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Education in Germany

A Comprehensive Guide about the Education System and International Schools

Many expats in Germany choose to send their children to international schools, where they can obtain internationally recognized diplomas. Our guide explores education and international schools in Germany and helps you understand the differences between public and private schools. We also cover daycare, childcare, preschool, and kindergarten.

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

Our guide explains the education system, as well as the process of enrolling your child in either a public or an international school in Germany. You can also find out about the typical school day structure, as well as the different diplomas and qualifications your child can obtain from a German school. If you’re moving abroad with a baby or small child, keep reading to find out about German daycare options, including kindergartens and nannies, as well as the costs and waiting lists that you’ll need to consider.

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How is the Education System in Germany?

For an outsider wondering what school is like in Germany, the system can be difficult to comprehend. It is one of the few that divides its students into different academic groups at a young age.

The Facts about Education in Germany

The German school system is free of charge, and it’s mandatory from preschool up to the age of 14 or 16, depending on the federal state in which you live. Kindergarten and pre-school are available, although places can be difficult to come by and should be signed up for well in advance. Moreover, kindergarten isn’t mandatory or free of charge.

Children usually enter the first year of kindergarten (junior kindergarten) the September after their fourth birthday, and their second year (senior kindergarten) the following September.

International Education

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 international schools.

There are a number of international schools in Germany, ranging from American schools and British academies to French lycées. There are also Catholic schools and kindergartens.

There’s no comprehensive list of schools for international students in Germany — these vary based on where you live but be assured 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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Daycare and Kindergarten

Mothers are often awarded special treatment and protection for themselves and their young children. This also means, however, that gender roles in Germany often follow a traditional pattern where full-time working mothers and career women with young children are rarer than in other countries.

Kindergartens in Germany used to close their doors during lunch time and reopen in the afternoon – mothers were expected to take care of their kids during that time. These expectations are gradually changing. Germany’s declining birth rate, in particular, has provoked many a discussion on co-parenting, childcare reform, and new opening hours for kindergartens in Germany.

Financial Support for Childcare and Kindergartens in Germany

In Germany, families receive special care and protection from the state. Parents living in Germany are entitled to several kinds of government funding, from well before the time their child will be attending kindergarten in Germany and beyond.

Child Allowance

The rates for income tax in Germany are not only dependent on your income, but also on whether you’re a parent or not. Moreover, all parents who have been living in Germany for over six months get a so-called child allowance (Kindergeld) of at least 184 EUR per month for every child under 18. This can help pay for school supplies or sending your child to a kindergarten.

If you’re employed and you decide to personally file your annual tax return instead of relying on the correct amount of tax to be taken each month, the tax office (Finanzamt) assesses whether you’re entitled to more tax breaks or whether the child allowance itself is enough for a parent with your income.

If you’re a national of an EEA member state or Switzerland, you don’t even need a permit in order to receive your monthly child allowance. There are further exceptions for citizens of Algeria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Morocco, Serbia, Tunisia, and Turkey. To learn more about child allowance legislation, ask your local Arbeitsagentur (employment agency).

Maternity Protection

While child allowance is a financial benefit for all parents with children up to 18 years, maternity protection (Mutterschutz) applies to women far advanced in pregnancy and mothers of new-born infants.

Every pregnant working woman in Germany, regardless of her nationality, goes on maternity leave six weeks before her due date. After giving birth, she stays at home for another eight weeks. If she’s not self-employed and has state-funded health insurance, she will keep receiving her average net income during the entire period.

Parental Allowance

To support parents with babies and toddlers too young to attend a kindergarten, the German government introduced the so-called parental allowance (Elterngeld). If you’re an expat parent, you can receive it under the following conditions:

  • You’re a citizen of an EU or EEA member state, a Swiss national, or a third-state national with both a residence permit and a work permit for Germany
  • You have not come to Germany solely to take a university degree or for some other kind of vocational training
  • You want to stay at home to take care of your baby
  • You live in the same household as the baby
  • You don’t intend to work more than 30 hours a week while raising your child

If you meet these conditions, you’ll get 65% of your former average net income (up to 1,800 EUR) for 12 to 14 months. It gets much more complicated when you have several children, would like to share childcare with your partner, accept a job, or receive unemployment benefits.

Primary and Secondary Education

Many of the best primary and secondary schools in Germany are public schools, which 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.

Elementary Schools in Germany

Preschool or kindergarten is not mandatory, but most children attend either or both. If your children are to grow up in Germany, this is definitely an option to consider, since elementary schools usually require sufficient German language skills from their students. In bigger cities, you may find bilingual kindergartens.

Compulsory school education (Schulpflicht) usually starts in September after a child has turned 6. Elementary school lasts for four to six years, depending on where you live. During those early years at schools in Germany, children learn to read, spell, write, learn basic math and geometry skills, tell time, deal with road traffic, play a musical instrument, and use a PC.

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 German schools, the overall length of education, prohibition of homeschooling, and other aspects.

Secondary Schools in Germany

In most federal states you have a 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:

Gymnasium

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, 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.

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 a greater focus on subject areas, like technology or social sciences. However, it limits the choice of degree courses eligible at university level.

Realschule

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.

Hauptschule

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.

Gesamtschule

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.

Further Information on Schools in Germany

Usually, school starts at 8:00 and finishes around 14:00. 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 their child to 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.

International Schools

Public Schools vs. International Schools in Germany

Your choice of school will be influenced by the length of time you intend to stay in Germany. Either way, adapting to a foreign culture after international relocation is a challenge for parents and children alike. 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 local and international schools in Germany.

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 making friends with German kids at school – a key aspect that international schools, in Germany or elsewhere, cannot provide.

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.

The downside is that children at international schools in Germany have little contact with local children. Some German public schools offer international diplomas and bilingual lessons as well.

International Schools in Germany: Overcoming the Language Barrier

Apart from socializing, language is the most important factor when choosing a school. Just 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 visiting a German public school fosters integration.

If your child doesn’t 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 is competent with regards to language learning issues. Usually, young children learn a lot faster and adapt far more easily than their parents. So, don’t be hesitant about sending them to a German school.

International Schools and the German School System

For families that relocate rather often, the advantages of international schools are obvious. But international schools also provide challenging opportunities for local children and prepare them for living and working in an increasingly globalized world.

One minimum requirement for international schools (and private schools in general) is to meet the demands and standards of the national German school system. Many private or international schools may even have higher standards.

Of course, switching from one international school to another is the easiest way for your child if you have to leave Germany again. International schools often share educational standards, a common curriculum, and transferable credit points.

International schools in Germany are usually modern institutions with comfortable facilities, excellent education, and a wealth of extracurricular activities. They might offer both the German Abitur as well as an international university-entrance diploma.

The latter may be particularly popular, which explains why some international schools in Germany have waiting lists. You should also take into account that private international schools’ tuition fees might surpass 20,000 EUR a year.

Higher Education

Higher Education: Spoilt for Choice?

Altogether, there are nearly 400 institutions of higher education (Hochschulen), including universities, in Germany. Only one fifth of them are private institutions. They offer unique subjects to German and international students that may not be available at a state-funded university. Management students in Germany may also prefer to complete their studies at a private business school rather than a public university.

The number of private universities in Germany is increasing, but the majority of students still opt to study at a state-funded Universität or Hochschule. They still dominate the traditional academic fields and offer a wide range of less popular subjects as well.

Today, you can choose from almost 16,000 different degree courses at institutions of higher education in Germany.

Students can choose from about 110 universities (Universitäten) and technical universities (technische Universitäten) and around 220 universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen).

Most students are enrolled at one of these institutions. The creative and artistically-inclined students, however, apply at one of 58 art, film, or music colleges (Kunst-/Film-/Musikhochschulen). The remaining institutions fit neither category: they cater mostly to future theologians or civil servants, who all get their degrees at highly specialized institutions.

A Variety of Degrees

Germany’s system of higher education has been undergoing fundamental changes since the so-called “Bologna Reform” was started in 1997. The ambitious goal to harmonize universities throughout the European Union has led to an enormous increase in degree courses.

Magister Artium and Diplom Qualifications

Since there used to be no bachelor and master’s degrees at German universities, students used to graduate with only the magister artium and the Diplom (comparable to a Master of Arts and a Master of Science, respectively). Programs for bachelors and masters had to be created.

However, as of early 2014, a number of academic institutions were still in a phase of transition or decided to continue certain degree courses. Therefore, students can decide between old and new programs, which co-exist in numerous departments.

Federal State Regulations

Things can get even more confusing when you take into account that regulations between the various federal states may vary. For students enrolled in some degree programs, this means that switching to a different university in another Bundesland may be difficult or even impossible.

Teachers, in particular, can suffer from this federalized framework. If you study to become a teacher, a lawyer, or a theologian, you need to take a special exam (Staatsexamen) either held by the church (for theologians) or by the federal state where you want to work. In practice, young trainee teachers who have successfully completed their degree in one German state may have to acquire additional qualifications before teaching in another.

Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees

However, getting a bachelor’s or a master’s degree is far less complicated: you can get a B.A. or B.Sc. after three or four years of university education; after this, you can apply for a master’s course, which is scheduled for another year or two. However, only an M.A. or M.Sc. allows you to become a Ph.D. student.

All the best universities for international students in Germany also offer a variety of international and bilingual degrees, more than 740 programs altogether (most of them for master’s degrees and Ph.D. students, though).

The most popular language in the classroom is English, but there are courses in French, Spanish, and Italian as well. For an overview of international programs, please have a look at the website of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD – Deutscher Akademischer Austausch-Dienst). The DAAD is one of the most important institutions for international students.

The Bologna Reform

One reason the Bologna Reform has received criticism from Germany’s more politicized students is the impact it has had on daily schedules. Compared to institutions in other countries, universities in Germany – especially in the humanities and social sciences fields – used to allow their students quite a lot of freedom in regards to their curriculum, their academic focus, and the duration of their studies.

Until recently, a considerable number of students chose to work part-time to earn a living, thus taking longer to complete their studies. At almost 28 years, the average German graduate was rather old when he or she finally entered the workforce.

Changes to Degrees

This was one of the major incentives for politicians to encourage reforms. Today’s students face a lot more pressure to obtain their degree within a prescribed period of three to six years.

However, many scholars and students considered this reform to be a “sellout” of traditions held in high regard at German Universität and Hochschule, with their emphasis on self-reliance and academic freedom.

Although studying in Germany no longer requires that much self-discipline and organization, international students may still perceive it as such. To foreign students, the former system (where master students, for example, were completely responsible for their own schedules and credit points) might have seemed downright chaotic.

In 2014, university tuition fees in Germany were removed for foreign and domestic students, however, in 2017 in a bid to reduce the national debt, they were re-introduced for international students and second degrees at the below institutions in Baden-Württenburg.

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

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Language Schools

Fees for language schools in Germany start at around €250 for 20 hours of classes over a two-week period. However, if you’d like to live where you study – in your teacher’s home – for two weeks, it will cost you around €2,000.

Integration Courses

To help you integrate into life in Germany, you might be able to take languages classes for free. Free classes are open to EU and non-EU citizens and are designed to supply you with a high enough level of German language comprehension to do everyday things.

To enroll in an integration course, go to your nearest foreigners’ registration office where you’ll hopefully be given a certificate after completing the course. If you’re an EU citizen, you should call the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

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: July 03, 2019

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