Country information for Switzerland - Systems of support and specialist provision

Development of inclusion

The integration of children and adolescents with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream school and the development of an inclusive education system is gaining importance in Switzerland. Most cantons, and frequently also communities, have developed concepts, regulations and guidelines and now offer corresponding provisions. On the federal level, the Law on Equal Rights for People with Disabilities recommends that the cantons promote integration.

The change from federal to cantonal authority at the beginning of 2008 was considered a threat to the level of provision for special needs education (SNE), but was also a chance to promote integration. Cantons have more flexibility to establish models of schooling matching their demographic and geographic structure and therefore develop more integrative forms of SNE.

Today, children with less severe SEN – pupils of the so-called ‘special classes’ – are more frequently integrated than children with more severe educational needs. Pupils with learning problems are more frequently integrated than pupils with behavioural problems. The integration of pupils from special schools is still rare, but constantly increasing. In line with other countries with a more segregated school system, parental pressure towards integration and inclusion is growing.

Generally, less densely populated areas (e.g. the canton of Valais) have, due to their geographical situation, more integrative and inclusive services than other parts of Switzerland. However, it is more difficult to provide those areas with specialists like speech therapists. Another distinctive situation is the canton of Ticino (Italian-speaking part of Switzerland). Ticino followed the Italian model of inclusion to some extent with Sostegno pedagogico, a model of teacher and pupil support in mainstream school. As a result, there is no segregation for learners with mild to moderate special needs. It is accessible for children from the age of three.

Current provision

Compulsory education lasts for 11 years in most cantons. For detailed information regarding the organisation of mainstream education services, please visit the Swiss Education Server website.

The cantons are responsible for the organisation of SNE, as they are for education in general. There are special forms of schooling for pupils who cannot meet the usual school standards, or who need special educational programmes to do so. Compulsory education also applies to pupils with visual impairments, hearing impairments, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, speech disorders and behavioural disorders.

Learning materials, such as equipment, assistive technology and pedagogical support/aids, are organised at school level for pupils without an official decision. Transport and extra-curricular activities are mostly financed at cantonal level, whereas meals are partly paid by parents and by the communities. All school buildings are expected to be accessible for any learner.

Several models are used to distribute the available resources: they are distributed according to global budgets for schools, according to the whole number of learners or according to the number of learners identified as having SEN with and without an official decision. School equipment differs from one school to another. There are schools that can cope with difficult situations, whereas others have few resources to do so.

Because of the decentralised system, provision is often non-coordinated in Switzerland. Nonetheless, this system makes it is easier to combine flexibility of support and sustainability of provision. The percentage of private organisations offering SNE is extremely high.

Early childhood intervention

Early childhood intervention in Switzerland is mostly family-based. Measures can start at birth or in the very early years, before the child starts school. Either the early intervention specialist(s) come(s) to the child’s home, or the parents bring the child to the early intervention service. They sometimes work with small groups of children. In addition, children with more severe problems can receive residential care in a specialised institution (e.g. a boarding house) temporarily or for a longer period.

There are over 100 early intervention services ensuring coverage of the whole country. Mostly, they are delivered by generalists experienced in dealing with different problems, but others specialise in certain impairments. In recent years, the number of freelance early intervention specialists has increased.

Early intervention services are in some cases privately managed (e.g. by parents’ associations), while in other cases they are managed by public bodies (e.g. local authorities or cantons).

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) for young children is based on voluntary services, such as child day-care facilities, day-care families and informal care services. As children start pre-school with different backgrounds, childcare establishments are increasingly being called upon to offer a stronger educational orientation. In urban centres in particular, there are projects specifically promoting disadvantaged children or children with a migrant background. The Swiss Network on ECEC published an orientation framework on quality in service delivery in the field of ECEC.

Compulsory schooling stage: kindergarten/nursery school, primary and secondary school

Specialised education is provided for children with special needs attending special schools and special classes linked to mainstream schools. General data from 2008–2009 is available for the whole period of compulsory education: 3.1% of the children are enrolled in special classes and 2% in special schools. New data will be available in 2017. It will reflect the impact of the transformation processes started in 2007 (Special Needs Education Agreement and HarmoS Agreement). The actual data shows a trend of an increasing inclusion rate since 2005.

There is also integrated schooling with support from a special school.

Special schools

Some children presenting developmental delays attend a special needs kindergarten class or class with special facilities. Many of these kindergartens are in the larger cities. In principle, special needs kindergartens prepare children for special schools.

In Switzerland, there are special schools for:

  • pupils with intellectual disabilities;
  • pupils with physical disabilities;
  • pupils with severe behavioural disorders;
  • pupils with hearing, speech or visual impairments;
  • chronically ill pupils (hospital schools).

The number of pupils in special schools has increased over the last two to three years.

Special classes

The provision of SNE is linked to mainstream schooling. The classes are in the same building as mainstream classes and under the same administration. There are

  • smaller classes at primary level (generally no more than 14 pupils, adapted curriculum)
  • practical classes at the lower-secondary level (practical activities, orientation, reduced curriculum).

(Note: Until 2004, the number of pupils in special classes increased year on year).

These classes consist of a substantial proportion of pupils with behavioural problems and pupils with learning difficulties. Since 2005, however, the number of pupils in special classes has diminished considerably.

About a third of the pupils in these classes are girls, while the proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities is higher than those of Swiss nationality (2007–2008).

Integrated schooling

Children and young people with special needs who are integrated into mainstream schooling may be supervised by a support teacher who is involved in the class for a certain number of hours, depending on a pupil’s needs. At kindergarten, in certain cantons, children may continue to benefit from early intervention measures. In such cases, they are supervised by an early intervention specialist, who is mainly involved in the child’s family environment but also makes occasional visits to the kindergarten. Collaboration between the class teacher and the support staff takes different forms, such as team teaching, regular meetings and shared educational plans. Integration into mainstream schooling is governed first and foremost by the legal provisions in force in a particular canton.

Integrated schooling is still rare for pupils with severe disabilities. However, integration, rather than attendance at a special school, is the preferred alternative for pupils with less severe disabilities.

(Note: In integrated schooling, the pupil has either an individual education programme for all disciplines or for 1 or 2 disciplines only).

Individual measures: Children with SEN who are integrated into mainstream schools also benefit from individual special education provisions. These provisions are delivered by visiting services, mostly in integrative settings within mainstream schools. The most frequently used provisions are counselling and educational support (when a pupil is first integrated), speech therapy, psycho-motor therapy and early intervention.

When locally available resources, i.e. ordinary individual measures, are insufficient, additional resources for training and education must be provided. These are known as enhanced individual measures. They differ from ordinary measures in that:

  • They are of long duration.
  • They are more intense.
  • The teachers are more specialised.
  • They have significant consequences for the child or young person’s daily life, social environment and life path.

Transition period

Compared with special education at the primary and lower-secondary levels (International Standard Classification of Education – ISCED 1 and 2), preparation for vocational activities and the vocational training of young people with disabilities are less well developed. Opportunities for further training and employment depend very much on the nature of a person’s disability.

The legislation governing occupational training (Vocational Education Act – BBG, of 1 January 2004) gives young people encountering difficulties at school and in subsequent training the opportunity to undertake two years of initial vocational training and receive a Swiss Federal Certificate in a number of trades.

There are other provisions for young people who are unable to meet the requirements of Swiss Federal certification, for example practical training under the INSOS (national association of institutions for people with disabilities) regulations.

Careers/occupational guidance

In all cases, the cantonal agencies providing occupational guidance, and in certain cases the Swiss federal disability agencies for occupational advisories, represent the best resources for occupational choice. The Swiss cantonal disability insurance offices (Federal Disability Insurance Law – IVG, Art. 57d) provide occupational guidance for people with disabilities.

Pupils with SEN attending higher schools are mostly affected by physical disabilities. They are normally integrated into mainstream schools.

History of special education in Switzerland

The first school for pupils with visual impairment opened in Zurich in 1810. The first school for pupils with hearing impairment opened in Yverdon in 1811. The first school for pupils with learning difficulties opened in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1882.

The establishment of the Disability Insurance Law (1960) facilitated the development of schools with special curricula. By 2008, special education was a complete part of the education system.

For over 40 years, early childhood special education (early intervention), speech therapy and psychomotor therapy have provided home or centre-based support to children with disabilities or developmental delays, limitations or risks and to their families from birth to up to two years after starting school. These early interventions had been financed by the federal disability insurance (educational and therapeutic measures) to prepare the child for primary school. Now, they are all integrated into the missions of public education and funded by the cantons or the communes.

Quality indicators for special needs education

The revision of the financing system has changed. There will no longer be national financing and therefore no national standards can be linked to financial support. A new system of quality assurance with corresponding indicators has to be developed at national level to replace the functions of the federal disability insurance and ensure equity in SNE across cantons.

Three bodies provide information on the quality of early childhood education provision. The Swiss Coordination Centre for Research in Education (SKBF) collates information about educational research throughout Switzerland. It is mandated to monitor the development of education provision. The Swiss Institute for Special Needs Education (SZH) carries out tasks in the field of SNE, such as collating documentation and information concerning SNE programmes and advising the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education and the cantons on all questions relating to specialised pedagogy. The Federal Statistical Office (FSO) collects a wide range of data on the Swiss education system.


Last updated 12/03/2018

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