The long-delayed post about Swiss school schedules or: Are you people *trying* to make it hard for stay-at-home moms?

December 13th, 2010

So I had another Twitter exchange with Jacquie that made me realize I still haven’t described what a typical Swiss school day looks like (more or less: in Switzerland, as in the US, education is extremely local) and rather than let this slide any longer I’m going to take a cue from Alexa (see number three, re: perfectionism, which is the number one reason I put off writing the 20 or so blog posts I have in my head; number two is a dearth of time to actually write them, reasons for which should become abundantly clear by the end of this post) and just describe a school day and not worry about making it perfect, or witty, or just the right flavor of sarcastic. It will be, simply, informative.

Oh, Swiss school system, where should I even start? The typical school day? The numerous vacations (some of which, like Sport Week, I can really get on board with)? The tracking system that determines at about the fifth grade whether or not a child is university-bound? The fact that I’ve been here for ten years and I still can’t quite get my head around how it all works?

Small Boy is in his second year of Kindergarten; the first year is optional though it seems to me that at least in this town most of the kids go both years. Kids are eligible to start Kindergaren in August if they are four years old by May 30 of that year. Small Boy turned four in January 2009, so he started his first year of Kindergarten in August 2009 when he was four and a big half. This is his second year of Kindergarten; he’ll turn six in January and be six and a half in August of 2011 when he enters the first grade. (How does this age of entering first grade jive with where you live?)

The first year kids go to Kindergarten Monday – Thursday 8:20 a.m to 11:50 a.m plus one afternoon a week. Second year Kindergarteners like Small Boy go five mornings a week, 8:20 to 11:50, and one afternoon. The afternoons run from 1:20 p.m to 3:40 p.m and the kids come home for lunch between the morning and afternoon sessions. Let me repeat that, because it’s the bane of my existence and will continue to be the bane of my existence for the next ten years: the kids come home over lunch. There is no lunch room. Some schools are slowly moving to a “Tagesschule” schedule (all day school) but it’s slow and hit-or-miss and locally controlled and socially controversial and frowned upon. You are kind of a horrible mother if you let somebody not related to you feed your child over lunch time. The school Small Boy would have gone to in the city had, if I recall correctly, a lunchtime option for which parents were charged on a sliding scale. Swiss scales slide fast and the irony is that R’s income is high enough that we often can’t afford – or I cannot stomach paying – the rate we generally slot into for these sorts of things (lunch programs, day care, play groups). So had we stayed in the city there might have been a lunch option in that school but there is not one here. And I’m not just talking about the Kindergarteners. They all come home over lunch. For, seemingly, ever. (The daycare center that opened in town this past August seems to have a lunch program where school kids can go there for lunch. I shudder to think what it might cost.)

There is also no school bus. Oh if you live out in the back-of-beyond on a farm somewhere in the Emmental there might be some sort of bus but mostly the kids here, as I wrote about before, hoof it. Bless those sturdy Swiss school children humping it rain, sleet and snow. There’s a reason the Swiss Post is so reliable, they were all trained as children to brave all sorts of weather. However, think about what that means if you are the parent of a Kindergartener, especially a young first-year kid: you walk to school with your kid in the morning, walk back home, then turn around and return at lunchtime to meet your kid at the school and walk home. Then heavens, if it’s your afternoon day you have to turn around and walk back with them. This is why the kids are start walking by themselves at such an early age: the parents just can’t take it anymore. We live 1.8 kilometers from the school – it’s a forty-five minute round trip on foot for me to walk to school with a child walking at the rate of a small child and then turn around and come back home. And I’ve got to schlepp Boychen with me. (Don’t Swiss people have cars, you wonder? Yes, yes we do but using them to drive our children to and from school is frowned upon. Have you ever been frowned upon by a Swiss grandmother? I’ve become exceedingly fond of the Swiss but my god, they can frown upon you like nobody you’ve ever met.) In the interest of full disclosure we use the car on double-kindy day because we live 1.8 kilometers from the school house and I’d have to mess with the time-space continuum to walk to kindy, get the boy, walk him home, cook and feed him lunch, and walk him back to kindy in the 90 minutes we have at lunchtime.

Have I mentioned that school lunchtime is the bane of my existence?

On the upside, because there’s got to be an upside here somewhere, there’s a one-week school vacation in February called “Sportwoche.” Sport week. Yep, it’s a vacation to go skiing, because February is when the snow is really good and there aren’t as many pesky tourists clogging up the slopes. Sportwoche, people, is something I can get behind. (We’re going here, which should come as no surprise to any long-time readers.) As long as I’m talking vacation, and making this post all about the information and not so much about the stellar prose and eloquent transitions, here’s the 2010-2011 Kindergarten school year at a glance:

  • August 9 beginning of the school year
  • September 24 – October 17, 3 week fall break
  • December 24 – January 9, 2 week winter break
  • February 12 – February 20, 1 week Sportwoche
  • April 9 – May 1, 3 week Spring Break (oh. my. god.) (it’s only 2 weeks for the upper grades)*
  • June 2 – June 5 long weekend for Auffahrt (Ascension)
  • July 8 end of school year


So. I dread even asking, because the answers coming from the US are probably going to make me cry, but what does your typical school day look like? Don’t worry, I can take it. I’ve got plenty of chocolate lying about. It’s Switzerland after all.

* Which is charming if you’ve got, say a Kindergartener and a second grader. No three week long family holiday for you! Nope, your older kid goes back to school but your Kindergartener is still at home.

17 Responses to “The long-delayed post about Swiss school schedules or: Are you people *trying* to make it hard for stay-at-home moms?”

  1. CoryQ (funkomatic on tiwtter) on December 13, 2010 6:32 pm

    This is a really fantastic line that made my morning: “…but my god, they can frown upon you like nobody you’ve ever met.” It calls to mind many a small town gathering that I have inadvertenaly stepped over the line at. Minnesotans, the Old Norse grandmothers with thick ankles, the ones in small towns, really know how to frown upon folks too.

  2. India on December 13, 2010 8:41 pm

    I can really empathise with the issue about school lunches. But…..not about the walking to school. I guess being of sturdy Scottish stock, schlepping myself back and forward to school in all sorts of weather from age four I just don’t get the problem. As I was often told….no such thing as unsuitable weather, just unsuitable clothing ;0)

  3. Jennifer on December 13, 2010 8:52 pm

    @ Cory – I’ve thought before that Swiss and mid-westerners share a certain mindset (a lot of Swiss actually ended up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Illinois too but a bit less so)

    @ India – I don’t have a problem with the kids walking (except for that full day when it is barely manageable in the time frame allowed given how far away from the school we live and kindergarteners are not allowed to ride scooters or bikes to/from school without adults), although the long distance such a small child is walking alone is in the modern world a tad worrisome. The problem I see is the burden it places on the parents until the kid is mature enough to do it all alone. In my case it ate up a huge chunk of the very limited time Small Boy is in Kindy and I kind of have other things to do.

  4. Claudia on December 13, 2010 10:03 pm

    Boy howdy! I’d stay away from Switzerland for that school day alone.

    I must say, Denmark got some things right. The government-supported institutionalization of our children is one of them.

    Our structure is roughly as such:
    Optional day care from about 11 months to 2 years (We opted for this), either full or part time. Full time is up to 10 hours a day, part time is I think 6 hours. Our DD (heretofore known as Boo boo) went between 8-9 hours a day, depending on how busy the day was. Always had lunch at day care, which was a family’s house. The mom was the day care worker, and had older sons who are also good with kids. She took care of four littles. This is well-supported by the govt. expense-wise. We paid roughly $120/mo.

    Preschool: (I think) required, from age 3-5. In our town, the kids starts at the beginning of the month that they turn 3. They leave in June the year they’re 5, but I think they have to be 6 before Dec. 31st.
    Again, you can choose how long a day it is. Boo boo goes from around 9 am to 4 pm these days, but it could be from 7 am to 4 pm should DH get a job (and we’re hoping he does). We send her there for that long even though DH is home because she LOVES it. I’ve been yelled at for picking her up too early (it wasn’t, but she was in a groove). Parents pack a lunch and piece of fruit for preschool, except the once a month when they make a hot lunch, or like tomorrow, when they have “julefrokost,” or Christmas lunch. Also well-supported by the govt. We pay very little for this, too.

    Standard school, definitely required: ages 6-14. They start school in “kindergarten grade” or zero grade. It is lower-key academically than 1st grade, but a step up with desks and all from preschool. So kids are 7 when they start first grade, but they’ve already been at that school for a year. No idea what,if any, money the parents pay into this. Probably none.

    After that, you have a choice of schools to go to: “Efterskole” or after school, which is boarding school. Most kids want to do this, as it means some independence at age 15. Most parents want to do this, as it means their independence-crazed 15-y.p. is out of their hair all week, every week. They come home on weekends. Most kids pick a school that is geared toward their interest (sports, math, whatever), and not too far away; usually less than 30-40 miles. It is paid for by the families. I’m sure there’s govt. support for low-income families.
    There are also vocational schools, university-track schools, and straight to the job market. Most kids do one of the first two. The vocational schools can be very academic, still. Lots of them require an apprenticeship period after some time, like a couple of years.

    School year: I haven’t lived an official one yet, since day care and preschool are much more accommodating with their hours. But it’s something like this:
    School starts Aug. 15th ish.
    Autumn vacation the second week in October, one week.
    Christmas vacation from around the 21st to the first weekday after Jan. 1st.
    Winter vacation the 2nd week of February, one week.
    Lots of days off for Lutheran Easter-related holidays that scatter from Easter into May.
    School’s out late in June. Summer vacation is about 6 weeks.

  5. rswb on December 14, 2010 9:47 am

    In Australia, (at least when/where I went to school) it’s 9am-3.30pm, Mon-Fri, from about 5 years of age until about 18. There’s no leaving at lunchtime, get there however you like (car, bike, bus, foot), a few weeks holiday a few times a year.

    I have a total inability to understand when the school year starts in this country, which I suspect stems from the fact that I (and everyone Australian, as far as I know) always associated our long block of school holidays with christmas rather than with summer (as in, we always called them the “christmas holidays”). It never even occurred to me at all until I moved to Switzerland that people have holidays in summer. I still find it odd when people ask where you’re going for your summer holidays. Why would you go anywhere in summer? It’s too hot!

  6. Bethany on December 14, 2010 5:55 pm

    Goodness. I don’t want to make you cry, but Italian kindergarten is much easier on us mammas.

    The girls are in kindergarten five days a week. The kids arrive between 8 and 9 in the morning, and we can pick them up pretty much anytime between 1:30 and 4. They eat both breakfast and lunch there, and the kids like to play at the neighborhood park afterward while we moms hang out. Parents drive and walk their children to school equally (there’s no bus), and I’ve never seen a child younger than junior high walking alone.

    The school goes on a lot of strikes (we’ve had about ten so far this semester, but it’s often just the first and last hours of the school day), but the only extended breaks are three weeks for Christmas and one or two weeks for Spring Break. The three-week fall break you listed is incomprehensible to me. Do Swiss mothers not usually work outside the home?

  7. Bethany on December 14, 2010 5:57 pm

    (Oh, and kindergarten here starts at age 3, but Sophie was allowed to start at two because her third birthday fell within the semester. For this one year, my girls get to be in the same class.)

  8. Babbalou on December 15, 2010 3:56 pm

    Don’t any moms work, and if so what happens at lunch? Does the child come home to an empty house or what do they do?

  9. Jacquie | After Words on December 17, 2010 2:50 pm

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this (I’ve been hopeless reading blogs since I switched to Google Reader).

    We talked about this a little over Twitter before, but I’ll say it again: I’m surprised how stay at home parent-dependent this system is. The walking to/from school? The lunch at home? The absurdly long vacations? I couldn’t take it.

    Here in Connecticut, there is ongoing debate about at what age kids should start kindergarten–you can start at 5, but a lot of kids (especially boys) start at 6. We recently switched to full day school, which means by 5 yo gets on the bus (!) a little before 8 am and off the bus a little after 3 pm. He brings lunch (though he also has the option to buy it there) and two snacks. He gets 10 days off at Christmas; 1 week off in Feb and another week off in April; and various other full- and half-days. School starts the last week in August and runs until the beginning of June.

  10. Jennifer on December 18, 2010 9:57 am

    Claudia and Bethany – I am crying, just a tiny bit. That’s just…wow.

    Babbalou – I read an article in the paper recently about the percentages of Swiss men and women who work full time or part time (which naturally I forgot to rip out to save and blog so now I have to dig through a newspapers archives in German), and I was surprised at the high number of women with children who do return to work, given the fairly poor social support for it, though the number who go back to work 100% (how the Swiss designate full time) is fairly low. Women with children under 6 return to the work force in any capacity at very low rates – day care slots are super hard to come by – and it creeps up after that. There is some day care, and as I said in the cities more schools are moving to having something over lunch, but from what I can tell there is a heavy reliance on grandparents and informal networks between moms – our kids eat lunch with you Mondays and Tuesdays and me Thrusdays and Fridays, that sort of thing. I’ll be doing a blog post on this when I find that article again.

    @ Jacquie – Just realized I spelled your name wrong and corrected it. About the long vacations, bear in mind employees get long vacations too. Although in many ways Switzerland resembles the US more than the Europe around it, in the area of vacation it’s all Europe. A full-time white collar worker will have anywhere from 4-6 weeks a year standard. My husband started a new job in Nov 2010, and for 2011 he’s already got 4+ weeks of vacation. So for example that sport week vacation is very much a the whole family goes to the mountains sort of thing. So that helps. But yeah, it’s not easy.

  11. Betsy on December 20, 2010 1:54 pm

    Our school system is set up much like yours, a fact which blew my mind when we moved here from Belgium where the kids got a hot lunch and were in school until 3:30.

    Here they have school til 11:50 up through middle school, when they sometimes go til 12:45. They all come home for lunch and then one day a week they have 1 1/2 hours of afternoon school.

    Ditto that they decide if they’re university bound waaaay too young. Here it’s based solely on the child’s grades during the first semester of 4th grade! It’s insane!

    The thing that gets me most, though, is that they compensate the short school day by loading up on homework. It is not unusual for my kids to have 3 hours of homework– some days it’s more! And it is just expected that the parent guides the children in their homework– which severely discriminates against children coming from homes where both parents work or where German is a second language.

    The most shocking thing, though, is that there aren’t enough substitute teachers, so when a teacher is sick, or has a workshop, or just doesn’t come to school (which happens a lot more often than one might think) they just send the kids home! Last Friday Sander started school at 9:45 and was finished at 11!

    There is so much pressure on these kids from such a young age. I’m happy that they’re having this international experience, but sometimes I wonder what kind of effect this huge workload and stress having on their psyche…

  12. Jennifer on December 29, 2010 4:52 pm

    Betsy, I think the only system crazier than the Swiss is the German. Here the older Swiss kids have afternoon school 4 afternoons (I think). And I think you decide their entire future one year earlier than we do here. It’s the 5th class here I think

  13. Erika on May 24, 2011 9:35 am

    New to the Switzerland… So tell me what children do in the afternoons?!

  14. Jennifer on May 24, 2011 12:22 pm

    Erika – welcome to Switzerland! What region are you in? (French, German, Italian?)

    What do children do in the afternoons? Hm, your guess is as good as mine. My oldest is in his second year of Kindergarten and I still haven’t really figured out what to do with him in the afternoons. Most towns will have a “Tagesschule” program where the kids can go there in non-school hours (like an after school program) but you have to be able and willing to pay for it. Lots of moms use afternoons for once a week lessons like swim class or a dance class – but somebody has to schlepp the kid there. Until just a few weeks ago Small Boy had “Turnen” – basically a gym class – one afternoon a week, but they changed the time after spring break and we can’t make it anymore. Most towns will have a soccer training for kids. It’s really up to the family to figure it all out though, and that’s kind of a drag. We’ve got a standing weekly playdate, one week at our house one week at the friend’s house, and Small Boy does hockey twice a week but it still seems like he’s got a lot of time on his hands and it doesn’t get much better in first grade and he’s at that age where kids his own age are much more interesting than me.

  15. Stephanie on August 30, 2011 12:00 pm

    This is the post that I read on this blog. Good one.

    I am a product of the Swiss system and therefore have two comments:
    – let’s remember that schooling (unfortunately) is very local. For instance it seems like you live in the German part which is harder to integrate into. But once you make a friend in the German part, it is for life: slow to warm up as they want to know if you are for real.
    – trying to compare countries is like trying to compare boyfriends, hesitating which one we will torture. Look at the end product, unlike Victor Hugo who would emphasize the journey itself.

    Lunch: not ideal. But didn’t study show how important meal times are to build a strong immune system?
    Frowning: they will be thrones with the wrinkles. Will you be friends with those ladies anyway? Probably not, therefore you should not care.
    Vacation: your schedule seems quite local, probably because you live in a rural area and the dates were supposed to mirror farming periods (in Geneva the Fall break is called “potato holidays”).

    The way I see it, parent of 3 young girls: kinds are PIA since it seems like they are having all the fun. But I keep my eyes on the long term vision. I also admire any time they interact. The few minutes (before He’ll breaks loose) where they share, play together and build a memory. Until they are at an age to make their own sandwich, we are stuck like Atlas carrying the world.

    “Und da stehe ich vor, ich armed Tor, und bin so Klug als wie zufor” (Goethe)

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