes, including Spanish, Swedish, Italian and Dutch, offered by Ferney Voltaire’s International Lycée, a state-funded public school, or the German Gymnasium in Geneva. Both are among the highest rated such institutions in Europe.
For those living in Switzerland, the fundamental choices are between public or private education; anglophone, francophone or bilingual; followed by Swiss, French, British, International, or American curricula. Obviously, opting for a state-run school (where “state” means “canton”, such as Geneva or Vaud) implies a Swiss curriculum. Expat parents are often wary of Swiss schools as they are not familiar with the systems or because everything is in French. They may also draw comparisons with their own country, where state schools are often poor, particularly in the US. Switzerland regularly ranks in the top 10 of international education surveys, such as the recent OECD PISA ratings.
Switzerland’s eight years of pre- and primary schooling focuses on academic and social foundations, with children streamed as young as 12 years for their final three years of compulsory education. This may seem like an elitist method, but the levels are fluid. Students can move up or down throughout the school year depending on their performance. From primary school onwards, teachers assess their work through regular grades, so consistent effort is rewarded rather than last-minute exam revision. By the age of 15, students from any stream will normally have studied German for up to seven years and English for up to five.
Post-15 choices are varied and cater for all levels. There are three paths: academic, general or professional, all of which can lead to further specialisation or careers. In 2012, according to Geneva government statistics, 95% of 15-year-olds and 71.5% of 18-year-olds were still in education. Unlike in other, more rural parts of Switzerland, as many as one third of Genevois follow the academic route towards university. This takes four years leading to the Maturité Gymnasiale diploma. During this period, students study 11 core subjects, two options and two introductory courses, and produce a research project, usually an extended essay. With languages representing 30–40% of the programme, students may take one of their languages to a higher level. Whether it is French, English, German, Italian or Spanish, students are required to eventually read and analyse literature in the target language.
The Swiss academic route is best suited to all-rounders, who are comfortable in all aspects of the curriculum, whether arts or sciences, and who perform well throughout the school year. Vital, too, is the ability to absorb substantial amounts of information. All of these readily open the doors to university or college education throughout the world. The earlier stages provide a sound basis for general knowledge and allow for a wider choice of paths. The alternatives to the academic route are just as valid and lead to interesting careers and well-paid jobs. So, why not give Swiss schools a proper look?
Sabine Hutcheson is an education consultant and the academic director of TutorsPlus in Geneva