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Education in Germany

A Comprehensive Guide about the Education System and International Schools

Education at public, private, and international schools in Germany is of a high standard and offers alternatives whatever the student’s needs. International schools might be the better option if your children do not speak German. If you are looking for a school with an English national curriculum, King’s College in Frankfurt is one of the better options. International schools were already popular with expat children; however, Brexit has caused a surge in demand for school places.

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Germany’s education system offers top-quality schooling. Nevertheless, it can vary significantly from one Bundesland (state) to the next, making it quite challenging to choose among the best schools and higher education options for your children.

This section explains the education system in Germany, as well as the process of enrolling your child in a public, private, or international school. There is little difference in quality between public and private schools in Germany. Local law mandates high educational standards throughout public schools and prevents private schools from only attracting wealthy families. Because of Germany’s unique education system, expats often choose international schools simply so their child’s diploma will be recognized in other foreign countries.

Typical school hours in Germany run from 08:00 to 14:00, although some schools offer longer hours for study halls and recreational activities. Courses in public schools are taught in German and, if you have a child who does not speak the language, they may struggle to keep up. International schools, however, offer German as part of the curriculum, making it possible for your child to eventually transfer to a public school should you decide to stay in the country long-term.

If you are moving abroad with a baby or small child, you will be happy to note that German preschools, daycares, and kindergartens are of high quality. Over half of the children in Germany aged three to six years old attend kindergarten, and there are four types of daycares to choose from. However, keep in mind that with these high standards can come high costs and long waiting lists.

The Education System in Germany

For an expat wondering what school is like in Germany, the education system may seem peculiar. There are two age groups for children before they start compulsory school at around six years old: children can go to a nursery from eight weeks to three years old, then kindergarten from three years to six years old. Also, there are four types of secondary schools to choose from: Gymnasium, Fachoberschule, Realschule, and Gesamtschule.

Education Facts in Germany

It is free to go to school in Germany and children must attend from preschool level up until the age of 14 or 16, depending on the state in which you live. Note that kindergarten is not mandatory and there is usually a fee to enroll your child. In this next sub-section, we explain what the school systems are like in Germany.

School System Ages

Ages for Preschool and Primary School

 

Age School Level
3-6 Preschool/Kindergarten
6-10 (12 in Berlin and Brandenburg) Primary School/Grundschule

Ages for Secondary School

Students attend secondary school in Germany from age 10 to 18 (12 to 18 in Berlin and Brandenburg). To meet the needs of all students, secondary education is split into three phases: orientation; first; and second. Each phase has several schooling options available dependent on a student’s learning abilities.

  • Orientation phase: for students aged 10-12
    • Gymnasium: for high-performing students. This leads to university.
    • Realschule: for mid-level students. This leads to vocational training.
    • Hauptschule: a slower-paced school.
    • Gesamtschule: a comprehensive school. This school may combine elements of the other three school types.
  • First phase: for students aged 12-15/16
    • School options are the same as in the orientation phase.
  • Second Phase: for students aged 16-18
    • Gymnasium or Gesamtschule: university and college preparatory classes.
    • Berufsfachschule: vocational training.
    • Berufsschule: a This combines work and classes.
    • Fachoberschule: a specialist higher technical school.

Different Paths for Different Students

As students progress through school, they will reach a point where their level of academic ability and achievement leads them down one of three paths: the advanced Gymnasium school, the middle level Realschule, and the more practical Hauptschule. Another option is to attend the comprehensive Gesamtschule school, which combines advanced, basic, and general education, depending on a student’s skills and abilities.

A Gymnasium school is suited to students who plan to continue their studies at college, while a Realschule might be better for those planning to take up a white-collar job. Finally, a Hauptschule could be a good option for young people interested in learning a trade or doing a blue-collar job. Students who have attended a Gesamtschule can either begin vocational training afterwards or continue with their academic studies. You can find out more about these different schools later on in this section.

The School Week

Standard school hours run between 8:00 and 14:00. Some schools offer extra hours outside of these times. These extra hours can be used as study periods, for extracurricular activities, and may even include a meal in the cafeteria. The school year usually starts in September and ends in June.

There is a weekly curriculum with a broad variety of mandatory subjects, including physical education, music, and art class. Religious education (R.E.) 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.

The Grading System

Grades are given on a grading point scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the best grade and 6 being the lowest.

  • 1 to 1.5: Very Good
  • 1.6 to 2.5: Good
  • 2.6 to 3.5: Satisfactory
  • 3.6 to 4: Sufficient
  • 5: Not Sufficient/Failed

Very poor grades could result in students having to repeat an entire year or even having to switch schools.

The Main Differences Between Public and Private Schools

Public schools in Germany are maintained and paid for by the government: they are free-of-charge and offer high-quality education. As a result, there are relatively few private schools in Germany.

The few private schools that exist are regulated to ensure they meet the minimum standards of a public school. Out of 8.4 million children who go to school in Germany, around 750,000 go to private ones.

Of these schools, about 25% are catholic, 15% are Lutheran, and around 10% are Waldorf schools, while the rest cannot be categorized. And there are two types of private school: Ergänzungsschulen and Ersatzschulen.

Ergänzungsschulen are schools at secondary level, run by private investors, private organizations, and occasionally religious groups. These private schools, many of which are focused on vocational study, provide a curriculum which is different in some way to public schools in the country. Their funding comes solely from tuition fees.

Ersatzschulen offer the same sort of education as public schools at primary and secondary level, but they are run by private entities, private organizations, or religious groups. Government regulations require that teachers’ academic backgrounds are at least equal to teachers at public schools. These schools receive funding via modest tuition fees and mainly public funds.

Regulating Private Education

Law in Germany prevents private schools from being created for the sole use of students from wealthy families, and it also dictates they must be affordable and not be for profit. However, private schools can charge tuition fees if their individual state in Germany allows it. These schools are funded by parents and state subsidies.

Fees are banned in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but schools there receive substantial financial backing from the state. The church funds its associated schools, meaning these are some of the most affordable to attend. In Germany, parents can deduct up to 5,000 EUR (5,560 USD) per child for school fees from their taxes every year. The only document required for private schools is the school contract, which is signed by parents and the school.

What Makes Private Schools Different?

  • Because they are private, alternative schools, they might offer a different style or approach to education to public schools. Some examples of different educational approaches include Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia.
  • Some private schools try to teach certain ideas, such as those associated with a particular religion.
  • Teachers at private schools must complete the same training as teachers at public schools.
  • The academic performance is more or less equal in Germany’s state and private schools.

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.

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Daycare and Kindergarten

The needs of mothers and their young children are protected by the German preschool system, with daycare and kindergarten designed to respect their well-being. Since 2013, children more than one year old are entitled to subsidized childcare. And in Berlin, day care is completely free for parents, although places are scarce.

Although children are entitled to childcare, preschool and kindergarten are not mandatory in Germany.

The educational approach guiding German kindergartens is based on voluntary and important early development. Over 80% of children between three and six years old attend kindergarten in Germany.

In terms of the family, gender roles often follow a traditional pattern, where working mothers are rarer than in other European countries, such as the UK, Sweden, Austria, and Portugal. The difference between women and men with children less than six years old who are employed is 30% in Germany, while it is only 10% in Sweden, about 27% in the UK, about 20% in Austria, and about 15% in Portugal.

The country’s declining birth rate has provoked a discussion on co-parenting, childcare reform, and new opening hours for kindergartens in Germany.

What Age Do You Start Kindergarten?

Children tend to go to kindergarten from three years old until six years old, when they start primary school, also known as Grundschule. They usually enter the first year of kindergarten (junior kindergarten) the September after their fourth birthday, and their second year (senior kindergarten or Vorschule) the following September.

Financial Support for Childcare and Kindergartens in Germany

Tax-paying parents in Germany are entitled to a child benefit, called Kindergeld, which can be worth 204 to 235 EUR (230 to 260 USD) per child every month. They can claim this until the child is 18, or 25 if the child is still in school and is not earning more than 7,680 EUR (8,360 USD) annually. Those with disabilities that stop them from working can receive Kindergeld indefinitely.

Daycare and Kindergarten Fees

Child benefits can help parents pay for school supplies costs and kindergarten fees, which vary between roughly between 70 and 120 EUR (80 and 135 USD) per month for state-run centers, and between 150 and 200 EUR (170 and 230 USD) for private centers.

The Different Types of Daycare

  • Kinderkrippe (nursery): these centers are suitable for babies and children up to three years old. You have to pay to send your child to a Kinderkrippe.
  • Kindergarten: for children between three and six years old; paid-for by parents.
  • Kitas (daycare centers): for after-school and pre-school care for children up to around 12 years old; fees apply to parents.

Primary and Secondary Education

As an expatriate, you might be ideally-positioned to provide your child with an education at one of the best primary and secondary schools in Germany—this is because the schools that are often the best for expat children—international schools—offer some of the best learning conditions. However, you will have access to public schools too, where there will be no, or inconsequential, registration costs to worry about.

Primary School

Children tend to enter primary school (elementary school), known as Grundschule, at six years old. They stay there until they are 10, or 12, if they study in Berlin or Brandenburg. They then go on to one of the four types of secondary school. Classes in primary schools are divided by age and grade level.

This is the stage where children can start to learn a foreign language, often English. Even at this relatively early stage, the students’ ability is regularly assessed, and poor development can mean children must repeat a year, while children who show unusual promise may be offered the chance to skip a year.

Many non-native children start primary school without being able to speak good German, and it is not uncommon for 80% of children in a grade to be non-native. Due to this, there have been calls for children to spend more time at preschool level in order to gain a better grasp of the German language.

Secondary School and High Schools

The variety of secondary schools in Germany can seem 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 unique type of academic program. Schools in Germany also have their fair share of critics who find fault with the highly selective and exclusive nature of some schools, the overall length of education, prohibition of homeschooling, and other aspects. The following are the different forms of secondary school in Germany.

Gymnasium

Out of Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, and Gymnasium, Gymnasium requires the most application, as it is the route for children who want to go to university. This type of secondary school allows you to gain the Abitur, which is the key qualification needed to join a university.

If your children are expats and do not speak German fluently, they might be able to attend German classes at a Gymnasium, alongside their primary studies.

A Gymnasium is the place to study if you want to learn from the best teachers—the standard of instruction at this type of secondary school is second-to-none. And not only does the Abitur gained at a Gymnasium allow you to attend university in Germany, it is internationally recognized, so attendees will be able to apply to universities around the world.

Realschule

Realschulen (also known as Mittelschulen) in Germany is sometimes called an intermediate school. This type of school was introduced in the 18th century to provide a different option to the previously described Gymnasium. Students attend from grade five to ten, and once completing their studies there, some of their options are to work in lower level government, industry, and business. These schools share the same curriculum as Hauptschulen, but they learn one more foreign language. Students also learn shorthand, bookkeeping, word processing, and other computing skills.

Hauptschule

Hauptschulen are generally for students who are not very academically-inclined. It only lasts from 5th to 9th grade (but can last until 10th grade in some states), at which point individuals can go on to a full-time vocational school until they are 18 years old. There they can learn to be, for example, a technician or tradesman. Alternatively, graduates can go on to apprenticeships alongside part-time learning.

It is also common in these schools for German, geography, history, math, and a foreign language to be taught.

Gesamtschule

You could say Gesamtschule is a mixture of the three types of secondary school previously mentioned. This school goes from grade 5 to grade 9 or 10 and you can earn several types of certificate, unlike in the other types of secondary school. These schools have the capacity to provide appropriate education for children, no matter if they are less academic, are more advanced, especially gifted, or interested in pushing their learning potential.

Once students come to the end of their studies at a Gesamtschule, they can move on to vocational training or continue with further education.

International Schools

As the school system is very specific in Germany and certificates are not always accepted at universities abroad, many expats choose to send their children to the best international schools, which present internationally recognized qualifications.

Switching from one international school to another is relatively easy. International schools often share educational standards, a common curriculum, and transferable credit points.

There are a number of international schools in Germany, ranging from American, British, and Catholic schools, to German international schools, and French schools.

The Best International Schools in Germany

Berlin
  • BBIS Berlin Brandenburg International School
  • Berlin British School
  • Berlin International School
  • Berlin Metropolitan School
  • International School Villa Amalienhof (SIS Swiss International School)
Bonn
  • Bonn International School
  • Independent Bonn International School
Cologne
  • Cologne International School
  • St. George’s The British International School
Düsseldorf
  • International School of Düsseldorf
  • ISR International School on the Rhine
  • George’s The British International School
Frankfurt
  • Frankfurt International School
  • ISF Internationale Schule Frankfurt-Rhein-Main
  • Metropolitan School Frankfurt
  • Strothoff International School
  • Taunus International Montessori School
Hamburg
  • International School of Hamburg
Hannover
  • International School Hannover Region
Heidelberg
  • Heidelberg International School
Leipzig
  • Leipzig International School
Munich
  • Munich International School
  • George’s The British International School
Stuttgart
  • International School of Stuttgart
  • Schule Schloss Salem
Weimar
  • Thuringia International School
Wiesbaden
  • FIS Wiesbaden

 

Schools in Germany for International Students

There is no comprehensive list of all the international schools in Germany — these vary based on where you live – but rest assured you will find plenty in major cities. The Munich International School, for example, offers the International Baccalaureate, as does the Berlin International School.

Whichever school you or your family members attend, adapting to a foreign culture after an international relocation is a challenge. Picking the right school is very important and will have an impact on your family life. Make sure to involve your child in the choice between education in a local or international school in Germany. InterNations GO!’s relocation experts can offer you professional advice on finding an international school in Germany. As well as finding and comparing suitable schools, we can arrange meetings with schools and help you with school registrations.

Attending a local school should help your children make German friends, learn the language, and get fully accustomed to the culture. For your child, getting immersed in the German way of life happens mainly by mixing with German kids at school – a key aspect that international schools, in Germany or elsewhere, may not provide. Some German public schools offer international diplomas and bilingual lessons as well.

On the other hand, international schools in Germany may seem like the obvious choice if your child has already spent some time in an international school in another country or if you plan to relocate again relatively soon. International schools in Germany are full of kids and teens from a variety of cultures, countries, and regions, and your child is sure to make new friends.

How to Choose the Right International School

Apart from socializing, language is the most important factor when choosing a school. Consider the German language skills your child already has or may need in the future. Attending a bilingual institution or an international school in Germany can help your child during an early stage of relocation, whereas attending a German public school will foster integration.

If your child does not speak German yet, attending an international school might serve as preparation for switching to a public school later on, where they can obtain a German diploma.

Most of the best international schools in Germany have special classes for foreign children to focus on studying German, and their staff are competent with regards to language learning issues. Usually, young children learn a lot faster and adapt far more easily than their parents. So, you could also consider sending them to a German school.

International School Requirements

One minimum requirement for international schools and private schools is meeting the demands and standards of the national German school system. Many private or international schools may even have higher standards. For example, your child may have to take an admission test.

Documents Required By International Schools
  • Birth certificate
  • Valid passport
  • Medical record
  • Teacher recommendation letter—a letter written by a former teacher to support a prospective student’s school application.

Apart from these documents, it is advised you check with your chosen school for specific entry and admission requirements.

Higher Education

One of the great things about studying at some of Germany’s best universities is the fact that it is free at all public universities apart from in Baden Württemberg. So, it is no surprise that Germany is the most popular non-English-speaking country to study, and only the third popular behind the UK and US.

In this sub-section, we will tell you about the best universities in Germany for international students and any associated tuition fees. We also explain which visas, if any, you need to study in the country.

The Best Universities for International Students in Germany

See our list of five of the best universities in Germany in 2019 below, chosen in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings. These centers are worth researching if you or your children are going to study in Germany.

  1. LMU Munich, Munich
  2. Technical University of Munich, Munich
  3. Heidelberg University, Heidelberg
  4. Humboldt University of Berlin, Berlin
  5. University of Freiburg, Freiburg

 

How Much Does it Cost to Study in Germany for International Students?

It is free for international and local students to study at public universities in Germany; however, there are administration fees of around 250 EUR (285 USD) per semester that everyone has to pay.

Bear in mind though, that not it is not free to study at every university in Germany. In 2017, Baden Württemberg reintroduced university tuition fees for second degrees and for students from outside the EU studying at the following institutions in Baden-Württenburg. It is expected other states could follow suit in future.

  • KIT, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie
  • Universität Mannheim
  • Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
  • Universität Konstanz
  • Universität Ulm
  • Universität Freiburg
  • Universität Stuttgart
  • Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

To give you an idea of how much fees can be, Baden Württemberg universities charge 1,500 EUR (1,670 USD) per semester for a non-EU student’s first degree, and all students must pay 650 EUR (720 USD) per semester for a second degree. It is feared that reintroducing tuition fees in Germany could deter students from less developed countries from choosing to study here. After fees were reintroduced in Baden Württemberg, seven universities in the state saw a third of their international students leave within a year.

Private University Tuition Fees in Germany

While public universities are almost all free, studying at a private university in Germany can cost more than 20,000 EUR (22,800 USD) per year.

Some of the top-ranking private universities in Germany are:

  • Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin
  • Jacobs University Bremen
  • Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
  • Hochschule für Bankwirtschaft Frankfurt am Main
  • Universität Witten/Herdecke
  • European School of Management and Technology
  • Fachhochschule für Oekonomie and Management
  • WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management
  • Fachhochschule Wedel
  • Hochschule Fresenius

Visas

There are a couple of university visas for those students and prospective students who require one:

German Student Applicant Visa – This is for prospective students who need to apply to a university in Germany in person. It allows you to apply but it does not give you permission to attend university in Germany.

German Student Visa – Get this visa if you have already been accepted by a university in Germany and are ready to start studying.

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Language Schools

Language schools can be an affordable and convenient lifeline for expats wanting to settle into their new lives in Germany. Although many Germans speak other languages, people do not generally expect to have to speak a foreign language to communicate with others, even if you come from another country. It is especially important to have some German language skills if you are going to enter the world of work.

The German language dominates workplaces everywhere, albeit to a lesser extent in cosmopolitan Berlin, and you will need some level of proficiency to get by. If you are lucky, your new employer will offer you free German lessons as part of your contract, to help you settle in.

Language school fees vary, but if you choose to find classes yourself, you will find intensive group classes at around 200 EUR (222 USD) for 20 lessons a week. If you would prefer one-to-one classes, they are available for around 35 EUR (39 USD) per lesson.

Integration Courses

To help you integrate into life in Germany, you might be able to take German language classes for free or around 2 EUR (2 USD) per lesson. An integration course tends to include 700 hours, but you do not have to pay for the entire course at once. Classes are open to EU and non-EU citizens, and ethnic German resettlers. They are designed to supply you with a high enough level of German language comprehension for everyday life. In these integration courses, you will also learn about the country’s history, culture, and legal system.

To enroll in an integration course, go to your nearest foreigners’ registration office where you will be given a certificate after completing the course. If you are an EU citizen, you should contact the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). You can call BAMF on +49 911 943-0.

Popular Language Schools in Germany

Aachen
  • Berlitz Sprachshule – Berlitz have schools in many towns and cities. You can use their course finder to see a comprehensive list of locations.
Berlin
  • Berlitz Sprachshule
  • Goethe Institute
  • DeutschAkademie
Bremen
  • Berlitz Sprachshule
Hamburg
  • DeutschAkademie
  • Goethe Institute
Munich
  • DeutschAkademie
  • Goethe Institute
Frankfurt
  • Goethe Institute
Mainz
  • EVOLANGUAGE—has schools across the country.
Cologne, Stuttgart, and Leipzig
  • Linguarama

Visas

The German Language Course Visa is an educational visa issued to foreigners who wish to complete an intensive German language course in the country. InterNations GO! helps expats choose the right visa.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: August 20, 2020

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