Swiss secondary education is divided into a lower secondary and an upper secondary branch. Lower secondary education is defined as the part of compulsory education immediately following primary schooling, usually grades seven to nine. Depending on the length of primary education (four, five, or six years), lower secondary education consists of three to five years of schooling.
Most cantons provide several types of education at the lower secondary level. There are often two or three different sections with very different requirements. Lower secondary school is compulsory and free. The sections with basic requirements, which have various names throughout Switzerland, prepare the pupils for basic vocational training. About one-third of the pupils in the same age group will be in these sections, with more boys then girls.
The sections with higher requirements contain about two-thirds of the pupils in lower secondary education. In most cantons these are divided into two types: Sekundarschule with general requirements and Progymnasium with advanced requirements. Lower secondary school lasts three, four, or five years depending on the canton. Although there has been some experimentation with comprehensive schools, they have not survived the experimental phrase with the exception of the prespecialization classes in the canton of Geneva, the Ticino, and Valais. Some cantons have managed to develop some characteristics of comprehensive schools by improving the ability to change tracks and by reducing the number of tracks. The concept of a unified system of compulsory education, such as in the United States, has not been accepted in the Swiss school system.
Elementary tracks (known as practical, modern, or prevocational) prepare pupils for entry into vocational education. Tracks with broader requirements (general, science, modern languages, classics) prepare for Progymnasium, or more advanced training and school-leaving certificate schools. In some cantons, the lower division in school-leaving certificate schools is integrated into lower secondary education as a distinct track.
The mother-tongue language is taught in all sections of general secondary education, along with mathematics, a second national language, natural science, geography, history, civics, history, art, and physical education. In the sections with basic requirements, emphasis is also placed on mechanical and industrial arts; in the sections with higher requirements, there might be a third language (mainly English), bookkeeping, computer skills, or technical drawing. In the Progymnasium section more advanced subjects are introduced. The number of hours of school varies from one canton to another, but pupils generally have between 30 and 35 lessons per week. In principle, the choice of the school curriculum and choice of materials is fixed at the cantonal level, but the schools and teaching staff have a certain degree of freedom of choice in these matters.
Continuous assessment throughout the year is basically the responsibility of the teacher. Switzerland does not have a general examination at the end of lower secondary school. In some cantons pupils can take a written and oral examination in their main subjects in order to get a certificate; in other cantons this is not the case.
The private schools that include the compulsory period and enroll Swiss students, follow the same basic curriculum and use of teaching materials of the canton in which they are located. Others that primarily enroll non-Swiss, have complete freedom in establishing their curriculum. About 9 percent of all students below the university level are enrolled in private schools. About twothirds of these schools receive some public funds.
Public schools, being both compulsory and yet offering guidance for educational and occupational choices, are faced with conflicting aims. On the one hand, teachers in a democratic society need to allow pupils to make choices, which may be changed several years later; on the other hand, their task is to prepare them for upper secondary education, primarily for the dual system of education. This continues to be a challenge for secondary education in Switzerland.
Academic High Schools: In Switzerland, upper secondary school, which prepares students for university level work, takes place in separate schools called gymnasium. The gymnasium lasts between four and five years. At the end of the gymnasium, one must pass the matura, or school-leaving certificate in order to enter university or the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. The Swiss maturity diplomas are officially recognized both by the Confederation and the cantons, thus setting a comparable standard for the access to universities. This is the reason that there has thus far been no need for additional entrance examinations to the universities and the two federal institutes of technology.
The Swiss Maturity regulations were revised in 1995. They are regulated both by the Confederation at the federal level and the cantons. The 1995 regulations abolished the previous system of five predetermined types of gymnasium education or tracks recognized in Switzerland. Previously there were five types of school-leaving certificates: type A: classics (Latin and Greek), type B: modern languages and Latin, type C: mathematics and natural sciences, type D: modern languages, and type E: economics. The 1995 regulation allowed for more flexibility and a greater range of subjects. There is also an increased emphasis on economy and law and Italian as a third national language. In addition to examinations in nine subjects, the students must write a comprehensive Baccalaureate paper or maturity thesis. This is similar to the requirement set by the International Baccalaureate, which is offered in some high schools in the United States. The first updated maturity diplomas were awarded in 1999. These new regulations have made the Swiss system comparable to most other European forms of school leaving-certificates.
According to the new law the basic subjects are: first language; a second national language; a third language, which can be either English or a classical language; mathematics, science, including as compulsory subjects biology, chemistry, and physics; humanities, including as compulsory subjects history and geography, as well as elementary economics and law; visual arts and/or music. The specific option is chosen out of eight subjects and the additional option out of 13. For the basic subjects the proportion of teaching allocated to each area is as follows: languages 30-40 percent; mathematics and science 20-30 percent; humanities 10-20 percent; arts 5-10 percent; and 15-25 percent to other optional subjects.
Pupils' work is subject to continual assessment and students are promoted into a higher class on the basis of the results they obtain throughout the year. At the end of the gymnasium, the Federal School-leaving certificate Matura Commission supervises examinations. Special federal examinations are held for young people and adults who have studied for their certificates at private schools, at evening classes, or through correspondence courses. For the subjects in which an examination is taken, a grade is awarded on the basis of results obtained during the final year and results obtained in the examination, each factor being of equal weight. For the other subjects, the final grade is awarded on the basis of the results obtained during the final school year, which is based on examinations both written and oral. Under the new law, all students must learn basic English as part of their gymnasium studies.
Gymnasium education in Switzerland continues to carry a great deal of prestige. It is an elite and selective publicly funded preparatory school. In 1998, about 18 percent of all 19-year-olds passed the maturity diploma. Slightly more women (18.7 percent) than men (16.5 percent) successfully completed the matura. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of young women obtaining the school-leaving certificate, from 30.6 percent in 1970 to 48.6 percent in 1980 to over half in 1998.
Between 1980 and 1998, the percentage of students awarded the school-leaving diploma increased from 11 percent to 18. In French and Italian-speaking Switzerland the percentage completing the matura is higher (almost 24 percent) than in German-speaking Switzerland (15 percent). This is related to earlier school reforms and a more equalitarian school system in French and Italian Switzerland. The urban German-speaking cantons of Basel, Zurich, and Schaffhausen are also above the Swiss average. Rural, Catholic inner Switzerland, on the other hand, has the lowest percentage (approximately 12 percent) of students awarded the maturity diploma.
Gymnasiums have a long tradition going back to the Middle Ages. The recent 1995 change in standards and objectives of these schools are still based on nineteenth century humanist and scientific ideals, which have been partially brought up to date by the demands of modern society. Gymnasiums have very high standards and hold almost a complete monopoly on access to the university. Although all cantons have gymnasiums, only eight cantons have a university. Cantons, without universities have a particular interest in maintaining national matura standards in order to ensure that their students can gain access to higher education.
Technical High Schools: Before and immediately after the Second World War some cantons and municipalities established upper secondary schools, which offered a general education but whose requirements were lower than the gymnasium. They were called technical high schools, general high schools, paramedical schools, and schools of tourism. Their successful students went to work in health care, kindergartens, tourism, transport and social service jobs. At the time there was no uniformity between these schools with regard to curriculum, structure, or length of courses after compulsory education. In 1987, after more than 15 years of discussion, an agreement was reached between the cantons concerning curriculum and other requirements. Two proposals: "Guidelines for the recognition of diplomas" and "curriculum framework for technical high schools," were adopted in 1987 by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education. The high school courses of two or three year's duration are recognized by all the cantons as long as the technical high schools adopt the approved curriculum and framework developed by the Commission for Technical High Schools.
The technical high schools have helped to bridge the gap that existed in the type of education offered at the upper secondary level. These schools offer an opportunity to a broader spectrum of the student population to complete their general education at a higher level and an opportunity to learn about future professional activities. Students can do this without committing themselves to an apprenticeship program. Technical high schools require their students to acquire a general training and education, which will enable them to go on to higher, nonuniversity training in fields such as teaching, health care, social work, administration, and the arts.
The curriculum at technical high schools encompasses a common core of general subjects and a choice of technical subjects. The general studies include mother-tongue language, other languages including at least one other national language, mathematics, science, humanities, art, and movement. The technical options depend on the field of study and include, for example, paramedical studies, social work, or business administration. The guidelines set forth by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education apply to all Swiss cantons. The regulations concerning assessment of pupils in lower secondary education also apply to technical high schools. Under the terms of the new law issued in 1995, a written examination, which may be accompanied by an oral examination, must be taken in five out of six subjects. In addition there are examinations in their technical subjects. If students fulfill all the requirements for the diploma for the technical high schools, they are recognized by all the cantons.
Teacher-Training Colleges: Most Swiss cantons carry out the training of preschool teachers in upper secondary school. Cantons offer two types of training for primary school teachers: teacher training colleges (upper secondary level) and university after secondary education in a gymnasium. Basic training for gymnasium teachers is given at the universities and the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In some cantons, reforms since the 1980s have resulted in changing from teachers' training colleges to studies at universities following the matura examination, although most cantons still prefer the teachers' training system.
The training takes five years, or three years following the matura. The primary school teachers' examination provides access to the teaching profession or (with certain limitations) to studies at the university. Teacher candidates for lower secondary levels attend a university or university institute for seven or eight semesters. The training corresponds to language regions (French, German, or Italian), and there is a trend toward a mutual recognition of the diplomas. The teacher candidates specialize in either mathematics and natural sciences or languages and history. Teachers at the upper secondary level receive specialized training at a university as well as specialized professional education.
There are currently 100 institutions that train teachers for compulsory education, technical high schools, and other colleges of further education. In Switzerland teacher training of primary teachers has been the subject of serious discussion in almost all cantons.
Teachers of vocational education have different qualifications from those teaching compulsory education and the gymnasium. The majority of teachers at technical colleges are employed by the cantons. The teaching staff of technical colleges is generally trained at the Swiss Pedagogical Institute for Vocational Training, which is a federal institution. Those teaching general subjects must already possess a teaching diploma for primary or secondary education. The teachers of technical subjects must possess an engineering diploma or a higher technical diploma. For teaching at commercial colleges, a university degree is required. In the workplace, individuals must have several years of experience in their trade and have taken a special course for training apprentices, organized by the professional associations or the cantons, in order to supervise apprentices.
Vocational Training: The comparatively low level of youth unemployment in Switzerland has been attributed to the dual apprenticeship system. The dual system has existed in Switzerland for over a century and is well developed as a cooperative effort between the cantons, federal authorities, and professional organizations. The majority of Swiss youth (approximately 70 percent) continue their education after compulsory schooling in vocational education. The dual system of vocational education is comprised of a practical course in a private or public company and parallel attendance at a vocational training school, which provides basic theoretical knowledge, general subjects, and physical education. Students go to school for one to one and a half days per week and engage in an apprenticeship for the rest of the week. The vocational school education complements the practical vocational experience gained on the job. In addition, basic skills are taught by supplementary introductory courses, which are organized by the professional association. Therefore, vocational education is in reality a threefold system.
The trainee signs a contract with a company, which must be approved by the cantonal vocational training authorities. The scope of vocational training courses, the subjects taught, and number of lessons is fixed for each profession in close collaboration with the corresponding professional association within the framework of a program drawn up by the Federal Office for Industry and Labor (BIGA/OFIAMT). The federal law on vocational training applies to about 260 professions in industry, trades, commerce, and domestic service.
Young people who go into basic vocational training do not pay any college fees. Apprentices who are trained within the framework of the dual system are paid a monthly salary, which ranges from a few hundred Swiss francs to over a thousand (roughly $150-$700 a month), depending on the branch they are in, the size of the firm, and how many years of training they have already completed.
After two to four years, the apprentices take a final examination. If they are successful, they are awarded a federal diploma (CFC), which is recognized all over the country. The final examinations comprise a practical part and a theoretical part. The examinations are normally organized by the cantonal authorities and carried out in collaboration with consultants from industry. As far as possible the examinations are standardized for an entire linguistic region (French, German, or Italian). An upper secondary vocational diploma does not normally qualify students for admission to university, but it does allow them to enter further vocational training in the nonacademic branch of tertiary education.
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