ESL situation in Switzerland

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Manja Veldin , Maša Vidmar

Switzerland does not provide an official definition of ESLers, although the rate reported by Eurostat is low. The issue of ESL is typically embedded in the context of national programmes and initiatives tackling poverty, risk groups, employability etc. This approach importantly contributes to success in preventing and tackling ESL. Multi-agency partnerships at the local/institutional level are well established.

Keywords : ESL statistics 

Since Switzerland is not an EU member state it officially does not follow the Europe 2020 targets nor has it set any national quantitative target in this area. However, in one national education document the objective is stated as 95% of the population aged below 25 years being an upper secondary graduate (EDI/EVD/EDK, 2011). According to Eurostat data, in 2016 Switzerland’s ESL rate was 4.8%. It has been decreasing in the last 7 years and has always been below the Europe 2020 target ESL rate of 10%. However, large discrepancies between the ESL rate among foreign-born and native-born remain. Even though Switzerland does not have a comprehensive strategy to tackle ESL, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) plays a leading role in addressing ESL. Typically, ESL is not addressed as a separate or specific issue, but given attention in the context of tackling poverty, supporting students from risk groups, providing attractive VET, providing quality career education and guidance, providing time out of school for students, giving guidelines on how to support the personal, emotional and social development of students (e.g. a national programme to tackle poverty, temporary and alternative optional courses, the Inter-institutional Cooperation programme, Time-out, VET Case Management etc.). Moreover, Switzerland features strong multi-sectoral involvement and cooperation. Multi-agency partnerships at thelocal and/or institutional level are well established (not dealing specifically with ESL; including teachers, school heads, guidance specialists, psychologists, social workers etc.). In this context, the value of educational alliances is recognised. Vocational education and training holds a very high status in Switzerland so most young people enrol in it, also helping to deliver high rates of overall completion. Yet this remains a challenge in the context of large social inequalities in programme participation and access to university and the professions.


The Swiss education system is characterised by multilingualism (Eurydice, n.d.), federalism and decentralisation based on the principle of subsidiarity (Pagnossin, 2011). There are four different languages of instruction (German, French, Italian or Romansh) with the language depending on the region. In the decentralised education system, the main responsibility for education lies within the 26 Cantons (states), which are fully responsible for compulsory education and share responsibilities with the Federal Government for post-compulsory education (including general education schools, vocational and professional education and training (VET) and universities). There is no free choice of school in compulsory education and 95% of all children attend public schools in their local municipality that are free of charge. There is no national curriculum so each Canton is responsible for the curriculum and obliged by the Federal Constitution to coordinate and harmonise its education system regarding the structure and objectives. Decentralisation of the system is also reflected in the fact that the Cantons and their municipalities finance the majority of public expenditure on education (90%) (Eurydice, n.d.).

In relation to the ESL issue, the situation is somewhat specific because Switzerland is not a member of the EU so it does not follow the Europe 2020 targets. Thus, ESL as a separate and specific topic has received considerably less attention than in EU member states. Yet in Switzerland ESL is embedded in the wider context of tackling poverty, risk groups, employability etc. The aim of this article is to describe the state of affairs and current trends regarding ESL in Switzerland, to shed light on the context in which experiments within the TITA project take place, thus guiding the interpretation and generalisation of the findings. At the beginning, we present some characteristics of the Swiss education system relevant to ESL (compulsory education, transitions, grade-retention options, education and career guidance etc.), followed by statistics on the level of ESL in Switzerland and ways of dealing with ESL (usually in the broader context of addressing other issues and not specifically ESL).


We draw information for this article from documents and reports available online (prepared by Switzerland’s local governments or institutions), European documents, Eurostat, ministerial documents on ESL and others. A search for scientific articles was conducted using the key words “Switzerland”, “Swiss”, “early school leaving”, “early school leaver” and “drop-out’ in the EBSCOhost database, resulting in very few hits. A search was also conducted using the backward procedure.

Some relevant characteristics of Swiss education system

Education in Switzerland is compulsory between the ages of 4 and 15 in most cantons (in a few at age 5 or 6; EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Eurostat, 2014). This period includes three transitions: from 2 years in kindergarten or pre-school (Kindergarten / école enfantine / scuola dell’infanzia, 4–6 years) to 6 years in primary school (Primarschule / école primaire / scuola elementare, 6–12 years) and 3 years at lower secondary level (Sekundarstufe I / secondaire I / scuola media, 12–15 years) (Eurydice, 2016). The division of years on various levels varies in some cantons (Eurydice, n.d.). At lower secondary level there is also 1 year in Gymnasiale Maturitätsshuln / écoles de maturité / scuole di maturità that lasts from 14–15 years of age, and changes into upper secondary level at 15 years of age and lasts up to 18/19 years of age.

At upper secondary level one can also find Brückenangebote /offres transitoire / formazioni transitorie (15–16 years of age), and Fachmittelschulen / écoles de culture génerale / scuole specializzate (15–18 years of age) that transit into Fachmaturität / maturité spécialisée / maturità specializzata (18–19 years of age) and one of the vocational programmes Berufsmaturität / maturité professionnelle - maturità professionale (15–20 years of age) (Eurydice, 2016). There are various ECEC facilities and services (Kindertagesstätten / crèches / nidi d’infanzia – daycare centres; and Tagesfamilien / familles de jour / famiglie diurne) for which there is no legal entitlement to place a child in if under the age of four (Eurydice, n.d.) while the last 2 years of pre-primary education are compulsory (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Eurostat, 2014). However, in 2011 Switzerland only had 78.7% of children between the age 4 and the start of compulsory primary education enrolled in ECEC (ibid.). In 19 cantons (out of 26), attendance in pre-primary education is compulsory and lasts 1 or 2 years, depending on the canton. Where pre-primary education is not compulsory, children from the age of 4 and 5 are legally entitled to a publicly subsidised place (ibid.).

Tracking begins in lower secondary education, where teaching is realised at different performance levels (Eurydice, n.d.). Students are separated at the end of primary school into different schools and programmes based on interest, aptitudes and formal selection (Lamb, 2011). For most children (structures are not the same across the cantons), selection (made on teachers’ decisions that are mainly based on school marks) starts at the lower secondary level, when they are 11–12 years old, according to the requirements of the track in which they are allowed to enrol (Pagnossin, 2011). The upper secondary level is divided into a vocational track and an academic track. Vocational education is either provided by full-time vocational schools or is organised in the so-called Dual System as apprenticeship programmes (that combine school-based education and work-based learning) (Forsblom, Negrini, Gurtner & Schumann, 2016). Pupils can skip or repeat a year; both measures depend on a pupil’s development status and performance (Wolter et al., 2014). According to the OECD’s 2012 PISA data, the proportion of students in Switzerland reporting they had repeated a grade in primary, lower secondary or upper secondary school is around 20% (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014).

Switzerland does not provide career education and guidance in primary education (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). In lower secondary general education, it is a compulsory part of the curriculum and provided in the classroom (mostly by teachers without specific training and rarely by those specially trained for guidance) and every canton is free to decide on how such guidance is delivered. In upper secondary general education, career guidance and education is only provided by specialist external guidance services, which have a permanent office in most schools of French-speaking Switzerland. Recent reforms have reinforced and organised career education and guidance in secondary lower education by including it in more specific modules instead of teaching it as a cross-curricular topic only (ibid.).

ESL statistics in Switzerland

There is no official definition of ESL in Switzerland (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). However, in the 2011 Common Education Policy objectives for the Swiss Education Area (Taking optimal advantage of opportunities – Chancen optimal nutzen/Valor sation optimale des chances), the concept used is “early leavers from education and training”, which applies to students who leave school without having completed upper secondary education (EDI/EVD/EDK, 2011). In contrast to the Eurostat definition (early school leaver refers to someone aged 18 to 24 who has completed at most lower secondary education and is not involved in further education or training (Eurostat, n.d.)), in Switzerland persons without an upper secondary qualification and only studying in non-formal education are also called early leavers (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014).

According to Eurostat data, Switzerland’s ESL rate in 2016 was 4.8% and has been decreasing in the last 7 years (it was 9.1% in 2009) (see Figure 1). There is no significant difference in the shares of male and female ESLers (8.8% male and 9.4% female in 2009; 4.6% male and 4.9% female in 2016) (Eurostat, 2017b). As such, Switzerland is one of the few countries in which the difference in gender rates is less than 1.0 percentage point (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014) and, despite this small difference, also one of the few countries where the percentage of ESLers is higher in the female population.

As Figure 1 shows, the rate has always been below the Europe 2020 target of 10% (at least since 1996). Although Switzerland does not follow the Europe 2020 targets and therefore does not set any national quantitative target within this framework, its objective is set at 95% of upper secondary graduates among the population aged below 25 years (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014) in the national document (“Chancen optimal nutzen”; EDI/EVD/EDK, 2011). In 2005, the proportion of young Swiss who obtained a qualification at the end of post-compulsory education was 89% (Pagnossin, 2011).

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Figure 1. Switzerland: time trend of share of the population aged 18-24 with at most a lower secondary education and not in further education or training (Eurostat, 2017a).
Note: The indicator is defined as the percentage of the population aged 18-24 with at most a lower secondary education and who were not in further education or training during the last four weeks preceding the survey. Lower secondary education refers to ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) 2011 level 0-2 for data from 2014 onwards and to ISCED 1997 level 0-3C short for data up to 2013. The indicator is based on the EU Labour Force Survey. In 2003 and 2014, Switzerland changed its methodology.

As a noticeable trend in the EU-28, the share of ESLers is higher for foreign-born versus native-born in Switzerland (in 2016: EU 19.7% versus 9.8% and in Switzerland 12.2% versus 3.2%) for the last 10 years (Eurostat, n.d.). The main factors determining difficulties for children while making transitions relate to their socio-economic status and immigrant background (Stamm et al., 2009; in PPMI, 2014). Switzerland has one of the highest rates of children with a foreign background (children with foreign citizenship or foreign-born children) (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Eurostat, 2014). However, it is important to distinguish the ethnic origin of different minority students; for instance, Tamil students in Switzerland are the most engaged group of immigrant students at school and therefore the least at risk of school dropout (Makarova & Herzog, 2013).

Insight into tackling the ESL issue

ESL and ESLers are not officially defined in Switzerland nor is the issue comprehensively addressed at the national level (there is no comprehensive strategy to tackle ESL) – at least not as a separate issue (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). There is no official coordinating body in Switzerland, but in practice the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) plays the pivotal role in addressing ESL (ibid.). Some authors state that in Switzerland policies contain an explicit requirement to reduce ESL (Juhász, 2015). Moreover, the issue is addressed in the context of tackling poverty, dealing with risk groups, and increasing employability. Some of these initiatives and programmes are presented below.

Since 2010, the Confederation and the cantons have been jointly monitoring the Swiss education system. The Confederation, cantons and communities aim to reduce institutional barriers between levels of government through the political platform Tripartite Agglomerationskonferenz / Conférence tripartite sur les agglomérations (TAK/CTA) that has published several recommendations for the education area, of which some are also relevant to tackling ESL. The confederation launched the National programme to tackle poverty (Nationales Programm zur Bekämpfung von Armut/programme national de lutte contre la Pauvreté) that also focuses on areas touching on ESL (early childhood education and care; support for students to and during vocational education/training; second-chance education). There is also a focus on statistical data that should help better identify groups at risk (of ESL). Specific targeted measures for groups at risk focus on students who are socially disadvantaged, have a migrant background or special educational needs (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Moreover, they have structures called MATAS – temporary and alternative optional courses. These are “parentheses” structures, meaning they entail a transition and aim to reintegrate young people into the mainstream system. They belong to a study path, by teaching the principle of compensation they readjust the youth to academic standards so that they return to the school system (Thibert, 2013).

Multi-sectoral involvement and cooperation on the governmental level – both horizontal (different sectors) and vertical (central, regional, local levels) – are essential for addressing ESL and the Inter-institutional cooperation programme (Interinstitutionelle Zusammenarbeit / Collaboration interinstitutionnelle – IIZ/CII) is a form of such cooperation. It is a tool used to help re-integrate people into the education system or labour market. It aims to develop inter-institutional cooperation and define formal and informal models of collaboration between institutions that are active in different fields (social affairs, education, employment, health etc.). For instance, in the canton of Valais, which is participating in the TITA project, inter-institutional cooperation has been developed among local employment offices, social assistance offices, invalidity insurance, centres for vocational guidance, regional medical services, accident insurance and centres for drug addiction (Duell, Tergeist, Bazant, & Cimper, 2010). Switzerland has a clear requirement in its policies to reduce early leaving, which sees mechanisms being put in place to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the cooperation between the parties involved in tackling early leaving. The policy areas of education and employment enjoy a tradition of cooperation; youth, social affairs, family and justice also cooperate within projects. Multi-agency partnerships at the local/institutional level are well established and include teachers, school heads, guidance specialists, psychologists, social workers, youth workers, speech and language specialists (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). There are individualising structures: small classes, available teachers, unexpected changes in activity, different curricula, therapists and external people, who aim to restore the individual (taking their needs into account) and to restore teaching (with a range of people stepping in and various subjects). Resorting to alternative teaching is frequent (cooperative, differentiated, individualised, active etc.). These structures are based on educational alliances (teachers of different subjects, guidance advisors, therapists, special needs teachers, vocational and social tutors, educators, psychologists etc.), but do not mention partnership with the outside world much, except for parents and training schools or companies (Tièche-Christinat et al., 2012; in Thibert, 2013). Allenbach (2014) examined educational alliances in Switzerland by interviewing professionals already involved in such collaborative practices (specialist teachers, psychologists, nurses, meditators, speech therapists and psycho-moto therapists). He concluded that the concept of alliance is crucial for understanding certain subtle and delicate dimensions of the collaborative work and to identify the conditions needed for such practice to develop.

Compensation national measures, so-called Time-out interventions, are being implemented in ever more cantons (having started in 2001). Students are excluded from school for up to three months to attend projects that provide them with educational and pastoral support from craftsmen, social workers and/or special educators. The aim of these projects is to reintegrate young people back into school, either their existing school or a new one (Kendall and Kinder, 2005). Two guidebooks called “Clés pour l’adolescence” (Keys for teens) and “Clés pour l’action” (Keys for taking steps) that were published in Switzerland tested tools for preventing ESL aimed at students, teachers and parents. These guides allow students and teachers to work on self-confidence, the classroom climate, communication and active listening. As a tool of personal development for youth, it is mostly used when they move from primary to secondary school and it also intends to attract parents to school (Thibert, 2013).

Career education and guidance is explicitly considered as a prevention, intervention and compensation measure for tackling ESL (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Each canton in Switzerland has its own regulations on career education and guidance. Guidance is reinforced during the transition from lower to upper secondary education or at the end of compulsory education to encourage and motivate education beyond the compulsory stage. Accordingly, the early tracking and streaming of students into different educational paths takes place at the end of primary education, making supporting transitions by providing guidance quite critical in the Swiss education system. As a rule, this guidance includes close collaboration with external specialised centres for vocational and career guidance. (ibid.). Bauer and Riphahn (2006) examined cantonal variations in the age of tracking in interaction with parental education and showed that late tracking reduces the relative advantage of privileged children.

In Switzerland, the vocational route has a high status and is fully integrated with specific enterprises, whereby the close links between the training provider and the enterprise help to retain more young people. One key factor identified for helping young people to find appropriate opportunities to stay in education and training is the variety of vocational schools, intermediate and technical vocational schools, pre-vocational schools, transition and access courses leading to apprentice training (Kendall & Kinder, 2005). At the end of compulsory education, the majority (more than 70%) of Swiss young people attend vocational training (Pagnossin, 2011). Thus, only a minority of students (around 20%) pursue academic studies while the majority pursue and complete technical training or vocational qualifications, helping to deliver high rates of overall completion. While high rates are achieved, this occurs in the context of large social inequalities in programme participation and access to university and the professions (Lamb, 2011). Switzerland has a wide range of measures for improving the quality and attractiveness of its vocational education and training (VET) programmes. The VET Case Management programme is a specific measure, a national project (2008–2015) legally backed in the federal law on VET and implemented in all cantons. It identifies vulnerable young people at an early stage and supports them in a coordinated and structured way. Specialists help them enter vocational education during their education and/or when they should enter the labour market. This project is an example of IIZ coordination that demands a multi-agency approach (education, social affairs and employment (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). The transitional programmes provide a pathway for young people who cannot obtain an apprenticeship due to conditions in the job market and the lack of opportunities provided by employers. For two-thirds to three-quarters of young people in this situation, this results in them going back to school or getting an apprenticeship (Polesel, Nizińska & Kurantowicz, 2011). Motivation Semesters is a labour market programme specially designed for unemployed young people. It offers them a fixed six-month structure that allows them to choose their vocational pathways. In the federal law on VET there is also an option for adults that gives them a second chance to attain a VET certificate (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014).


Although that Switzerland is not an EU member state and is not included in the Europe 2020 framework and the issue of ESL has a relatively low profile in the national context, a more in-depth insight shows that ESL and related phenomena are actually being considered. The fact there is a national education document (EDI/EVD/EDK, 2011) which establishes the objective of 95% of the population aged below 25 years being an upper secondary graduate is indicative. ESL is typically not addressed as a separate or specific issue, but given attention in the context of tackling poverty, supporting students from risk groups, providing attractive VET, giving quality career education and guidance, providing time out of school for students, establishing guidelines on how to the support personal, emotional and social development of students. Moreover, multi-agency partnerships at the local/school level (not dealing specifically with ESL) and the value of educational alliances are seen as important.

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