If you are planning on staying more than a year or if the starting fees for international schools of CHF 20,000 a year are out of your budget, you may want to consider going local.
The St.Gallen city authorities support non-German speaking children by providing free ‘Integration Classes’. These are available at three designated schools from Primary level upwards. The schools are Riethüsli, Lachen and Spelterini. These three schools cater for all children residing within the city limits whose German level is below that required for regular class. Once a child is assessed as being good enough at German, they will be transferred to your local school, but with additional teaching support (ISF teacher).
Which school will you be allocated to?
St.Gallen runs a catchment system where you have to live in the local area of a primary school to be able to attend. If you live in a different catchment area from these three schools you will have almost no influence over which school your child is sent to and it will not necessarily be the closest. If you live in the are of one of these schools, it will be likely that you child goes there, but not guaranteed.
For how long?
There is no minimum or maximum length of time that your child will go to Integration Class. It depends on how quickly they learn German (which may be age related) and on the time of year. It is normal to wait until the start of a new year to transfer children. I have heard of anything from 6 months to 2 years in Integration Class.
School is compulsory for all children from the age of 3 (yes even for us foreigners!). Integration Classes only start from the age of 5 – year 1 of primary. Kindergarten level children are expected to go to the local Kindergarten (again based on catchment area) where they are educated entirely in Swiss German and are expected to pick up the language. After Kindergarten, they may or may not be sent to Integration Class depending on the teacher’s (and possibly the city’s child psychiatrist’s) assessment.
Ask the school for recommendations for help. There are many ISF teachers around who are often willing to provide additional language support for very reasonable rates at lunch and after school.
Outside the city?
Beware! Outside the city limits is a wild and unforgiving place ;-). Seriously though, this is very hit and miss. Each village and town will have a slightly different system depending on how many foreigners they have and how big and well organised the schools are. Some will simply have no support at all. They are regulated by the Kanton and not the city and the support is not as reliable.
First choose which school you want your child to go to longterm. Not all schools are equal in quality (in spite of what locals may tell you!), so plan the school before you get your accommodation. Then contact the headmaster who will refer you to the city authorities for support in getting into Integration Class. After about a year of commuting, you will then have a nice local school ready for your child.
My kids followed this system in different ways are now relatively well adapted, settled and integrated. Most importantly, they have lots of friends locally and know their way round…