Germany at a Glance
Education and Leisure in Germany
The following is a short introduction to the German school system. For more information on childcare, schools, universities, adult learning, and other education related matters, please see our Germany: Family, Children and Education section. We especially recommend our overview of the German school system and our guide to international schools.
For an outsider, the German school system can be difficult to comprehend. It is one of the few education systems that divides its students into different academic groups so thoroughly and at such a young age.
The German school system is free of charge, and it is mandatory up to the age of 14 or 16, depending on the federal state where you live. Kindergarten and pre-school are available, although vacant places are difficult to come by and should be signed up for well in advance. Moreover, unlike compulsory schooling, kindergarten is not for free.
Children will attend the Grundschule (primary school) from age six to ten (or twelve, depending on the state) when they will be tested for secondary school. There are three types of secondary schools in most German states: Gymnasium, Realschule, and the Hauptschule. These are in order from highest academic reputation to lowest achievement group.
At the Gymnasium (equivalent of high school), students are prepared for university and they will graduate with an Abitur (equivalent to British A-Levels or American high school diploma). The Realschule is designed for intermediate students. In grade ten (around the age of 16), students will receive their “mittlere Reife” to qualify them for vocational or commercial training.
The Hauptschule offers vocational education only. After grade nine or ten students may continue on to Realschule, although most stop and begin working. Only those students who completed the Gymnasium may attend university.
School days for German students usually only last until the early afternoon, although there have been recent initiatives to introduce Ganztagsschulen (which include afternoon lessons as well). Many students, especially those attending the Gymnasium, have an intense load of homework which takes up most of their afternoon or evening.
As the school system is very specific in Germany and thus not always accepted at universities abroad, many expats choose to send their children to international schools. There are a number of international schools spread throughout Germany, ranging from American schools over British academies to French lycées.
There is no comprehensive list of international schools for all of Germany – these vary based on the region and city you live in, but be assured that there are plenty in major cities. The Munich International School, for example, offers the International Baccalaureate, as does the Berlin International School.
Universities in Germany are almost all public institutions. They are relatively cheap compared to, say, US American universities. The tuition fees range anywhere from 50€ to 600€ per semester, depending on the federal state the university is located in. For example, the ministry of education in Bavaria has set tuition at universities between 100€ and 500€, while in Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, there are currently no tuition fees at all.
The introduction of tuition fees for universities proved widely unpopular and met a lot of resistance. As of the beginning of 2013, the two remaining federal states which still charge fees for their universities are in the process of abolishing them – the process might, however, take a while.
Germany is a country that values its traditions, and the best way for you to enjoy those traditions is to attend and partake in festivals. Do not shy away from the busy beer halls of the Oktoberfest or the crowded streets of Cologne during Carnival. Dress up, grab a glass, and be prepared to say cheers.
If there is one thing Germans love, it’s sharing their traditions with others. Germans are very proud of the specific Bundesland (state) they come from. If you prefer to stay away from loud crowds and don’t fancy the traditional festivals, larger German cities have much to offer in cultural and athletic sense as well.
For example, the Berlin Film Festival in February is world-renowned as is the Frankfurter Museumsuferfest in August, and the Kieler Woche in June is perfect for sailing fanatics. Do not forget to visit the thousands of German Christmas markets from mid-November until Christmas Eve, which all offer their distinct flair. For a list of all important events that take place in your new home town in Germany, it is usually a good idea to visit the city’s official website.