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.
Germany is a country that values its traditions, and the best way for you to enjoy those traditions is to attend and partake in local 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.
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 at a young age.
The German school system is free of charge, and it is mandatory up to the age of 14 to 16, depending on the federal state where you live. Kindergarten and pre-school are available, although vacant places can be difficult to come by and should be signed up for well in advance. Moreover, unlike compulsory schooling, kindergarten is typically not for free.
Children will attend the Grundschule (primary school) from age six to ten (or twelve, depending on the state), after which they move on to 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. There is also the Gesamtschule, a type of school which combines different aspects of the three aforementioned schools and usually takes 6 years to complete.
School days for German students usually only last until the early afternoon, although there have been recent initiatives to introduce more 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.
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 an education with a vocational emphasis. In grade ten (around the age of 16), students will receive their “Realschulabschluss” (leaving certificate) to qualify them for vocational or commercial training.
The Hauptschule offers the path to vocational education only. After grade nine or ten students may continue on to Realschule, although most stop and begin working, typically by taking up an apprenticeship. Only those students who acquired their Hochschulreife/Abitur may study at a university in Germany.
Universities in Germany are almost all public institutions. The introduction of tuition fees for universities proved widely unpopular and met a lot of resistance. The battle against tuition fees began in 1999 and was ultimately won in October 2014 — attending university is once again free of charge in Germany.
As the school system is very specific in Germany and thus certificates are 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 and 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.
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