Kids Essentials – Guide on German School System and Kindergartens
Last updated: 13 April 2020 / by Jack Harper
Due to COVID-19, schools throughout Germany are currently closed. You can contact your local municipality for information on how schools are handling admission and enrolment during this difficult time.
A core component of Germany’s economic and cultural prosperity is its schooling system. It’s structured in a way that offers the standardized essentials of education, while simultaneously being adaptable for each individual child.
Free education is available right the way through, from Kindergarten to Higher Education.
Driven by the philosophy that widespread access to free education is to the benefit of society, Germany strives to keep much of their schooling free from commercialism. Of course, private institutions do exist, and these are often the smarter choice for expat families.
In this article, we will give an overview of the schooling system, covering the different types of Kindergartens and schools.
Children aged three to six may attend Kindergarten but are not legally required to do so. The majority of German pre-school education is offered by privately run day-care centers, though some local authorities do arrange public pre-school education services. However, this is usually only when there is a lack of quality in private institutions.
Kindergartens involve no formal assessment of children. Instead, their goal is to support early development, with a focus on teamwork, communication, and creative expression. Discussions will be held between the educators and parents about the specific needs of a child, and a daily lesson plan will be tailored accordingly. Constant supervision is given by the educators, who will monitor the child’s attainment from learning activities.
Educational infrastructure is also available for children under the age of three. This typically comes in the form of a Krippe (meaning crèche). In Krippe, children will begin the development of their language skills through interaction with adults and other toddlers. Attention is also given to motor development, increasing body awareness confidence through mild physical activity.
In some cases, children can reach the compulsory schooling age of six and not yet be ready for elementary education. They may have disabilities, learning difficulties, or are slower to develop. Some states offer either a School Kindergarten (Schulkindergärten) or a special Preliminary Class (Vorklassen) to support these children’s transition into compulsory education.
From the age of six, school is compulsory for all children, and they must remain in education for at least nine years. Most students continue education until the age of 18, and more than half of German students end up enrolling in higher education.
Expat families are welcomed to the free enrolment of all public schools. The catch is that all classes are conducted in German, which may cause problems for students not acquainted with the language, particularly in older children. Several private schools, however, offer a comprehensive international program which may be suitable for some families.
Grades one through four (ages 6 to 10) are covered by elementary school (Grundschule). The curriculum, which is the same for all elementary pupils, covers literacy, math, science, computer skills, and a foreign language. Lessons on religion are also included, but parents can opt-out, having their children attend ethics lessons instead.
There are usually between 20 and 30 hours of lessons per week, which increases steadily as the children get older. Homework is also given, typically in the amount of half an hour per day.
Throughout their time at elementary school, pupils will be assessed in order to progress up the school. If a pupil is struggling to achieve certain standards, then they may have to repeat a year. Conversely, pupils can effectively skip a year if they exceed expectations. The system accounts for dyslexic children, with teachers being well-trained to offer the necessary support.
At the end of fourth grade, the teachers conduct a final assessment and give a recommendation to parents regarding which secondary school would be best for their child. The three different types of secondary school are Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule. The teacher suggests one of these based on factors such as the child’s academic ability, confidence, and independence. However, the final decision of which secondary school the child will attend belongs to the parents.
Gymnasium education is generally for students who are planning on advancing to higher education. It is the most academically orientated of the secondary school types, covering a broad range of subjects at a high standard.
Though it varies from school to school, a typical Gymnasium curriculum includes German, math, history, geography, physics, biology, chemistry, art, music, philosophy, social studies, civics, computer science, and at least two foreign languages.
Students also have the choice to take advanced ‘honors’ courses, known as Leistungskurse. There are between 30 and 40 hours of lessons per week, plus lots of homework.
The end goal is the Abitur, a qualification needed to study at a German University. In 11th grade, students will begin a two-year course to prepare the final Abitur examinations. Subjects such as German and maths will be compulsory, while others are optional. The student will choose based on their talents, interests, and ambitions.
The most common form of secondary education, Realschule is slightly below Gymnasium in terms of intellectual prestige but still offers a high academic standard. It takes students up to grade 10, meaning that Realschule students can complete education at age 15.
Realschule equips students with vocational qualifications as well as academics. This allows them to pursue apprenticeships in commercial trades and medical professions, as well as to give them the option to continue onto further education.
Upon graduation, academic achievers who want a chance at going to University will be able to transfer to a Gymnasium school to continue their studies.
The majority of Realschule graduates find themselves in mid-level business jobs. Realschule provides them with the necessary skills to achieve success in the broader working world.
Hauptschule is less academically demanding than the other secondary schools. Like Realschule, there are five compulsory years, and students can choose to stay on for a sixth. The curriculum covers a basic education, including lessons in German, math, computer science, and one foreign language.
These subjects are covered at a slower pace compared to the other secondary schools, with more of an emphasis on vocational ability. In fact, Hauptschule schools are geared towards equipping students with professional qualifications, leading to apprenticeships and jobs in various industrial sectors.
For those who excel in the academic aspect of the courses, there is also the option of transferring to a Gymnasium school for a chance at University.
Waiting for students who complete their studies at Realschule or Haupschule is Berufsschule, a vocational school that combines part-time study with an apprenticeship.
Students interested in a particular field of work can receive on-the-job training in combination with work-directed studies. Subjects such as economics and business studies can be undertaken at Berufsschule, with the goal of leading to a clear career path.
The courses last two to three years, the successful completion of which rewards a certificate in the student’s chosen field. This certificate, known as the ‘Zeugnis der Fachgebundenen Hochschulreife’, also gives students access to higher education.
Germany is home to an ever-increasing number of private schools. The most common are called Ersatzschule – schools which, though run by private individuals or groups, are subsidized by the state. Because these schools operate within state control, the fees are kept relatively low and the curriculum remains similar to state schools.
There are also fully independent private schools that set their own curriculum and charge higher fees. International schools usually fall within this category.
In places where there are lots of expats, such as Berlin and Munich, international schools can be found in abundance. They are all privately run, though most are registered with the Association of German International Schools, meaning they operate within regulations and must work to a certain standard.
The quality of education is usually very high, with a certain level of academic achievement required to gain admission. They stick to small class sizes and offer lots of extra-curricular activities. Some international schools even offer a boarding option – perfect for parents who need to travel a lot.
These schools accept pupils from all over the world, able to take them from Kindergarten level all the way through to university entry-level. They award students with qualifications that are recognized by German and international institutions alike.
All lessons in German state schools are in German, but there is some support available for foreigners unfamiliar with the language. You can receive an evaluation for your child’s language skills as early as Kindergarten, and you may consequently be offered a support program. This will work alongside your child’s studies to help them learn German.
Some state schools even offer German lessons, which treats German as a foreign language. It’s a good idea to make sure that a school offers these lessons prior to enrolment.
Special needs students
There is plenty of support available in mainstream schools for students with special needs. There are also schools known as Sonderschule or Förderschule which are staffed by specially trained teachers, utilizing smaller student to teacher ratios. Educational authorities will assess a child’s individual needs and offer guidance on what is best for your child.
State or private?
German state schools are of a high standard, helping you and your child to integrate with the people and culture of Germany – all for free. If you are planning on living in Germany long-term, or if your child can already speak German (or is at least young enough to learn easily), then there is little reason why you shouldn’t opt for a state school.
However, the reality for many expat families is that their child can’t speak German and sending them to a state school would thus be detrimental to their development. Older children find it hard to learn a new language and would have great difficulty keeping up with the lessons.
Another caveat of state schools is that they are only open for half of day, and don’t offer much in the way of extra-curricular activities. This can be very inconvenient for parents who work full days.
In many cases, a private international school would be a smart choice. Children can be taught in their native language and can more easily continue their studies from where they left off. International schools make sense for families who are not planning on staying in Germany long-term, or for those with older children who are halfway through their education.
Due to their acceptance of pupils from across the globe, international schools also give your child exposure to many different cultures. Combined with the smaller class sizes and extracurricular opportunities, these schools can offer a highly optimized, well-rounded education.
International school fees, however, are relatively high, and admission is dependent on the child’s academic ability. They may also prevent your child from integrating into German society, which would cause difficulties when education is complete.
The school day
Classes in German state schools start between 7.30 am and 8.15 am. The class periods are typically 45 minutes long with a short break in between, running throughout the morning. For most schools, the day finishes around lunchtime, and there are thus no canteen facilities for lunch – students eat at home.
However, more and more schools are extending the school day till around 4 pm. The extra hours are allocated for homework, extracurricular activities, or general study hours.
The school year
Though the exact dates vary from state to state, the school year usually starts around mid-August to early September, ending in early July. It is split into two semesters. Holiday breaks consist of six weeks in the summer, two weeks in Autumn, up to three weeks at Christmas, and one week at Easter. There are also several state and religious holidays, which you can read about here (link to holidays article).
German grading system
In primary and lower secondary education, children are graded via a simple number system. They can achieve anything from a 1 to a 6, 1 being ‘excellent’, 6 being ‘insufficient’.
In the final years of Gymnasium schools, the grades are converted into points. + and – variations of each numbered grade are used to determine these points. For example, 1+ = 15 points, 1 = 14 points, 1- = 13 points. 1+ would be the equivalent to an A+ in American education.
German education offers plenty of choices for your child’s early academic journey.
International schools have a lot to offer and are worth considering if you can afford the fees.
State schools, however, offer a high standard of education that is completely free, giving your child the means to integrate into German society.
If you can navigate the language complications, then you cannot go wrong with a German state school.