The German education system

A beginner’s guide

The German education system

Germany was one of the first countries to introduce compulsory schooling. Optional kindergarten education is provided for all children between three and six years old, after which school attendance is compulsory for ten to thirteen years.

Education is the responsibility of the individual states ( Länder), all with different methodologies. Depending on where you go, you will find different school and university structures, exams and enrolment rules.

Until recently, Germans have been proud of their educational standards, but the 2002 OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of the abilities of 15-year-olds in 32 mainly industrialized countries sent a shock-wave across the country when German children came up in the lower ranking. Since then, there has been much debate about educational reforms.

Education is compulsory in Germany for at least nine years (ten in some states), with children beginning full-time education at the age of six years. Education in Germany is generally free from primary school to university. However, today there are attempts to introduce and increase tuition fees in universities.

Egalitarian approach

Unlike other Europeans, Germans have always taken a very egalitarian approach to education. There are special schools for those with mental and physical abilities, but almost no elite schools like France’s Grande Ecoles or the top group of highly selective Univertisities like in the UK (though there are some attempts to set up some special schools for the very gifted as well).

Despite its egalitarian approach, at the age of 10 the German school system separates all children into separate schooling types ( Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule). This separation takes place on based on an assessment of the child’s ability based on the first four primary school years. Critics argue that this is too early to detect a child’s capabilities, so some Länder have set up common schools ( Gesamtschulen) where all children are taught together until the 10th grade. In order to enter a university, high school students are required to take the Abitur examination, which can be done both at the Gymnasium and the Gesamtschule.

Some critics complain that the German education system is only focussed on career and academic achievement, rather than developing the whole person (such as in British or US schools). Most German schools offer few extra-curricular activities such as sports clubs or musical activities, leaving these to other organizations.

Teaching style

The teaching style is generally more formal than in many other countries. There is little contact between the teacher and pupils outside the classroom. In recent years, some city schools have seen increasing problems with discipline. 

Despite these problems and the PISA results, academic standards are generally high – at least compared to other countries. German schools have also been quick to embrace new technologies and the Internet, most of the country’s schools make good use of computers within the classroom as part of teaching.

After school, most children opt either for apprenticeship ( Lehre), which is a unique German way of combining practical with additional classroom training in a Berufsschule, or for a higher education at a university ( Universität) or Fachhochschule. Be aware, that Germans do not tend to recognize foreign qualifications, degrees and training – so it might not be easy to get a foreign title accepted to work in Germany. If your qualification is from an EU country, then this process should be easier since EU regulations encourage member countries to recognize of foreign qualifications.

Further reading

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Other comments

  • Anna, 25 June 2008 Reply

    Discipline and migrants

    "One of the principle caused is often tensions arising from the high proportion of children from ethnic minorities, in places this exceeds 50%"

    I think you should be very careful with such sweeping statements- the article looks cobbled together, I'm wondering whether you simply cut and paste contents without checking in detail.