Moving to Germany with kids can seem overwhelming. To help you out, this guide to the German education system will help you find the right school for your child.
If you’re moving to Germany, it is important to be aware of the different school types in Germany. There is a range of German schools that need to be considered. This is particularly important once a student enters secondary school. Here, there are some five different school types and such choices dictate their higher education opportunities.
Trying to size up the education system in Germany is one of the hardest things facing expats moving to the country. This guide sets out what you should know about German schools and education in Germany. It includes the following information:
- German education standards
- Local and international schools in Germany
- Compulsory education in Germany
- The German school year
- The German school week
- Support for non-German-speaking students
- The structure of the German education system
- Religious instruction
- Language support for foreigners
- Special needs in Germany
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German education standards
Germany ranks relatively well in regards to education levels. According to latest OECD/PISA survey (2015) of educational standards among 15 year olds, Germany is ranked 16th in mathematics, 16th in science and 11th in reading out of 72 countries and economies.
Notably, more than half of all students in Germany enter higher education. The PISA report also revealed that German students feel a strong sense of belonging at school as well as experiencing low levels of schoolwork-related anxiety.
However, there is an emphasis on academic subjects in most German schools, with creative and more active subjects set outside the main curriculum. Most students also have to decide whether to follow an academic or non-academic route at the end of primary school, at around age 10, which creates a divided German education system. Past reforms have attempted to unify German education, but to little success.
Local and international schools in Germany
Most students in Germany attend local schools, which are free. However, foreign families may consider an international school to ease their child’s transition by continuing education in a familiar language and curriculum. Your child’s age and length of time in Germany are just some factors to consider.
For more information on how to choose a school in Germany, see our guide to German schools: local, private, bilingual and international schools.
Compulsory education in Germany
Education is compulsory for all children aged six years to 15 years old who reside in Germany. However, education generally lasts until the age of 18 years. The majority of schools in Germany are run by the state and are free, although parents can opt for one of the fee-paying private schools or international schools.
For information on the differences between state, private and international schools, see our guide on how to choose a school in Germany.
Although general education policy in Germany is set by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), each Federal state (Länd) has its own Ministry of Education which sets its own education programme, schools and standards. This means that the school system and what students learn vary across the country: there may be different types of schools available, and students may learn different subjects and use different textbooks in each region.
However across Germany, standards are high and pupils are tested regularly at every level, receiving two reports a year with grades from 1–6 (1 being the highest). In secondary school, if pupils fail to achieve the required grades in two or more classes they may have to repeat the whole year. In the 2015 PISA survey, 18% of students reported that they had repeated a year at least once.
Education attendance is compulsory in Germany, thus home schooling is illegal and you will be fined (or worse) if you take your child out of the German education system.
Most schools don’t have a school uniform.
The German school year
The school year starts around mid August/September and ends around 1 July. However, the exact dates tend to vary from state to state. There are generally six weeks over the summer holidays, two weeks in the autumn (Herbstferien), two or three weeks at Christmas (Weihnachtsferien), a week at Easter (Osterferien) and various state and religious holidays (see our guide to public holidays in Germany for more information). There are strict rules about taking children out of school during term time and if you do so without permission from the school, you could be fined.
Private schools have their own school calendar.
The German school week
In general, most state schools are open from Mondays to Fridays from around 8am to 1pm–2pm. However, more and more schools now have lessons for older pupils in the afternoons until around 4pm. There are no canteen facilities for lunch in most state schools because the day ends before lunch. This means students eat at home.
Lessons last roughly 45 minutes with a break of five minutes between each lesson to allow teachers to move between classes. This is because in Germany the students tend to stay in one room for most lessons. There may be study hours allocated for homework (of which there is plenty).
In recent years, however, some German schools have started offering a full day of education (Ganztagsschule) alongside study hours for homework, extracurricular activities, and lunch at the cafeteria.
Support for non-German-speaking students
The school grade into which foreign pupils are placed when they arrive in Germany depends on how well they speak German. Children who do not speak German at home and who have not attended a German Kindergarten often repeat the first or second grade. There is no real stigma attached to this.
Since the number of non-German students has constantly risen over the years, some adaptations have been made to ease their integration. Children who were not born in Germany or whose parents do not speak German at home may be offered additional lessons. This come in the form of preparatory classes, bilingual classes, intensive courses and remedial classes, depending on the German state and availability.
Foreigners whose children are born and raised in Germany are often concerned their children are losing their cultural roots. Therefore, in some states, children with non-German parents may be able to claim some tuition coverage for classes in the mother tongue of their parents.
The structure of the German education system
After nursery or preschool, which is optional, the compulsory German education system is divided into two stages – primary school and secondary school – of which there are different types to choose from, as outlined below.
German preschool/nursery (Kindergarten)
Children under three years old may attend nursery (Kinderkrippen), while those aged between three and six years old may go to a preschool (Kindergarten/Kita). These are available either mornings, whole days or even evenings and weekends in some places.
They can be private, public or church-run, so some are free while others charge fees (usually based on income). Many have waiting lists, so put your child’s name down as soon as possible. In large cities, you will also find bilingual preschools. For information on nurseries and preschools in Germany, see our guides to childcare in Germany and preschool in Germany.
Both childcare types are optional, not compulsory, although most children in Germany aged between three and six are in education or childcare. They are an excellent way for expat children to play and learn alongside German children and absorb German language and culture. In some states, five-year-olds may be registered in preschool classes (Vorklassen) in preparation for primary school.
German primary school (Grundschule)
Children start primary school in the autumn term the year a child turns six years old. They then stay there until age 10. However, some German states have cut-off dates (such as 30 June or 31 December) to determine if a child can start school if they haven’t yet turned six when school starts. If a child does not turn six before the cut-off date, they are considered a kann Kind (literally ‘can child’) as opposed to a muss Kind (‘must child’). A muss Kind will be guaranteed a school place. However, a kann Kind may be required to pass a test (Einschulungsuntersuchung) to prove their ability to attend school.
Administrators do not push early admissions based on the assumption that even if the child is intellectually ready they may still not be socially and physically ready.
On the first day at Grundschule, it is tradition for a child to bring a Schultüte, which is a large decorative conical parcel filled with candy and little presents, and the older school children may put on a performance for new students and their families.
There are usually four grades or years (1–4) in German primary education, although in some regions primary school continues until year 6. Children usually go to the primary school nearest their home. There have been efforts to reduce the inequality in education standards between areas, but affluent neighbourhoods still tend to offer better schooling than non-affluent neighbourhoods.
Primary school curriculum
Primary school lessons include literacy, mathematics, science, a foreign language, religion and computer skills. However, details of the curriculum are decided by the states (Länder) so will vary across Germany. Parents may opt for their children not to attend religion classes by having them attend ethics lessons instead, if available. Materials and equipment are provided by the school, although parents are sometimes required to contribute towards the cost of these.
There are between 20 and 30 hour of lessons a week, increasing as the children get older. Even at this age, there will probably be around half an hour or more of homework (Hausaufgaben) every day.
Pupils are assessed at the end of the second year. In order to progress up the school, pupils have to achieve certain standards and may have to repeat a year if they fail to do this – or go up a year if they exceed them. Primary school teachers are trained to recognise and support children with dyslexia (Legasthenie).
At the end of primary school, teachers assess the child’s abilities and interests and make a recommendation (Übergangsempfehlung or ‘transfer recommendation’) to advise parents about which type of secondary school would be best for the child. In most cases, parents can decide on the secondary school.
Secondary school in Germany
Based on a student’s academic performance, teachers’ recommendations and parents’ preferences, a student will enter one of the different types of secondary schools in Germany:
- Gymnasium – for academic students;
- Realschule – for intermediary students;
- Hauptschule – for less academic students;
- Gesamtschule – a comprehensive school combining all education types;
- Schools where the Hauptschule and Realschule curricula are amalgamated.
In theory it is possible to change from one type of school to another, depending on the student’s grades.
Gymnasium education is required for anyone planning on tertiary education. Most academic students will go on to study at a Gymnasium between the ages of 10 and 18 (years 5 to 13). There are 32–40 hours of lessons a week and lots of homework. They will study a broad range of subjects at a high standard, including two compulsory foreign languages (often English, French, Spanish, or Latin) plus sports, music and art lessons. Students can also choose to take more advanced ‘honours’ courses (Leistungskurse).
In general, a student who fails more than two subjects will have to repeat the whole school year.
In year 11, students enter the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, a two-year course in preparation for the final examination. Some subjects, such as mathematics and German, are compulsory; students can choose others. The Abitur, or ‘Abi’, is the final exam and the qualification needed to enter a German university.
Realschule is a school for intermediary students who attend between the ages of 10 and 15/16 for five years (years 5 to 10). This is the most common form of secondary education, and while it is below Gymnasiumeducation, it can still offer a high academic standard. They study a range of subjects, including a compulsory foreign language; students can opt for a second language (usually French).
Studies culminate in a Realschulabschuss diploma which allows students to take training courses leading to vocational qualifications, an apprenticeship in a commercial trade or the medical profession, or further courses leading to higher education. Upon graduation, academic achievers can transfer to a Gymnasium to continue their studies if they wish to enter university.
Realschule covers the basic subjects to prepare students for mid-level jobs in businesses. After attending a vocational school, students learn skills that put them in the middle strata of business and industry. Salesmen, nurses, mid-level civil servants, secretaries, and so forth generally have been to Realschule.
Hauptschule is a vocational school for less academic students aged between 10 and 15 or 16. There are five compulsory years (5–9) but students can choose to stay on for year 10 if they wish. It is generally considered the least demanding of the secondary school types but is highly appropriate for those wishing to enter a trade or an apprenticeship in certain industrial sectors.
Students receive a basic general education with a focus on mathematics, computer science, German and one compulsory foreign language (usually English), plus vocational skills. It essentially covers the same subjects as the other secondary schools, but at a slower pace and with some vocational orientation. At the end of year 9 they receive a Hauptschulabschluss leaving certificate or diploma. If students stay on for year 10 they are given an extended Realschulabschluss.
After graduation, students can enter an apprenticeship (Lehre) in a manual trade and continue with part-time studies at a vocational school or Berufsschule until they are 18. Academic achievers may be able to transfer to a Gymnasium if they want to obtain the necessary level required to enter university.
Vocational schools (Berufsschule)
After the Hauptschule and Realschule, the Berufsschule combines part-time academic study with an apprenticeship. At the end of years 9 and 10 pupils who want to work in certain professional or vocational jobs can combine part-time education and on-the-job training for two to three years at these schools:
- Berufsfachschule – full time vocational school;
- Berufsaufachschule – extension vocational school;
- Fachoberschule – technical school;
- Berufliches Gymnasium/Fachgymnasium – vocational upper level of gymnasium;
- Fachschule – advanced technical school.
Students can undertake a range of work-directed studies, such as economics and specific business studies, usually related to an apprenticeship. The successful completion of an apprenticeship program can lead to certification in a particular trade or field of work.
After full-time vocational schooling, students in years 10 to 12/13 receive the Zeugnis der Fachgebundenen Hochschulreife, which also gives them access to higher education.
Gesamtschule and integrated schools
Past efforts to create a more inclusive education system saw the creation of additional school types that offer more than one secondary education stream. There were mixed reactions to the success of this, and not all states offer this.
In some parts of Germany, there are schools amalgamating the Hauptschule and Realschule curricula (they have different names in each region, for example Mittelschule, Regelschule and Regionalschule) where students can take either qualification.
There are also comprehensive schools called Gesamtschule open to all students. Students are streamed according to their ability within the school. At the end of year 10 they can leave with a Hauptschulabschlus diploma. After that, they can go on to take an apprenticeship (Lehre), go to a vocational school, or stay on for a further three years to take the Abitur for university entrance.
After completing compulsory secondary schooling, students can consider their options for higher education in Germany.
Almost all schools offer religious education for Catholic, Lutheran-Protestant and Jewish students as part of the curriculum. You can ask for your child to be exempt from these lessons. After the age of 14 pupils can choose to opt out themselves but have to take lessons on ethics and philosophy instead.
Language support for foreigners
Lessons in German state schools are taught in German. Your child’s language skills may be evaluated as early as kindergarten level or at least before enrolment into compulsory education. If necessary, you will be offered a support programme to help your child learn German.
When considering a school and your child is not fluent in German, make sure the school offers German lessons. These are usually called ‘German as a foreign language’. These classes will help your child understand what’s going on and help him or her keep up with the lessons.
There may also be multilingual education guides called Bildungslotsen, Elternlotsen or Integrationslotsen. Find out more through your regional advice centre via the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) website.
For more information on language learning, read our Guide to learning German in Germany.
Special needs in Germany
Students with special needs may be educated with support in mainstream schools, in schools with a focus on special needs (Schulen mit sonderpädagogischem Förderschwerpunkt or Förderschulen), or in specialist schools, depending on each Länd. Education authorities will use their own official procedures to assess a child’s special educational needs.
Federal Ministry of Education and Research: the website for the body that oversees education in Germany