5 minute read

Switzerland

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

Two essential hallmarks of the Swiss education system are federalism and pragmatism. Federalism delegates most education responsibilities to the cantons and municipalities. Except for narrow areas the cantons are responsible for compulsory education. The constitution stipulates that the cantons shall exercise all rights, which are not expressly delegated to the federal government. The responsibility for "adequate" primary education is delegated to the cantons. The constitution mandates for state education to be available to children of all creeds without any restrictions with respect to freedom of conscience or belief. Attendance at primary school is compulsory and free of charge. Each canton has its own legislation concerning education. The definitions of the goals of education are, therefore, not the same throughout Switzerland.

Pragmatism takes the form of various agreements for educational cooperation and coordination. An important legal instrument for coordinating the education system is the "Agreement on the Coordination of Education" known as the Concordat, which was drawn up by the cantons in 1970. Its mission is to harmonize cantonal legislation on education. Twenty-five cantons have signed this agreement in order to coordinate their legislation on education with respect to compulsory schooling, duration of compulsory school attendance, and the school calendar. Because of the extremely fragmented Swiss educational system and the system of direct democracy in Switzerland it has taken over 15 years to adopt the existing system. In addition, important agreements have been signed between the cantons concerning intercantonal recognition of qualifications, university funding, admission to educational institutions in other cantons, and funding for communal institutions.

The 1970 Concordat and subsequent agreements have set out the following requirements for compulsory education: (1) the age for entry to compulsory education at six, (2) the duration of compulsory education for at least nine years, and (3) the period of schooling between the start of education and sitting for the matura, or school-leaving certificate (which allows a student to enter the university) at least 12 years.

Responsibility for compulsory and higher education is relatively complex in Switzerland because of the federal system and distribution of power between the federal government and the cantons. Although there is no federal or national Ministry of Education, the Federal government has a limited, but important role in harmonizing education in Switzerland. The Confederation is responsible for supervising "a sufficient level of primary education," which is compulsory, free and for which the cantons are responsible. A second responsibility is to provide legislation concerning vocational training for industry, trade, commerce, agriculture, and domestic service. The federation also regulates the teaching of physical education. In the area of higher education, the central government controls the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, the Swiss Pedagogical Institutes for vocational training (Berne, Lausanne, Lugano) and the Federal College of Physical Education in Macolin. It also regulates admission to medical studies and to the Federal Institutes of Technology. Through these regulations the Confederation legitimizes the requirements for the matura.

In addition, the central government subsidizes the cantonal universities, and scientific research. Grants from the federal government help support the poorer cantons and provide grants for Swiss schools abroad. Through legislation the federal government also promotes the education and integration of handicapped children and adolescents.

In special circumstances the Swiss parliament may temporarily delegate responsibility to the Confederation in order to fulfill important tasks of national importance such as programs for nonuniversity higher education, university exchanges, or Swiss participation in European research and training programs. In most cases where legislative powers are held by the Confederation, the Federal Assembly passes the necessary laws and delegates the corresponding executive powers to the cantons or, in rare cases, to private bodies. The cantons usually delegate the responsibility for setting up and maintaining certain types of schools, including kindergartens and compulsory schools to the municipalities.

The cantonal government and its Department of Education, along with the Education Council in certain cantons, are responsible for organizing and running the cantonal education system. The "cantonal minister," who is the head of the education department, is elected by the people and is reelected every four or five years. Almost all cantons set up education services, including cantonal offices for statistics, research, and documentation during the 1960s. Their goal is to ensure the proper functioning of compulsory education and to help in technical matters, including school improvement and curriculum planning.

One of the major problems with the Swiss educational system is its lack of coherence. Until World War II, the cantonal education systems were very fragmented, in spite of the fact that as early as 1897 the heads of the cantonal departments of education set up a Conference with the aim of exchanging information and coordinating the education system at a national level. From the 1960s onward the need for more coordinated educational policy produced new and restructured organizations, often in collaboration with the Confederation.

The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education (EDK/CDIP) was restructured and provided with a secretariat and four regional organizations. These four regional Conferences included French-speaking Switzerland and the Ticino, northwest Switzerland, central Switzerland, and eastern Switzerland. Language, geography, and history have played an important part in these regional Conferences. Each region coordinates the publication of common curricula, educational material, and joint running of educational institutions, as well as agreements on recognition of qualifications and admission to schools and colleges.

The fragmented nature of the Swiss educational system makes it difficult to evaluate. In reality there are 26 slightly different educational systems in this small country. The responsibilities of the Confederation in education are as follows:

  • It supervises the cantons, which are responsible for providing "a sufficient level of primary education" that is compulsory and free.
  • It is responsible for legislation with respect to vocational training for industry, trade, commerce, and agriculture.
  • It regulates the teaching of physical science.
  • It is responsible for the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, the Swiss Pedagogical Institutes in Berne, Lausanne, and Lugano, and the Federal College of Physical Education in Macolin.
  • It regulates admission to medical school as well as the Institutes of Technology and through regulations specifies the requirements for admission to higher education (by specifying requirements for the school-leaving diploma).
  • It subsidizes the cantonal universities, scientific research, and Swiss schools abroad.
  • It promotes the education and integration of exceptional children and adolescents through legislation with respect to disability insurance.

Globalization and the need to be part of a common Europe have produced significant changes in the Swiss education system, particularly at the higher secondary and nonuniversity levels of higher education. Although Switzerland is not a member of the European Community, in order to compete in a global society the confederation coordinated many changes at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the new millennium in order to bring its educational system in line with most European countries. Many of these changes are still in the process of implementation at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSwitzerland - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education