Education is so essential and still so different in every country. In Germany even the Bundesländer (states) differ in their concepts of education. Decisions about education like the school system or fees for studying are up to the states. In the state where I come from, the education starts with Kindergarten. You can enter Kindergarten by the age of 2 but it’s not an obligation. There is no fee for Kindergarten. By the age of 6 or 7, children enter the Grundschule (elementary school). They spend the first four years of their school education at this type of school. Often, the class has only one or two teachers for all subjects. New is that some pupils in the 3rd grade start to study a foreign language. After the 4th grade, students get a recommendation from their teacher for a certain type of secondary school.
When I was a student, there were three kinds of schools: the Hauptschule, the Realschule and the Gymnasium. The weakest students went to the Hauptschule for five more years. After nine years of school education, they graduate and try to find an apprenticeship or change to another school to study longer. While in Hauptschule, they study one foreign language. Most of the times, this is English. Stronger students go to the Realschule which takes 6 more years of education. While in Realschule, the students have to study at least one foreign language but also have the opportunity to study another foreign language. The order of the foreign languages are usually English and then French, or by some exceptions the other way around. After the Realschule, a lot of students also try to find a job or apprenticeship; but a lot of students also continue studying and change to the Gymnasium for the last 2 ½ years.
Since 2009, there is the step by step introduction of RealschulePlus, which is in integration of Hauptschule and Realschule with more possibilities to ascend to the “highest” school type: the Gymnasium. Students of the Gymnasium spend 8 ½ years at this school. In the 5th grade, they study their first foreign language, in the 7th grade the second langauge. Both languages are obligatory and in the 9th grade, the students have the possibility to study another foreign language. It depends on the school which languages you can study and in which order. I, for example, started with French then English and Latin, but you also had the possibility to study these languages in another order; or Spanish instead of Latin, for example. After the 10th grade, it starts to get serious. You have to choose three main subjects and you can drop some subjects. You have your main subjects five times a week and the others only 3 times. You can’t drop whatever you want, there are some restrictions. You have to keep at least two foreign languages, German, Math, at least one science subject (chemistry, biology or physics), one art subject (visual arts, music or performing arts), geography, history and politics. Before you get your Abitur (that’s the German diploma which allows you to study, equivalent to a high school diploma), you have to pass three big written exams in your main subjects and one oral exam in one of your minor subjects. I, for example, wrote my exams in German, French and Politics and had to pass the oral exam in Math. If you successfully pass all the exams, you get the general qualification for university entrance. After the Abitur, the students have to decide if they try to get an apprenticeship (in a bank for example) or if they want to study. Students who want to study apply for different universities, and their choice is not only influenced by the distance to their hometown, or the offer of studies from the universities. There is another really important factor: Do I have to pay for studying or not? Like I said, the education policies are up to the states. That means every state can decide if they take fees for studying or not. Luckily, Rheinland-Pfalz takes no fees. But even if you study in a state where you have to pay (only two states with fees are left and they might change their policies soon), you pay less than in the U.S.. Paying for studying means around 500€ (680$) for one semester. If you are accepted at a university, you start to study for the Bachelor degree, unless you want to become a lawyer or a doctor. These students still graduate with the Staatsexamen or Magister, and it takes ages to get them. At the university, you don’t need to fulfill any requirements like taking a language or a science class. From the very beginning, you have to know what you want to study because you apply only for these subjects. If you want to change, you have to apply again for another subject. The Bachelor usually takes 3 years and then you can decide if you want to work or study longer. The chance of getting into a Masters program are not that high because there are fewer places than people who want to do it; so you need to be a good student. The Master takes 2 more years.
A good thing about the education system in Germany is that you get a lot of financial support. Like I said, there are a lot of universities where you can study for free and the books are usually also not as expensive as they are here. But if your parents haven’t enough money to support you or to rent a flat, you can get support from the government. That’s the so-called BaföG (Federal Education and Training Assistance Act). It’s similar to a loan with really good conditions. You have to fulfill some requirements like getting enough credit points and not studying longer than 3 years (for Bachelor) but the good thing is that you have to pay only the half of it back without interest.
I feel really lucky to have grown up in Germany with an education system like that, although I would prefer that all states have the exact same education system because moving from one state to another can be difficult for families and children because they have to change to a new school system. The system I described above is the one in Rheinland-Pfalz.