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The education system in Germany

If you are moving to Germany with school-age children, the German educational system is a concern.  In this regards, there is good news along with some news, that while not bad, is definitely potentially confusing.

We will start with the good news.

The German educational system is very good, even with its many quirks. The teachers are well trained and the curriculum appears to be well thought out.  There is a national conference of state education ministers (the KMK) that coordinates the practices on a national level.  However, Germany is made up of 16 separate states, which are responsible for the educational system in their state. This leads to some differences from state to state. When you add in the overall complexity of the German school system, it is fairly easy for non-Germans to get confused. We will give you a brief overview under the “potentially confusing” parts below.

The other good news is that access to public schools is open to everyone living in the county at basically no cost.

An Overview of the German System

The potentially confusing part comes in when a non-German person looks at the structure of schools in Germany.  As has been done with other public services, like health care and insurance, German lawmakers have a tendency to correct existing problems by adjusting the status quo.  Many critics say that simply results in the same problems just with different circumstances.  However, even with perceived flaws, it is important to note that Germany is committed to providing quality education to all German residents.


Kindergartens were created in Germany.  Therefore it is surprising that kindergartens are not part of the public education system; in fact preschools and day-care centres are mostly run by churches and non-profit organisations, although the government does supply some funding.  The number of centres for pre-schoolers is inadequate and finding a spot can be difficult.

Elementary School

Elementary or “basic school” is grades 1 through to 4. Attendance is compulsory and begins in September after the child’s sixth birthday.  Most children attend neighbourhood schools.  As in much of the western world, schools in more affluent neighbourhoods tend to be better staffed and better equipped than those in less wealthy areas.

Secondary Schools

Here is where the system gets more complex and confusing. Before going to grade 5, parents have to choose the type of school their child will attend.

Basically there are three types and are based, in theory, on the education track that is the best match for the student.

Gymnasium – A college preparatory educational track for “bright” students.

Realschule – An educational path designed for average students and those that seem likely to pursue middle or upper level white-collar jobs.

Hauptschule – Designed to provide the skills and knowledge or trade and blue-collar jobs.

While it is possible to change educational paths, it does not happen often.

Many consider the system far from perfect and have introduced programs and legislation to do away with the system that many view as being grossly unequal and one that creates a class-based society, and have started schools which are open to all students. However, these schools still tend to segregate the students using the same criteria which does little to solve the inherent problems.

General facts about the German Education System

  • School is compulsory for children from age 6 to 15 years old.
  • Home schooling is illegal.
  • Germans feel that public education is a vital element for society to work well. Due to this widely held belief, there are less than 3,000 private schools in the entire country.
  • Children with special needs are placed in separate schools instead of attending the same schools as other children. This system of segregating these students has been widely criticised and is seen as providing a disservice to special needs students, especially those with physical disabilities.
  • Traditionally, the school day begins at 8 am until 1 or 2pm. Many schools have begun to offer full day school. Since German schools traditionally do not have cafeterias, this has created problems and increased costs for construction.
  • Substitute or cover teachers are not used except for long-term absences. Typically if a teacher is not available, the class is cancelled.
  • School trips are fairly extensive. English classes, for example, may make a trip to the UK for 10 days.


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