Relocating to Switzerland with a teenager: Is local school an option?

Relocating with school-aged children is stressful enough but moving to a new country with a teenager is even more of a challenge!

Most parents of teens will opt for an international school for their offspring. In some cases, however, an international school is not an option. Local school can be a viable alternative, even for children in secondary school. Still, families with older children will be facing some unique challenges when placing their children at a local school:

Compulsory schooling in Switzerland

  • Unlike most countries, compulsory schooling in most parts of Switzerland ends at the age of 16. With the exception of Ticino, Swiss schools start in kindergarten and last 11 years, usually until the end of 3rd grade in lower secondary school or year 9. After lower secondary school, the majority of students start their vocational training or apprenticeship.
    The more academic students will continue their studies in an academic higher secondary school or study for their university entrance qualification after completing their apprenticeship.

Educational opportunities

  • In the majority of cantons, students are streamed into performance tracks after primary school. Very good command of the first language plus the second national language (French or German) is key for placement into a higher track.  Students also need to master their new language if they want to progress to higher secondary school or secure a more demanding apprenticeship. Additionally, from the second year onwards, the focus in the local secondary is very much on finding and applying for an apprenticeship, with academic learning taking a backstage. So, if you and your teen have university studies in mind, a local school might not be the best option.

Language learning

  • Most local primary schools offer excellent integration programmes, allowing students with no previous knowledge of the national language full-time immersion in the new language. At the secondary school level, however, the offer is more limited. Parents who are interested in local school for their 12plus-year-old are advised to research the available offer before deciding on a location. This is because options can vary considerably.  Some schools offer intensive language and integration classes while others pull students out for extra language lessons.

Types of integration classes 

  • Students attending integration classes do not attend the regular classroom but are in intensive language and integration classes with other students learning the language. While this model implies that students will lose a year or more, older students, in particular, might benefit from an intensive language learning approach. The pull-out approach means that students are attending regular class and are pulled out for extra language classes. The problem with the latter is that students have little support in the regular classroom and might feel frustrated with the lack of understanding. In German-speaking Switzerland, students face the additional challenge of studying in a language (standard German) that is different from the language that is being used among their classmates (Swiss German). Older students might also struggle academically in the regular classroom given the complexities of German grammar and the lack of understanding in other subjects taught in the national language. 

School culture

  • Every school has its own culture with its unique do’s and don’ts. The lack of language skills might make it more difficult for your teen to understand what is expected of her as it will not be as intuitive as it would be if she attended classes in her mother tongue.

Social integration

  • In order to fit in at school, your teen will need to study the new language in all its forms, from everyday and academic vocabulary to idioms and slang. Also, integration, especially for older kids, is not just about language. It is also about learning new social and cultural codes. These include everything that is regarded as popular and cool (and that isn’t!) from the right way to dress to what is considered ‚acceptable’ behaviour. In the German part of Switzerland, for example, it is considered ‚cool‘ to speak and write in Swiss German, rather than standard German. 

So before you embark on your journey be sure to get information about the available support. While some schools are doing a fantastic job when it comes to integrating older students, not all schools are equally supportive. Perhaps even more importantly, prepare your teen that the first school year in a different language is likely to be challenging. 

More on school options for older children:

2 thoughts on “Relocating to Switzerland with a teenager: Is local school an option?”

  1. Hello. Thinking about moving from New Zealand to Lausanne. Have 2 boys, will be 15 and 11 when we move. Have no French language. Both extremely bright though (15 yo jumped a year and is still in Advanced Learning Program finishing ICGSE). Will it be too hard for them to learn language and integrate in public school? 15 yo wants to be engineer so will need to go to Uni. Do any public schools do A Levels?


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