The German School System

Updated on
October 15, 2022

The German school system requires that all children attend school for at least 10 years. After four years at primary school, pupils are directed to a particular type of secondary school, depending on their abilities.

The system is frequently criticised for inflexibility because of its emphasis on attainment, and for determining a child's future too soon because of the various types of secondary school. Parents thinking of sending their children to school in Germany should be aware of its system, as well as how the choice of their children's schools may affect their future.

Nursery school

A German nursery school (Kindergarten) is not free, although attendance is voluntary. Nurseries are heavily oversubscribed in some parts of western Germany, resulting in long waiting lists. It is common for parents to ensure a nursery place for their children by putting their names down at birth.

Nursery school generally lasts for the morning, although all-day attendance is possible in cases where both parents work. (Fees are higher in such circumstances.) They operate from Monday to Friday, although some nursery schools cater for children whose parents work shifts or at weekends. Kinderkrippen, nurseries for under-threes, run along similar lines in some cities.

Although sending children to nursery is useful in getting them used to living in Germany, be aware that it is common for all children – whether three or six years old – play in a whole-school group without any division.

Primary school

Primary school, or Grundschule, starts around the age of six, though this can vary by a few months either way. On a child's first day at primary school, it is common to give them a Schultüte (bag of sweets) to mark the importance of the day.

Depending on children's ages, they will study for between 20 and 30 hours each week at primary school. Schooling usually takes four years, and after this teachers will recommend to parents which secondary school they believe is most suitable. In coming to their conclusion, teachers will take into account how well the child has done academically, as well as their other interests and abilities. Children with learning difficulties may be recommended for a Sonderschule (special school).

Secondary school

After finishing primary school, children usually progress to secondary edcuation in one of three kinds of school:

Hauptschule (up to Year 10)

These offer a vocational education, working towards the Hauptschulabschluss qualification. Children unsuited to a more academic education are catered for at these schools. After completing their schooling, they will usually take up an apprenticeship (Lehre) in a particular manual trade. Some students will continue to study on a part-time basis at a Berufsschule (vocational school).

Realschule (up to Year 10)

These schools, where students study for a Realschulabschuss, are geared towards those who are suited to a broader range of studies. This is the most usual type of secondary school for students going into the medical profession or aiming for an apprenticeship in a non-manual trade. There is considerable emphasis on language and mathematical skills.

Gymnasium (up to Year 12 or 13)

These schools are intended for students who plan on entering higher education; the Abitur qualification they offer is required in order to enroll at a university. Gymnasium education is academically rigorous, and students can expect considerable amounts of homework on top of their 32 to 40 hours of timetabled lessons each week.

In certain states, the German school system may also offer the option of going to a Gesamtschule (comprehensive school). In these areas, all children attend the same school, but each student's abilities will determine how they are taught within the school. After completing Year 10, students can choose to leave school and start an apprenticeship. Alternatively, if their academic performance has been good enough, they can stay on for another three years to gain an Abitur.

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