Much more than a finishing touch

Boarding schools in Switzerland offer top-drawer preparation for university plus an entrée to the highest of high society. And – shhh – they are oh so discreet, as Eric Johnson discovers

Picture a matron, in twinset and pearls, showing a young aristocrat how to fold a napkin or what fork to use for which course. Such was the image of private education in Switzerland, which counted the late Princess Diana and current Duchess of Cornwall among its students.

But the image is sorely dated. Over the past few decades, nearly all these academies of etiquette have closed. Finishing schools are finished, left behind by university-preps that can hold their own against the best of British.

Not least because a number of the latter are patterned after British public schools. Save for their alp-studded backdrops, St George’s School in Montreux or nearby Aiglon College, for instance, wouldn’t seem amiss in the mid-England shires. Like many a public school, the Swiss versions emphasise small classes, individual attention and plenty of character-building sport, with mountaineering and skiing usually supplementing the conventional sporting curriculum. A number of them provide UK-oriented qualifications, awarding GCSEs and preparing students for Oxbridge.

But Swiss schools are not just an Anglo-Saxon transplant. They are far more international. Whereas boarders in the UK are about 80 per cent British and 20 per cent from overseas, the Swiss mix is reversed at 20 per cent local and 80 per cent foreign, with students from Britain, France, Germany, plus a smattering of Americans, Russians and everybody else, according to the Swiss Federation of Private Schools.

Finishing schools are finished, left behind by university-preps that can hold their own against the best of British

English dominates instruction, followed by French and German. Yet other languages ring the halls; pupils unavoidably meet a huge range of cultures and attitudes. They usually come away fluent in French, possibly German and perhaps other tongues as well.

Qualifications offered vary by institution, but in general, Swiss school-leavers can aim to enter most Western-style universities. In addition to GCSEs, a number of schools confer the Swiss Matura, the German Abitur, plus both the French and the international versions of the Baccalaureate. High performance is possible and in most cases expected.

Where stereotype still fits is in the scenery. Most campuses are ensconced, James Bond-style, in the Alps. The rest nestle in park-like cityscapes. Rooms, furnishings, food, facilities tend to be, well, Swiss – often a touch understated, always of highest quality.

This suits the finances of most pupils. A Swiss boarder hall of fame, if there were one, would count numerous progeny of royalty, from the ruling-family type – think Borghese, Hohenzollern, Metternich or Radziwill – to the rock-star type – including Sean, son of former Beatle John Lennon. Alongside are plenty of well-heeled heavyweights. Alumni include a former and a current US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, model and former First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, MIT Media Lab founder Nicolas Negroponte, not to mention North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

The list goes on, but often under the radar as Swiss boarding schools earn the modifier “private”. Some of the children attend under an alias; paparazzi and gossip are strictly verboten. Relatively speaking, most campuses are egalitarian, in that children of billionaires and rulers – those of the 0.01 per cent – mix with and follow the same routines as the offspring of the 1 per cent.

Finding a boarding school in Switzerland is easier than it might sound. Although the Swiss Federation of Private Schools reports 260 members educating 100,000 students, this mainly consists of business colleges, vocational institutes and alternative learning, such as Montessori or Steiner, serving Swiss nationals. Classic boarding schools number only about 25 to 30 in total.

Narrowing down to the right one involves two basic choices. First, does the course align to the country where the pupil intends to continue in university? Then the region? The main ones are French-speaking Geneva and Lausanne, with places such as College du Leman and Le Rosey; deep in the French-speaking Alps, for instance Le Campvs Sion and La Garenne; equally deep in the German-speaking Alps, say Engelberg, Ftan or Zuoz; and southwards in Italian-speaking Lugano, with its American School.

Prices are expensive to very expensive, with annual fees ranging from £20,000 to £80,000. Stipends are available, but only to truly needy families. Middle-class Brits are unlikely to qualify.