Swiss Public Schools or Private

written by Jeanne

For several of us expats who came to Basel without a contract package that included tuition at a private school, it seemed quite natural to try the public schools. In addition, we thought that the best way for our children to experience another culture (the reason for coming to Basel in the first place) would be through the public system of education. For us, it was a fairly simple decision and truly a mixed experience with lots of benefits and some limitations.

Here is what we liked about having our children enrolled in the public schools:

1. The children became fluent in two other languages – Swiss German and High German. They also learned a fair amount of another language (in their cases, French). While we thought that this in itself was a good thing, we subsequently learned more about the benefits to the brain in specific areas (such as reading) of knowing more than one language.

In fact the more we learned about the benefits of “stretching” brain capacities during the critical “windows of opportunity” in young children’s lives, the more we were convinced that we had inadvertently been given a rather luxurious opportunity. By learning another language and working out another culture, the children were building more than a depository of foreign vocabulary. Different parts of their brains were being encouraged to work together, rendering other abilities that much stronger, such as the connections needed to read fluently.

2. The children were immersed in a multi-cultural setting, with no less than 18 languages spoken in the small primary school that they attended (a special feature of Basel schools). The curriculum was purely Swiss, but the children continually bumped up against children from many different cultures, further expanding their exposure to the world. As young adults they are grateful for having had this exposure, convinced that it would have been much more difficult to experience differences had they attended a school that was more homogeneous. They feel that their awareness of global issues has also been enhanced from simply rubbing elbows with different cultures.

3. The primary school curriculum emphasized the socialization of children at the beginning of their school career, i.e., in Kindergarten (affording our children lots of opportunity to pick up the language quickly), and waited for the developmentally appropriate phase to introduce reading, writing and math, i.e., not until first grade (later than other school systems). This proved to be a boon to my son who was a late-bloomer and a challenge to my daughter who taught herself to read even before entering school.

The Swiss-German school systems are excellent, with well-trained and respected teachers (there are exceptions in any school system) and a curriculum that has a solid philosophy. It is not necessarily the same as in other countries but it has been cited as a model in recent studies that look at countries where children achieve higher scores in basic subjects.[1]

4. The children’s enrollment in the neighborhood school was a door by which we parents, and in particular, the non-working spouse got to meet other Basel families in the neighborhood. Without this link, the opportunity to know more about the Swiss culture (mores, traditions, forms of etiquette, food, feasts, places and events of interest, etc.) would have been much more of challenge. (Caveat: in the last thirty years since we moved to Basel, much has changed and there is far more information available to expats as well as support groups.)

5. We, as parents, were forced to learn enough German to be able to communicate with the teachers. This was often very frustrating, but without the push, we could not have made as much progress in learning “everyday German” as we did. (This has also changed and English is widely spoken by the Swiss, especially those in professional roles.)

6. Most importantly, I think, is that as parents we were forced to think very hard about our values in terms of what we wanted our children to learn and to get out of their education. This meant that rather than simply accept what the schools provided (as we would have in a familiar setting), we faced a curriculum and professionals that emphasized different aspects of what we considered important for education. We were forced to constantly reflect and to help shape our children’s education so that we supplemented what we felt they should have and saw them through what we felt might be unnecessary but required by the system. We also were able to model for our children a truly important lesson for succeeding in school and that was learning to deal with teachers who didn’t always see things from our point of view.

7. We learned a lot from the teachers who had a slightly different perspective on how best to help young children find their way. Most particularly was the more relaxed attitude toward intervention. Teachers waited longer to “help” children, encouraging them to solve problems themselves or get better control over their frustration – whether in the playground or when completing a learning task. For a mother who had lots of time to concentrate on her children, this modeling of a more relaxed intervention prevented a lapse into “hovering” which can often interfere with a child’s sense of independence.

We envisioned that our children would be enrolled in the Swiss neighborhood school for the three years that we were supposed to stay unless they faced learning or social difficulties that would have required a switch to a private school.

We never realized how enriching, or how challenging, this experience would be for the entire family.

Several people have asked us, did we not fear that the children would lose valuable time in their education, especially if they were only in Basel for short time? What would happen when they returned to their home country? Would they be behind their peers?

While we didn’t fully realize the benefits of enrolling them in the Swiss schools, we did have a general theory that our children not only could learn from the Swiss, but also with our help close the gaps that might appear if we were to return to our home country.

The choice between a private school and a local Swiss school is a luxurious one. In Basel, both systems have offerings for excellent education. Each family must decide for itself what is best in terms of its children’s needs and future. But I would heavily encourage expat families to think seriously about the wonderful opportunity – whether for one year or several – that enrollment in a Swiss school can provide.

[1] “The Early Years” by David and Clare Mills:


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