The School System in Germany

At first glance, the school system in Germany seems difficult and some may even think it is unfair. But you should take a closer look before making up your mind.

Let’s start with two remarks: First, schooling is compulsory in Germany. This means that every child has to go to school. Second, all school matters are regulated by the states (Bundesländer), not by the federal government. It is, therefore, possible that there are different rules in Bavaria than in Hesse or Hamburg.

The First Years (Primary Level) – Grundschule

Before attending school, most children are enrolled in kindergarten. This happens voluntarily. Today, there are kindergartens for children from the age of two. However, most children start at the age of three. In kindergarten, the children get taught in a playful way. They learn how to socialize with other children, complete simple tasks, learn the colors and count to 10 and train their fine motor skills, which is the basis for learning to write later in school.

In Germany, compulsory schooling begins at the age of 6. The cut off age deadline varies from state to state. There are also regulations that allow a child to start school sooner or later. However, there must be a reason and parents must submit an application, which can also be rejected.

For the first four years, all children go to primary school. Here they learn basic calculation, read and write. They also have “Sachkunde”, which is a mixture of different subjects such as geography, biology, physics, etc. They also attend art, music and sport classes. English is usually taught from the third grade onwards.

Secondary Level - Sekundarstufe

In fourth grade, all students receive a recommendation by their teacher as to which school they should attend in the future. There are usually three options:

  • Hauptschule: The lessons are based on hands-on learning and repetition. At the Hauptschule, only one foreign language (English) is taught. However, there are various offers to learn practice-oriented skills such as cooking, working with wood or metal and the like. You attend Hauptschule for 5 years and the graduates often take up manual trades after finishing a “Duale Ausbildung” (apprenticeship with training on the job and theoretical lessons in school).
  • Realschule: The content of the lessons is partly taught theoretically and often through repetition. In most cases, the student can choose between a second foreign language or an alternative such as home economics. After 6 years, students graduate and many then choose clerical, administrative or technical training in the form of a “Duale Ausbildung”.
  • Gymnasium: The content of the lessons is mostly taught theoretically. Two foreign languages ​​are usually mandatory to learn. Today, the Gymnasium is completed after 12th grade and the students then have the opportunity to study at a university or college.
The German School System
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The Flexibility of the System

Although it seems that the pupils’ careers and futures are already being decided at the age of 10, the fundamental idea is different. The focus is on the optimal support of the pupils in which the lesson content is conveyed. In addition, the system is flexible. In many states, the first two years of secondary school are referred to as the “orientation phase” (Orientierungsstufe). During this time, the same material should be taught in all three types of school, so that the students can change to another school if necessary. In addition, students can switch to a Realschule after completing the Hauptschule successfully or to a Gymnasium after completing the Realschule if they have the required grades. There are also many other ways to catch up on the desired school leaving certificate or even to receive it automatically. In most countries, for example, students who completed Hauptschule and then finish a “Duale Ausbildung” successfully automatically receive the Realschule certificate.

Other Schools

There are many other types of schools in Germany. For example, some federal states do not have the division into a Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium, but rather a Gesamtschule, which all children attend.

In most federal states there are also Förderschulen (formerly known as Sonderschulen) which support students with learning difficulties. These schools are now under criticism because they contradict the new laws, which assures that disabled children are included.

In addition, there are many offers where school qualifications can be acquired like evening schools or “Kollegs.”

My Thoughts on the German School System

I, myself, am a good example for the flexibility of the system: I left the Gymnasium after six years with Sekundarabschluss I (= Realschulabschluss). It wasn’t until ten years later that I went back to school and got my university entrance exam. Now I have three professional qualifications: A diploma as a trained office executive ( -> usually chosen by students of Realschule), Dipl. Betriebswirtin (FH) ( -> you need to finish Gymnasium or get an equal certification) and chef  ( -> mostly chosen by students of Hauptschule).

The system is not perfect, of course. Personally, I would have liked more support in certain subjects in which I was particularly good or had my fair share of problems with. Another point of criticism is that many wealthy parents support their children with extra tuition so that they can attend Realschule or Gymnasium. As a result, Hauptschule became the place for the children from socially disadvantaged families.

What do you think about the German school system?

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