Schools in Germany: state, private, bilingual and international schools
This guide to German schools will help you choose the right school in Germany to enrol your child: state school, private school, or international or bilingual school.
If you're moving to Germany, there is a range of schools in Germany to enrol your child into the German education system. Depending on how long you will live in Germany, your child's language skills, and the level of integration that will benefit your child, you can opt from local state schools, state-subsidised private schools, or fully independent international or bilingual schools.
The German school system
By law, all children and young people resident in Germany must be in education between the ages of six and 18, starting with primary school and then going onto one of several different types of secondary education. Home schooling is illegal in Germany. To read about the different levels and structure of the German education system, see Expatica's guide to the school system in Germany.
Most Germans send their children to state schools as the standard is high, although some may choose private options for religious reasons or because of a specific philosophy about childhood education. Many expats choose to send their children to private schools because of the language. German state schools teach in German and although there may be language support available it can be very hard for pupils to learn a new language while keeping up with the lessons, more so for secondary students than for primary students. Other reasons expats choose private schools include continuity of education, and because many state schools are only open half days while parents work full-time.
Local German school or international school?
Pros and cons of a local German state school
The standard of German education is high, and it’s a great way to integrate with the people and culture of Germany. State education is free, and some schools may offer language support to help older children. You might consider sending your child to a German state school if:
- you are going to be living in Germany long-term;
- your children are young enough to pick up the language easily (for example, in preschool or early years of primary);
- your child can already speak German.
However, state schools may not be the best choice in every situation:
- Older children may find it hard to learn a new language while keeping up with the lessons, and your child may have to repeat a year.
- Schools are usually only open in the mornings, which could be inconvenient if parents are working full days.
- Your child may leave the school with qualifications that are not recognised back in your home country.
- State schools have fewer extra-curricular activities compared to private schools.
- Most state schools are mixed; single sex schools are mainly private.
Pros and cons of international schools in Germany
An international school can be a good option if:
- you are not planning on staying in Germany long-term;
- you have an older child who is halfway through their education;
- you can afford the fees or have a relocation package that covers education costs.
The benefit of an international school is that students can be taught in their native language. Your child can also continue their studies where they left off and can more easily integrate back into school on the return to your home country – or wherever in the world there is another international school.
Usually the curriculum will include more extra-curricular activities than German state schools. In private schools the school day can be longer which may fit better with the family lifestyle. International schools accept students from all over the world – one of the oldest, the Frankfurt International School has more than 50 nationalities – so students will benefit from the exposure to many different cultures as well as German. However, this means that there may be less integration into German society.
Types of schools in Germany
State schools in Germany
Germany has a high quality state education system. The 16 Federal states (Länder) are responsible for education in their own region, so the types of school, school calendar and what is taught in schools varies depending on where you live. However, most pupils attend primary school from six to 10/11 years old, and then attend a secondary school chosen on the student’s ability and interests up to the age of 16 or 18. For more information on the German educatino system, see Expatica's guide to the school system in Germany.
Generally speaking, state primary schools have catchment areas and you’ll be assigned to a school based on where you live. You can choose the secondary school. You can find out about state schools via your Federal state’s own Ministry of Education.
Applying to go to a German state school
The state school in your catchment area may invite you to the school or you can attend school registration days, which are usually held about six months before the school year begins in autumn. If you want to send your child to another school, you have to inform the state school of your alternate arrangements and show proof of acceptance.
To enrol at a school, you’ll need to take application forms from the school to the local registry office (Bürgeramt) along with your child’s birth certificate, passport, proof of residency and a medical certificate confirming your child’s good health.
Private schools in Germany
There are increasing numbers of private schools in Germany. Some are run along the same lines as ordinary state primary or secondary schools and are called Erstazschulen. They are run by private individuals or groups but are subsidised by the state, which means they are fee paying but the fees are relatively low. They still operate within state control and follow the same curricula as state schools. Religious schools – Roman Catholic schools, for example – usually fall into this category. Pupils don’t necessarily have to follow the religion of the school but do have to respect and adhere to its values and traditions.
Other private schools are fully independent, which means they set their own curriculum, have small class sizes and generally charge higher fees. This category usually includes the international schools in Germany.
There are also method schools that offer alternative curricula such as the Waldorfschulen or Wardorf schools, based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, which focus on a child’s creativity and the arts. There are also the child-development-led Montessori schools.
International and bilingual schools in Germany
There is a lot of international schools in Germany – 164 as at January 2015 – and you’ll find them wherever there are lots of expats, such as Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt. Visit the Association of German International Schools for a list of international schools in Germany. Most are day schools although some offer a boarding option which can be useful when parents need to travel abroad. They are all privately run, can be co-ed or single sex, and sometimes require a certain level of academic achievement to gain admission. They usually offer high standards of education, small class sizes and lots of extra-curricular activities, although fees are higher compared to other education options.
International schools may take pupils from nursery and kindergarten up to university entrance level. They follow various educational programmes leading to internationally recognised qualifications such as the IGCGSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), the International Baccalaureate, the French Baccalauréat, the American high school diploma as well as the German Abitur.
As they take pupils from all over the world, international schools most often teach in English, although some schools will teach lessons in their native language.
An alternative to an international school is a bilingual school where the lessons are taught in German and one other language (eg. German and English/French/Italian/Spanish).
Admission and enrolment procedures for international and bilingual schools
The admission requirements for international and bilingual schools will vary from school to school so check the details with individual schools. As a rule, places are limited so you should apply as early as possible in the year prior to the beginning of a new school year. You may need to show a copy of the student’s passport, birth certificate, as well as information such as school records and test/exam results from the previous school. Some schools have probation periods.
Fees vary from school to school and depend on which year the pupil is in, but as an example, 2015/16 annual tuition fees for year 11 and 12 students at one international school in Berlin are EUR 12,600 (and there are registration and other charges on top). Most schools offer scholarships and reduced fees for families on lower incomes and reductions for siblings.
If you send your child to a private, independent school providing general primary/secondary education (allgemeinbildende Ergänzungsschule), 30 percent of the school fees for children in years 1–12 may be tax-deductible as Sonderausgaben (‘extraordinary expenses’).
Choosing a German school checklist
If you are able to do so, visit the school and talk to the head teacher, or ask on our expat forums for advice from other parents. Visit in term time to get a feel for the atmosphere of the school. In addition to the criteria you would normally use when choosing a school for your child, you might want to consider the following:
- What is the main teaching language used in the school?
- What support is there for pupils who need extra help with the German language?
- What opportunities are there to learn other languages?
- What nationality are the other pupils?
- Which curriculum does the school follow?
- What does the curriculum include? Ask to look at a typical timetable to see academic/non-academic ratio.
- What qualifications will the course lead to?
For more information
- Der Verband Deutscher Privatschulverbande: VDP is the Association of German Schools.
- Association of German International Schools: for a list of international schools in Germany
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