Schools and Universities in the German-speaking Countries

Kindergarten (literally “children’s garden”) is both a German word and a German invention. The kindergarten pre-school educational philosophy has been widely adopted around the world. It is thus somewhat ironic to discover that kindergarten in Germany is not usually part of the state-supported school system (except in former East Germany), even though about 85 percent of German youngsters between the ages of three and six attend voluntary community and church-supported kindergartens.

Humboldt University

The Humboldt University of Berlin was founded in 1810 as the University of Berlin by the educational reformer and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt.
PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

It was the Swiss Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) who first developed many of the basic pedagogical approaches and teacher training principles that today’s educators all over the world take for granted. Zurich-born Pestalozzi’s ideas had spread as far as the United States by the 1860s, and his theories influenced Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the German founder of the first kindergarten, as well as many other educators and philosophers.

The German education system
The educational system in the German-speaking countries generally follows the European model of free public education and a variety of secondary schools for academic and vocational education, rather than the American model of a single comprehensive high school for all students. Although there are some differences among them, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland all have a primary school (Grundschule or Volksschule) that begins at age six and lasts four years (five or six in some places), a secondary level that generally starts at age 11 (grade 5) and is divided into a less academic Hauptschule (to grade 10) leading to vocational education, an intermediate Realschule (not in Austria) leading to a technical or business school, and the academically oriented Gymnasium that leads to the Abitur or Matura diploma and a university education. Special education classes or special schools are offered for students with mental or physical disabilities.

More on The German Way
The German School System
How does the German school system work?

In Germany and Switzerland education is primarily a responsibility of the states or cantons, and the educational system may vary from state to state. In Austria the education system is more centralized, with the federal government in Vienna bearing the major responsibility for curriculum and the funding of schools. Local entities and the nine Austrian Bundesländer (provinces) have responsibility for school regulations and the day-to-day running of schools through school committees. Austrian school law, unlike most countries, is a part of the constitution, and any change requires a two-thirds vote in parliament. This Austrian centralization goes back to the Imperial Primary Schools Act of 1869 and Austria’s imperial Habsburg history. Germany and Switzerland both have much less federal educational control and uniformity. The Swiss cantons (provinces), in particular, have their own educational systems, and the education model varies quite a bit from canton to canton. Germany’s system varies less from state to state.

A typical school day starts at 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning. Classes are on a college-style schedule, with some courses offered only two or three times a week. A typical class period (Stunde/hour) is actually 45 minute long. Up until the mid-1990s in some Länder there was also school on Saturday mornings, in some areas only on alternate Saturdays. That is pretty much a thing of the past now. Although the school year is ten months long and the summer vacation period only lasts about six weeks, students get more holidays and short vacations during the school year than American students. However, the number of school days per year is not that different: Germany: 188; USA: 180. (The 2015 figure varies slightly by state, from 187 in Berlin to 190 in NRW.**) The curriculum usually focuses on mostly academic subjects, even in vocational schools, with a limited offering of physical education, sports, art, and music.

Catholic or Protestant religious instruction is a required subject, but students over the age of 14 can opt out. In Berlin and some other German states, students can take an ethics course instead. Only in a few cities is instruction available for Muslim students, and that is a recent development aimed largely at Germany’s Turkish minority.

Interscholastic sports competition is rare, though there may be an occasional track and field contest. Computer science courses are increasingly available, but access to computers and other technology can vary widely. A 15 or 20-minute break around 10:30 am, called the große Pause, gives students and teachers the opportunity to have a snack and relax before classes start again. Students usually go home for lunch, and in the afternoon they usually have a fair amount of homework to do. There is often no school cafeteria, as the school day typically ends at around noon or 1:00 pm. However, many schools in the former GDR still have cafeterias, and the advent of Ganztagschulen (all-day schools) in recent years in some states has required new school cafeterias.

The grading scale runs from one (the best mark) to six (five in Austria). Students receiving a poor mark of five or six in several subjects may have to repeat a year, but this is rare. School is compulsory between the ages of six and 15, but most students attend school until age 18 or 19 when they graduate from Gymnasium or advanced vocational school. In western Germany students used to finish Gymnasium at the end of the 13th grade, but as of 2011, all students in Germany now graduate after the 12th year.

Students and their parents have the choice of which school they want to attend, provided their grades are good enough and that the school will accept the student. This means that at age 10 they must select either a Hauptschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium. Students are not “zoned” to any particular school in a community, and in larger cities they may have a choice of several schools that offer the curriculum they wish to study. Most schools are state-run, but schools run by a church also receive public funding. Private and boarding schools (Internate) do exist, but they are more rare than in most countries. Homeschooling is forbidden in Germany. (See the GW Expat Blog entry “Homeschooling verboten” for more.) Education and teachers are generally held in high regard in the German-speaking world. Teachers are well-paid state employees. University professors often have more prestige than German business executives.

Theoretically, a Matura or Abitur diploma entitles a student to automatically enter the university. While in the 1960s only about 8-10 percent of Germany’s college-age students pursued university studies, now more than 30 percent go on to college. That has caused overcrowding and limitations on German university entrance, particularly in fields such as medicine and dentistry. A quota system known as Numerus Clausus means that competition is high; students must be at the top of their class if they want to study in a popular major. Although there are no tuition fees, or very low fees in some states* for the universities in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland (and few private colleges), many students need financial assistance for materials and living expenses. In Germany, under the so-called BAFöG program, students can apply for financial aid, half of which is a grant and half a loan that must be paid back when the student is working in his or her chosen profession. In recent years there has been some debate about this funding and the length of time some students take to finish their studies. Compared to American undergraduates, German university students are left much more on their own, can take a lot of time between required tests, and must do more independent work. This often leads to longer study times.

In all of the German-speaking countries, educational reform has been a hot topic of discussion in recent years. At all levels, from kindergarten to university, critics have been calling for changes in the traditional way of running schools. At the same time, some educational experiments – notably the comprehensive high school (Gesamtschule) and the entire overburdened German university system – have come under fire. School discipline has increasingly become a problem in urban areas. Although everyone agrees that there are problems in education, not everyone agrees on just what changes are needed.

Next | The German School System

This GW article is based on a chapter in The German Way book by Hyde Flippo.

*Up until a few years ago, there were NO tuition fees at all for attending a German public university. After several states introduced tuition fees, German students, long used to paying nothing, protested the introduction of any tuition fees at all, low or otherwise. In 2014 Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) became the last state to join all 16 in charging no university tuition. Learn more about this in Free College Degrees in Germany and The German School System. (Ed.)

**Figures based on Lehrer-Arbeitstage (teacher work days) per academic year ( The number of pupil school days is 2-3 days less than for teachers.

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