I am going to attempt to explain the German education system in the simplest terms possible. For those with further education who can handle the exceptions, I have listed them at the end.
When a child is born in Germany, it has the right to a place in a daycare from the age of one year, starting in 2012. Daycare is referred to as Kinderkrippe, Kleinkindbetreuung or Kindertagespflege, although the latter only refers to the care of children in private homes with a Tagesmutter, not to a daycare center.
From the age of 3 years until they are old enough to start first grade (usually age six by the end of September), children attend Kindergarten. Kindergarten in Germany is usually mixed-age preschool and American “kindergarten” all jumbled together. The preschools on offer are almost all publicly subsidized, and fees vary in each city. Often the fees reduce with the number of children you have (and they don’t even have to be attending preschool), sometimes are linked to your income, or taken from a table based on the number of hours your child attends. There are preschools that are half-day, some are all-day, some serve lunch and some do not. The good ones have a waiting list, and for the most part, parents wishing for their children to start after their 3rd birthday need to get them registered at preschool by February of that year. The number of spots varies from state to state – in Baden-Württemberg, space is tight, especially in Stuttgart. In Berlin, there is much more on offer.
Elementary school, Grundschule, begins in first grade and goes through fourth grade. The Germans believe strongly in the value of the three R’s: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. The elementary years are seen as a time for academic rigor, to test which direction a child will take in life. Students regularly sit standardized tests in order to rank them against their peers state-wide and these tests are used in the recommendations given during 4th grade as to which level of schooling a child should attend from 5th grade onward. Private tutors are not uncommon for grades 3 and 4, so that children get the best recommendation possible.
In fifth grade, students begin at one of three types of school – although this is slowly changing and it looks as if in the next few years, it might evolve into a two-tier system. We shall see what politics and populism bring.
1. Hauptschule: This is the blue-collar track that will educate students through grade 9. These students will end with a Hauptschulabschluss and can then start some kind of vocational training in a trade or work in a factory.
2. Realschule: This is the white-collar track, which educates students through grade 10. These students will end with the Mittlere Reife, which qualifies them for apprenticeships in office work.
3. Gymnasium: This is the college-prep track, which educates students through grade 12. It used to be through grade 13, but that has been compacted so that the curriculum is delivered in a shorter amount of time. Students will end up with an Abitur, which qualifies them for studying at the Universität, Fachhochschule, or a Berfusakademie.
The easiest path to an Abitur is to go from Grundschule to Gymnasium, but not all students are ready for that in grade 5. For an overview of each state and the possibilities for getting an Abitur in that state, this map from the magazine Focus helps immensely.
At a Universität, students study a given subject only – whether business or chemistry or industrial design. There are no liberal-arts universities where students must learn a variety of fields, yet German students are incredibly knowledgeable, no doubt due to the rigorous Abitur. Due to a recent European reform to make it easier for students and workers to move throughout Europe, students now study for a Bachelor or Master’s degree, whereas until a few years ago, students at the Universität received a Diplom, which was equivalent to a Master’s.
The Fachhochschule offers Bachelor degrees as well, but these are not research universities and do not award postgraduate degrees such as a PhD, MD, and so on. The Berufsakademie is an interesting combination of college-level education and on-the-job training, and the students walk away with a Bachelor degree, work experience, and a career network.
Should you have a child with special needs, they will not be mainstreamed but sent instead to the Sonderschule. There is no special certificate for students completing the grades at a Sonderschule – they are given a certificate of participation. These students can hope to get jobs working simple labor after they finish 12 years of schooling.
In Germany, you always the the right stamp on the right piece of paper or you are not qualified for your next step, whether another school, studies, or a job. So what happens if you don’t participate in the public school system? I know of Waldorf students who completed 13 years of education and left without any piece of paper, who then had to spend another 4 years in adult secondary education in order to earn the right to study at a university. Private schools exist across Germany and are mostly state-subsidized, although some are not. There are a handful of boarding schools, although sending your child to a boarding school in England is more popular than within Germany. There are also International Schools (complete list here) and European Schools (another list here) which align to different standards. The International Schools serve two populations: the expatriate communities of diplomatic and business families, and the local community of internationally-minded families. Be careful when choosing private schools if you hope for your child to attend a German university, and be sure that your child has the opportunity to complete the course requirements for university entrance.
Now for the exceptions. Can you switch between the tracks? Yes, but it involves testing and probably some make-up work. Students must have high enough grades on their report cards to be considered for moving up to a more academic track. Can you go somewhere after you get your Mittlere Reife? Yes, to a trade-based Gymnasium, where you get a slightly different form of the Abitur but will still qualify for university. Who chooses which school your child attends after grade 4? It used to be the elementary school teachers, but that is currently going out of fashion, and more choice for parents and families is being allowed.
The education system here is complex but the Germans cling to it and are loathe to change it. As a casual observer, I think the average German is pretty well-educated, regardless of his or her background. The apprenticeship system is robust and thoroughly networked, and offers opportunities for teenagers who don’t want to attend university to get out in the world and start earning money and making a difference; being allowed to make these choices and follow a path of interest at this age appears to have the positive effect of making German teenagers a bit more mature – but that is purely based on observation.
Choosing the right school and the best schooling options for your children is an important process for any family. Many readers of this site will be looking for bilingual options, which are mostly found in the European or International schools, although there are increasingly bilingual tracks at select Gymnasiums as well. Every child is an individual and hopefully you can find a school that will suit your children and meet their educational needs.
PS. Don’t expect school sports teams… for that you need to join the local Verein (sports club)