How does the German school system work?

How does the German school system work?

by Jakob Straub

Updated April 21, 2023

In Germany, education is compulsory and usually begins for children at the age of six. Homeschooling is not an option. It is illegal in the country (with very rare exceptions in case of health reasons) and all pupils must attend school. Education is highly regarded, especially public, and is primarily the responsibility of the sixteen German states, the Bundesländer So how does the German school system work, and what is education like in Germany?

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The structure of the German school system

Education in Germany actually begins with nursery school as early as the age of one and up to age six. A Kinderkrippe (literally: “crib”) is usually for younger children of eight weeks up to three years, to which Kindergarten follows from age two or three to six years. A Kindertagesstätte is a children’s daycare center where the kids can stay longer than just the usual half day. Though many parents apply as early as possible, preschool is optional in Germany.

Elementary school: Grundschule

In Germany, pupils attend primary school, or Grundschule, after an evaluation, meaning that age six is the most common age to start school, though in some exceptions children start one year later or even earlier. Elementary school consists of four years, corresponding to grades one to four. The school year starts in September.

In their final year, pupils take an aptitude test and undergo another evaluation. Together with the parents, the teachers will determine which track of the secondary education system is best for them: Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium.

Secondary education: Hauptschule

The less academic Hauptschule is the least demanding type of secondary education in Germany. From grades five to nine, the focus is on vocational education, preparing pupils for learning a trade or becoming an apprentice. After grade nine, or grade ten in some states, pupils undergo an examination to obtain the Hauptschulabschluss certification, with which they can start job training. This is the earliest they can leave the compulsory German education system at the age of 16, but they can also continue their secondary education.

Secondary education: Realschule

Intermediary pupils or about 40 percent follow elementary school by attending the Realschule for grades five to ten. Studies commonly include at least one foreign language, such as English or French, for a minimum of five years. This kind of school is a preparation for vocational schools, but pupils can also use their diploma to seek entrance to a Gymnasium.

Secondary education: Gymnasium

This academic secondary school offers the most comprehensive education, preparing pupils for tertiary education. Depending on the state, it ranges from grade five to twelve or thirteen. The curriculum differs and can place emphasis on languages or math and natural sciences. Subjects include German and foreign languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, art and music, history, civics and social studies, physical education and optional subjects such as philosophy, creative writing, design or computer science.

Through written and oral examinations in their final year, pupils earn a diploma called Abitur, which certifies the Allgemeine Hochschulreife, the General University Entrance Qualification, with which pupils can apply at a university.

Secondary education: Gesamtschule

This comprehensive school combines all three school types, the Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium, not unlike an American high school. It does not exist in all states. The idea is to socially integrate pupils and facilitate the progression through the three types of secondary education.

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Higher education in Germany

Note the difference between the German Student, a university student and Schüler, a pupil enrolled in primary or secondary education. The university or Universität is the most common form of higher education in Germany, but other options include:

  • Technische Hochschule: Technical University, common for engineering degrees or scientific studies
  • Pädagogische Hochschule: Pedagogical college, common for becoming a teacher or instructor
  • Fachhochschule: These universities of applied science provide practically-oriented studies, for example in agricultural economy, design, technology, business, or social work.
  • Kunst- und Musikhochschule: Art and music colleges provide study courses for artists and musicians in the visual, design and performing arts, film, TV and media, fine arts, art history and pedagogy, the history and teaching of music, media and communication, as well as digital media and digital art.

German higher education degrees

  • Bachelor’s degree is the first higher education qualification in Germany.
  • Master’s degree is the second higher education qualification in Germany.
  • Diplom: Some courses, such as Fachhochschule degrees, lead to a Diplom degree.
  • Magister: Other German study courses are completed after a Magister examination for obtaining a Magister degree, for example, Magister of Arts. At universities, most of these degrees have been replaced by or converted to Master’s degrees for better international compatibility.
  • Staatsexamen: A state examination is required for professions with a particular public interest, such as higher education teachers or medical doctors.
  • Doktortitel: A Doctor of Philosophy is the third-tier German higher education qualification, available at universities and equivalent institutions only. Doctoral studies can include collaboration with research institutes.

Is education free in Germany?

German education is financed by taxes and public schools are therefore free. However, private schools exist on all levels of the school system and roughly nine to ten percent of pupils attend private schools.

Tertiary education institutions might charge a tuition fee called Studiengebühren, even when they’re public, used to cover some administrative costs. In exchange, students often receive a Semester Ticket for free public transportation.

The right to an education in Germany does not include the right to attend a specific school or institution. For primary and secondary education, the school pupils have to attend depends largely on which one is closest to them. For higher education, a complex application and selection process including quotas can apply.

Adult education and lifelong learning in Germany

Germany also has a tradition of continuing education for adults, working professionals and even senior citizens. It is possible to attend some university lectures as part of a Studium Generale. Community colleges – Volkshochschulen – as well as municipal and private institutions, churches, education centers, vocational schools, learning websites, TV and radio and other providers offer educational courses and programs for nearly all ages and learners in Germany.

German school system made simple

Each country has its own approach to education and how its school systems are organized. If you are planning to embark on new studies in Germany, you now know much much education is valued and what your different options are. From a young age up to maturity, German schools’ doors will always be open.

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Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer in Barcelona, Spain, and his favorite books have pages all empty. As an expert storyteller, he publishes creative fiction in English and German and helps other authors shape their manuscripts into compelling stories. Thanks to an expertise in a wide range of topics such as writing, literature and productivity to marketing, travel, and technology, he produces engaging content for his clients. Apart from the escape that books offer, Jakob enjoys traveling digital nomad style and stays active with climbing and hiking. Find out more about him on his websiteTwitter or on Goodreads.

Jakob Straub

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