Public schools in Germany are maintained and paid for by the government: They are free of charge while offering a good education. As a result, there are relatively few private schools in Germany.
While there are public school districts for elementary school children, parents can later choose among a number of schools in Germany for their older kids, as there are no district limitations for secondary education. Schools in Germany are organized by the federal states, and there are several different types of schools to choose from. However, specifics may vary substantially from state to state. Schools in Germany’s north can be very different from those in Bavaria.
Preschool or kindergarten is not compulsory, but most children do attend either or both. If your children are to grow up in Germany, this is definitely an option to consider, since elementary schools in Germany usually require sufficient German language skills from their pupils. In bigger cities, you may also find bilingual kindergartens for many foreign languages.
Compulsory education (Schulpflicht) usually starts in September after a child has turned six. Elementary school lasts for four to six years, depending on where you live. During those early years at schools in Germany, children learn how to read, spell and write, basic math and geometry skills, how to tell the time, how to deal with road traffic, playing a musical instrument, using a PC, etc.
The variety of secondary schools in Germany can seem somewhat complicated, due to the German federal system. Not only do holiday schedules for German schools differ from state to state, some states might even offer a type of school unique to them. Schools in Germany also have their fair share of critics who find fault with the highly selective and exclusionary nature of some German schools, the overall length of education, prohibition of homeschooling, and other aspects.
In most federal states you have the choice between three types of schools with different academic standards. When in doubt, ask the respective Ministry of Education (Kultusministerium) for more information on the school system in your state. After four to six years of elementary education, your kid’s teachers give non-binding recommendations on what kind of school to send your child to. Parents can then choose between the following schools:
This is the most demanding of all secondary schools in Germany. After eight or nine years of secondary education, its students take a final exam called Abitur or allgemeine Hochschulreife. The Gymnasium serves as preparation for higher education. Generally, passing the Abitur entitles a student to attend university. However, final grades do matter, since many German universities restrict admission to some degree courses, like medicine or architecture.
At a Gymnasium, a broad range of subjects is compulsory, including two foreign languages (mostly English and French, Latin, or Spanish) as well as a few weekly lessons in sports, music and arts. Generally, schools in Germany, including the Gymnasium, offer little choice in the subjects they would like to attend: Drama clubs or photography workshops are only available as extracurricular activities in the afternoon. However, some schools may have a slightly different emphasis on the type of education they offer, preferring, for instance, the fine arts, modern languages or the natural sciences.
In grade 11, students enter the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, the two-year preparatory phase for their final exams. This allows them to focus on certain subjects according to individual preferences, although others like math, German and history remain mandatory. As an alternative to the Gymnasium, the Fachoberschule or FOS allows its students an even greater focus on subject areas like technology or the social sciences. It also limits the choice of degree courses eligible at university level, though.
Addressing students on an intermediary academic level, the Realschule prepares teenagers for attending one of many different vocational schools in Germany (Berufsschule, Berufsfachschule or Berufsoberschule), beginning commercial training, or entering into an arts-and-crafts apprenticeship. At the end of grade 10, students take their finals called Mittlere Reife. If they don’t want to start vocational training, they may subsequently attend a Fachoberschule to prepare them for a limited choice of degree courses at university.
The Hauptschule is intended as preparation for vocational education or training in many crafts. Therefore, these schools strongly focus on core subjects like math, German, computer science and vocational studies. They usually make their students sit final exams (qualifizierter Hauptschulabschluss) after grade 9, with an optional 10th grade for particularly dedicated pupils.
Most federal states also have so-called integrated or comprehensive schools (Gesamtschulen), which combine all the three types mentioned above. These schools allow their students to advance more easily to more demanding courses according to their level of academic proficiency. Students can graduate with either degree.
Usually, school starts at eight a.m. and finishes around two p.m. Over the past few years, though, more and more schools in Germany have started offering full-time education in the afternoon as well. They feature study hours for homework, more extracurricular activities and a hot lunch at the cafeteria.
There is a weekly curriculum with a broad variety of mandatory subjects, including physical education, music and arts class. Religious education for Catholic, Lutheran-Protestant and Jewish students is part of the curriculum at schools in Germany as well. However, parents can demand that their child be exempted from religious education. Teenagers aged 14 or older can choose to opt out of their R.E. classes themselves. They then have to attend alternative lessons on ethics and philosophy instead.
Grades are given on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being the best grade. Very poor grades will result in students having to repeat an entire year or even having to switch schools, e.g. from a Gymnasium to a Realschule.
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