Guest Post: Getting a Swiss Education

Thursday, September 6, 2012

By now, all the young’uns have returned to school. What better time to get a little lesson on the serious-as-a-judge education system in Switzerland. We’re pleased to have MMM reader Carolyn Moncel, an American mother living and raising her family in the mountainous European country, here to guide us through.


Navigating the Swiss Educational System

By Carolyn Moncel

It’s been a very tense school year for my oldest daughter here in Switzerland. Not only did she have to pass cantonal exams (which are recycled every two years and never posted anywhere online), but she also needed to declare her future career intentions. That’s right! After intense standardized testing, additional written and oral exams, interviews with professors and grade evaluations, she needed to figure out and declare what she wanted to be in the work world.

She’s decided either to become a writer or a psychologist — or maybe even both.  Her advisors agreed with her selections, noting that testing demonstrated a particular aptitude toward these professions, but cautioned her to be “precise.” Pursue one profession or the other — not both.

You would think that she’d just completed her senior thesis at the University, with all this fuss around plans for the future. Quite the contrary; she’s only 15. And she is preparing to enter high school, where she will be a sophomore in the fall.

Photo credit:

When I was 15 and growing up in the United States, I could barely see beyond the weekend, let alone what I planned to do with the rest of my life. I did have some vague notion about which university I might want to attend, but nothing upon which I could stake my life. Even now after receiving my degree and working in communications for over 20 years, I still believe that there’s time for me to re-invent myself yet again, perhaps taking on a different career.

That “can do” spirit is imprinted in my DNA. So the concept that you can’t be whatever you want — even two things at once — feels foreign to me; because despite extensive preparation and professional training, sometimes we still make career choices that leave us feeling unfulfilled over time. When we do feel unfulfilled, it’s comforting to know that there’s always room for a do-over.

The Swiss have a different take on the matter. They believe in being “precise.” Selecting only one career path, remaining disciplined and decisive ensures that you won’t make a mistake in the first place. Being precise, means that you take your future seriously, and the Swiss Educational System is, absolutely, serious business.

There are 26 Cantons or “States,” and each one has very different regulations concerning education — everything from mandatory attendance to language of study and so much more. Here in Lausanne, in the Canton Vaud, teachers instruct students to think seriously about their future as early as age 12.  Explaining how it works is the best way to illustrate why my daughter was freaking out.

After four years of “primary” school, children enter a two-year “transition cycle” around Grades 5 and 6 or ages 10 and 11 respectively. Toward the end of this cycle, parents are consulted but teachers determine which of the three different secondary school streams children will enter, thus determining their future. Those three streams for Grades 7, 8 and 9 are:

  • VSO — secondary school with “options”, geared towards the slower students
  • VSG — general secondary school
  • VSB — the secondary school cycle that prepares for the baccalaureate and ultimately gives access to toward higher education

For children who finish in VSO, school ends at the end of Grade 9. Basically if a student does not succeed or he/she has some unresolved learning issue, their path in life is set. The student can enter an apprenticeship program and hope for the best.

For students who finish the VSG cycle, the possibility exists to do an additional year to still obtain the VSB certificate, which is needed to continue on the only path toward higher education.

After the secondary school cycle, children with the VSB certificate can then continue at the “Gymnasium” for another three years to obtain their baccalaureate. After passing their final exams at “Gymnasium”, they are ready to study at the University.

That’s not at all stressful for a 15-year-old, right?

I don’t question the quality of education that my girls receive. Actually, I think it’s excellent and thankfully, they are doing very well. There is a strong and equal emphasis on math and science as well as the humanities. Learning three languages is obligatory.  And I don’t disagree with having children think about what they may want to do with their lives and make plans.

However, where things rub me the wrong way is how the rigid Swiss way seems to discourage any uncertainty, change or exploration. There’s nothing wrong with being 21 and not yet knowing what you want to be. That’s the beauty of having uncertainty, there’s room for change and exploration. My French husband agrees. In fact, after college, the pressure of having to plan out his entire life by age 23 was the primary reason he moved to the United States. He needed space to explore his options freely.  (Incidentally, he earned a degree in French Literature, but now works as a software engineer. Given the right opportunity, I suspect he’d gladly give up his current job and open a ceramics store. See? Change.)

The point that I try to stress to my girls is this: It’s wise to dream big, strategically plan and work hard toward your goals. Just remember if you live long enough, not only will your life inherently change, but so will your wants, needs and priorities. It’s also OK to follow your heart — even it means changing your mind and doing something completely different. You can only make plans to a certain degree and then life takes over.

As the new school year approaches, my daughter seems pretty excited to embark on this new journey. She insists on becoming both a writer and a psychologist anyway — not because she’s a contrarian — but because she realizes that this is her life and ultimately, she’s in control of it. As parents we’re proud of her decision. Now we just hope that her little sister follows her lead.

  • 1
    Julia Browne says:

    Hi Carolyn,
    Growing up in such a restrictive educational system (which I expect runs through and colors the entire social and political mindset) is frightening. I’m a late bloomer and I would’ve been doomed. That said, I had a vague idea what my ideal profession would be at 11 but didn’t know how to reach it so honest guidance would have been helpful.
    It works for those, like your husband, who knew to look beyond ‘the wall’, or for your children who have you to tell them that this isn’t the only solution.
    Very interesting article!

    • 1.1

      Thank you, Julia! Like you, I was a late bloomer, and I could have benefited greatly from some honest advice early on as well. I think in my case, getting to where I wanted to go was so overwhelming that I didn’t even know what questions to ask anyone in first place, let alone where to find the answers to those questions. :) However, I never felt like I wouldn’t find my way eventually, and the twists, turns, revisions, etc. have all been worthwhile in the end.