Germany's school system 101: Prepare for the mind-boggling

The ABC's of the German public school system

From toddler to teenager

Children in Germany can attend kindergarten for years, until they turn 6. School attendance is then compulsory (Schulpflicht) from ages 6 to 15, or from grades 1 through 9 or 10, regardless of the type of school. That places a ban on homeschooling, except in rare cases, such as severe illness.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Primary school

Kids kick off their first day of school with a special cone of sweets, and then things get a bit more serious. Matters of public education are regulated by each of the 16 German states, not the federal government. In most states, children attend primary school for only four years. In Berlin, they generally attend six years before moving on to the "weiterführende Schule," or secondary school.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Teacher's recommendation

Before moving on to secondary school, children receive a recommendation from their primary school teacher about which type of school could be appropriate. The recommendation states if a child is considered fit for Gymnasium, or rather another type of school. Currently, in North Rhine-Westphalia, parents may override that recommendation and choose a different school.

The ABC's of the German public school system


An academically-oriented type of secondary school, it prepares kids to enter university. To do so, they first have to complete their Hochschulreife (higher education entrance qualification, or A-levels) or Abitur diploma after grade 12 or 13. The curriculum includes everything from math and sciences, to languages, art and music, social studies, philosophy and sports.

The ABC's of the German public school system


Students at the Realschule (grades 5-10 in most states) take most of the same classes as at Gymnasium, but with varying foreign language requirements, among other things. The Realschule often aims to prepare students for attending a technical or business school. Pupils who do well may choose to work toward their Abitur, but must then switch to a Gymnasium or Gesamtschule.

The ABC's of the German public school system


The Hauptschule teaches most of the same subjects as the other high schools, but at a slower pace. It offers vocational-oriented courses, with the goal of enrollment in a trade school and apprenticeship training. After graduation, good students can work toward a Realschule diploma or qualify to attend a Gesamtschule or Gymnasium to receive their Abitur.

The ABC's of the German public school system


The 1960s and 70s saw the boom of the Gesamtschule, an alternative to the three-tiered system. Comprehensive and heterogeneous in nature, it integrates the Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule tracks into one school. Students can go the academic route, working toward their Abitur in grade 13. Or they can opt for the vocational vein, graduating after 9th or 10th grade to attend a trade school.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Increased popularity

In recent years, Gesamtschulen have experienced even more popularity, with bigger cities in particular lacking spots for those who apply. In 2018, the city of Cologne (pop. around one million) had to turn down some 1,000 students who wanted to attend a Gesamtschule. The appeal could be due to longer school days as well as the comprehensive learning possibilities.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Switching tracks

Students may need to switch tracks. If a student struggles during a two-year "trial period" of 5th and 6th grade at a Gymnasium, teachers may recommend transferring to a Realschule or Hauptschule. Entering a comprehensive Gesamtschule is often difficult at that point because spots are scarce. High achievers at other schools may be able to transfer to a Gymnasium if they fulfill requirements.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Different states, different names and models

Some states do not have a multi-tiered system, but a two-tiered one, like Saxony. Following four years of grade school, students attend either the Oberschule (which combines the Haupt- and Realschulen) or Gymnasium. In Bavaria, secondary students go to a Mittelschule, Realschule or Gymnasium. Some states offer the comprehensive Gemeinschaftsschule, a variation of the Gesamtschule.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Vocational schools

Following Hauptschule or Realschule, Berufsschulen (vocational schools) mix academic study with hands-on learning through apprenticeship. Successful completion leads to certification in a special trade or field. These schools often cooperate with companies and trade unions to offer students training.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Learning together

Children with special needs may attend either a Förderschule or a Sonderschule to learn in a setting geared to their needs. But critics say this sets them apart from the mainstream. Some primary and secondary schools integrate kids with special needs into classes for "shared" or inclusive learning.

The ABC's of the German public school system

School days vary

School days differ markedly in length, with lessons sometimes ending at 12 or 1 p.m. or at 3 or 4 p.m. on other days, making it tough on working parents, especially single parents, to be at home for their kids after school. Some schools offer all-day programs where kids can stay after lessons and do their homework or participate in activities.

The ABC's of the German public school system

Finding the right fit

Germany has a range of private schools, including Waldorf, Montessori, international, denominational and boarding schools, but the vast majority of kids attend public schools.

Virtually every parent wants what's best for their child's education. But choosing a secondary school is tricky business in Germany, as DW's Louisa Schaefer personally experienced. Here's everything you need to know.

You'd think signing your child up for a secondary school shouldn't be that tough. You fill out a few papers, sign them, and turn them in. But nope, in Germany, it's no walk in the park.

My friends from abroad and I, coming from the US, sometimes poke fun at the Germans and their notorious bureaucracy. "Why make things easy when you can make them complicated?" we muse about them. The same applies to the extensive educational system. In fact, an Australian friend recently quipped: "You need a PhD to understand the German public school system."

Too much, too soon

Educational systems and types of schools vary widely among Germany's 16 states, as they — and not the federal government — are responsible for education laws.

Still, some generalizations can be made. In most German states, your child moves on from primary to secondary school (called "weiterführende Schule" in German) beginning in the fifth grade; Berlin and Brandenburg are exceptions, allowing that to happen two years later. 

That means that during fourth grade, you spend a great deal of time contemplating where to later send your kid.

Children attend primary school for four years in most German states

Prepare for a breathless odyssey from September through February during that school year. You spend most of the fall and pre-Christmas season rushing around in the endeavor to find the right school.

You spend most Saturdays visiting a range of schools in an "open house" kind of setting where the schools show themselves off, you and your kid sit in on classes, tour schoolrooms and talk to teachers and pupils to see whether it's a good fit. It's time-consuming and overwhelming, slightly akin to entering the supermarket and being confronted with row after row of salad dressing, making you want to turn on your heel and run right back out of the building because there are just too many choices.

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The German education system

You then fret through the holidays and deliberate through the January doldrums about the schools. Then, at the beginning of February, mid-year report cards come out and with them, the recommendation from the teacher about which type of school could be best for your child. You have to make your decision and sign up in the hope of reaping a spot.

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A hierarchical system

Many Germans may not admit it, but the school system is rather hierarchical and based on tracking pupils. In our state of North Rhine-Westphalia, it generally boils down to a three-tiered system mainly consisting of Gymnasium for bright, well-heeled students headed to college, Realschule for more intermediate students who may or may not aim for white-collar jobs, and Hauptschule for the more vocationally-minded. There are also alternative forms of public schools, like the comprehensive Gesamtschule and Gemeinschaftsschule.  

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Most parents in Germany, if they are honest with themselves, would admit that they are both proud and relieved when their kid receives a teacher's recommendation for Gymnasium.

Kids get recommendations from their teachers about which type of school would be best for them

For my part, I find fourth grade to be quite early to be tracking students. My daughter did receive the Gymnasium recommendation from her teacher, but that doesn't mean I think she should be starting there in fifth grade.

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An early switch

She currently attends a fairy tale-like primary school in the suburbs of Cologne. When I pick her and her brother up, they are often out perusing the petunias or engrossed in play somewhere in the massive, tree-covered schoolyard. Sheep and chickens actually graze the grounds, and wander into the buildings at times. The children run around freely during recess. They also cultivate compassion skills by learning to help kids with special needs who are integrated into their classes. And this, in a public school on the edge of a big city.

Granted, it is an exception. But who wouldn't want to keep their kid there at the tender age of 10? Why she should be thrown into a crowd of 15- and 16-year-olds already next year? I grew up in the US, where we'd progressively go through middle school (grades 6 through 8), junior high (grades 7 and 8), before moving on to high school (grades 9 through 12). 

Or why can't she stay in grade school for six years, like they generally do in Berlin? Or in many other countries in the world?

Primary school isn't only about reading, writing, and arithmetic: It's also about play

"In fourth grade, they still want to play, not worry about the next school they should go to," my daughter's teacher told me, relaying a conversation she's had many times with her teacher colleagues.

The Frankfurt-based teachers' union Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW) agrees. "It is just too early to be making decisions about the possible course of education for many 9-and-a-half year-olds," GEW told the Welt newspaper.

"Brandenburg and Berlin use the six-year primary school form because it allows kids to stay and learn together for a longer period of time," said Beate Stoffers, press secretary at the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Youth and Family. But even in Berlin, some students can attend certain Gymnasium schools as of fifth grade if they qualify by exam.

Kids need time to develop their academic abilities

The ultimate decision?

For my daughter (and for my son, one year later), I have decided on a Gesamtschule. Born from educational reforms during the 1960s, the comprehensive school aims to be more inclusive, melding the traditional, separate school systems into just one school.  

It seems to be most egalitarian and the closest thing to what I am familiar with as an American "high school." She can receive her Abitur there and go on to study if she wants, but she also has a range of other options.

Granted, this isn't the easiest solution. It is not the school just down the street. It's actually in another district, which equates to a 40-minute commute one way. And that, at the young age 10.

And yet, I have every confidence that my daughter will make this leap into secondary school in Germany with her own brand of intelligence and grace. Hopefully, she will also have a few excellent teachers to help her along the way.

But still, why did the whole process have to be so complicated?