Print Friendly, PDF & Email
From Kita to Uni
The education system in Germany varies from state to state, although the basic K-12 system is fairly uniform. As in the US, education is the responsibility of each of the 16 German states (Bundesländer), but there is a national conference of state education ministers (Kultusministerkonferenz, KMK) that serves to coordinate educational practices at the national level. However, there is still some variation in the school systems across Germany. (Also see: Education in Germany.)
Secondary school students in Berlin on a field trip to the former Hohenschönhausen Stasi (secret police) prison and interrogation center in Berlin. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo
Jump to | Preschool | Elementary Schools | Secondary Schools |
Special Education | Higher Education | Expat Options/International Schools
Compared to the United States, the German primary and secondary school system is a rather complicated one in which there are sometimes as many as five different kinds of secondary schools (usually starting at grade 5) and various paths leading to academic higher education, advanced technical training or a trade. For more about the types of schools in Germany see below.
In addition to Germany’s extensive public school system, there are also some private and parochial schools, but far fewer than in the US and most other countries. Among the private schools, Montessori, Waldorf, Jena and other alternative education models are popular. But in all of Germany, a country of 82 million people, there are only about 2,500 private and parochial schools, including boarding schools (Internate). There are also a good number of international schools all across Germany, which can be a good option for English-speaking expats. (See more about international schools below.)
Compulsory School Attendance
Part of the reason for the dearth of private or church schools is the German conviction that public education is a vital element that contributes to a well-educated citizenry and a sense of common purpose. Germany has a compulsory school attendance law. The law requires school attendance (Schulpflicht), not just instruction, from age 6 until age 15. This helps explain why homeschooling is illegal in Germany. (See “Homeschooling verboten” for more.)
The German Educational Class System
Although most Germans claim to be against elitism and favoring any social class, their entire educational system is basically a three-class system that divides students into three different tracks: (1) Gymnasium for bright students headed for college, (2) Realschule for the next step down, kids headed for average or better white-collar positions, and (3) Hauptschule for the bottom tier, generally aimed at the trades and blue-collar jobs. By the age of 10 most pupils in Germany have been put on one of these three educational tracks. But it has become easier to switch tracks, and this is now more common in Germany than it used to be.
Efforts over the past several decades to reform this system, with its emphasis on tracking, have largely been unsuccessful. Essentially the same tracking system also exists in neighboring Austria and Switzerland, which also have resisted educational reforms. Citizens of the German-speaking countries seem to feel that the current system produces good results – despite a poor showing in recent PISA rankings and other educational studies that indicate German schools don’t always produce the best educated students.
The Gesamtschule Reform
In some states, usually governed by the SPD (Social ???ic Party), there was an attempt to reform the system by creating a more inclusive kind of secondary school, more like the American high school. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) was introduced as an alternative to the traditional three-tiered secondary education system. Instead of three different schools, there are three different tracks within one school. Beginning in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the first Gesamtschulen appeared in West Berlin and a few other Länder, but soon there was resistance from the conservative CDU (Christian ???ic Party), teacher unions and parent groups, who felt that the comprehensive school was inferior to the traditional system.
Although the original idea was to replace the old three-school system (Gymnasium, Realschule, Hauptschule) with a single secondary school, the Gesamtschule or Einheitsschule, in practice it has not worked out that way. Rather than replacing the three-school system, the Gesamtschule has merely been added to the traditional system. Some Gesamtschulen are also Ganztagsschulen (all-day schools), with a class schedule that runs longer than traditional schools, which usually only have classes until noon or 1:00 p.m.
The decade between 1972 and 1982 was supposed to be a trial period to see if the Gesamtschule was superior or not. The verdict was mixed, and the Gesamtschule now only exists in various forms in about ten of the 16 German states. In some German states, including Bavaria, Hamburg, Saxony, Thuringia and others, the Hauptschule and Realschule have been combined to create the Mittelschule (also known as Regelschule or Regionalschule) to create a two-tiered system rather than three. Even in former East Germany, where the “unified school” educated everyone to be good, socialist citizens, the Gesamtschule has not been adopted uniformly. The good old academic Gymnasium has endured in most of Germany to this day. In Austria and Switzerland the Gesamtschule concept has never drawn any real support.
As opposed to the US system of inclusion of students with special needs whenever feasible, Germany also promotes tracking in that area. Förderschulen or Sonderschulen are separate schools for students with moderate to severe learning disabilities, blind or deaf students, or those with physical disabilities. This practice, which puts some 430,000 German students in special, separate schools, has been criticized for not meeting the 2008, EU-ratified UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls for a more inclusive, integrated education for disabled students. Critics say that by separating special-needs students from the general population, the German special education system fails, in that it puts disabled students at a disadvantage and prevents their integration into daily life. This is especially true for students with physical disabilities. Only in a few places in Germany are some special-needs students integrated into regular schools.
The School Day in Germany
Traditionally, the German school day has started at 8:00 a.m. and finished at 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. – and that is often still the case. But in recent years, some schools in Germany have started offering a full day of education (Ganztagsschule). They offer study hours for homework, extracurricular activities and a hot lunch at the cafeteria. Since most German schools never had a cafeteria, this often requires new construction to provide them.
German secondary schools have a class schedule that resembles a US college schedule, with different classes offered each day. Some subjects are taught three days per week, with others taught only twice a week. On Monday a typical schedule might offer four 45-minute classes (and sometimes double 90-minute classes) in (1) math, (2) history, (3) art and (4) English, while on Tuesday a student might have five classes: (1) German, (2) religion, (3) calculus, (4) French and (5) PE. There are also break periods, usually a short and a long break (große Pause), during the school day. Most students eat lunch at home, since schools usually have no cafeteria, and the school day ends fairly early. Although there is some physical education, German schools are more academic in nature. Competitive sporting events between schools are rare. Athletics is usually done outside of school by belonging to a sports club.
For a long time in many parts of Germany the school week included Saturday. In the 1980s schools in Baden-Württemberg still had classes every other Saturday. In East Germany Saturday was a school day nationwide. Since the early 1990s most German school students, including those in Baden-Württemberg, have enjoyed a full weekend. Only a very few local schools still have Saturday classes (Samstagsunterricht).
Now let’s look at the various types of schools in Germany.