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The German Education System and the “Children’s Garden”

What is there to know about the education system in Germany? A lot and it’s also quite complicated.
The public school system in Germany is more extensive than in other countries and there are many fewer private and parochial schools. Some alternative educational models, such as Waldorf and Montessori, are also integrated and a valid choice for parents.

First of all, it is important to know that the education system in Germany varies from state to state. Each of the 16 German states (Bundesländer) are responsible for the laws and regulations of education and, therefore, there can be a lot of variation in the school system across the state. I’ll focus on public schools in this article, as well as the state „Nordrhein-Westfalen“ (Northrhine-Westfalia), since I went to school there.


The very first step for children to leave their home is to go to preschool, which is called “Kindergarten.” People in the U.S. also use this term, which is a German word and invention and literally means “children’s garden.” Contrary to puplic opinion, Kindergarten in Germany is usually not a state supported school system and therefore not free and also not compulsory. Nonetheless, the majority of children between the ages of 3 to 6 go to voluntary communities or church-supported facilites where playing outside (weather does not really matter) and socializing with other children are the main concepts.


Grundschule (Grades 1-4)

The next stage for a child is to attend “Grundschule” (primary school), which is compulsory from this stage on. In my case, “Grundschule” was from first to fourth grade, so the children are usually between 6 and 9 years old. A special event is the first day of class, which we call “Einschulung.” Each child gets a “Schultüte” (a large cornet of cardboard filled with sweets and little presents), which have different designs, and they proudly carry them around with them the whole day, until they are finally allowed to unpack their presents. They have now successufully been introduced to society as “school children” and passed their rite of passage.
Here, the children are taught basic math, grammar and reading, sciences, art, music, PE, religion or ethics lessons, and English. There is also a big stress on social developments, as well, like self-reliance, problem solving skills, social interactions, etc.


Secondary Schools

After the Grundschule, the children get split up and transfer to one of the different types of secondary schools. For all schools, starting in primary school, parents and children can decide which school they’d like to go to. Unlike the U.S., where students are limited to a school or neighborhood in their district. The only requirement is that their grades are good enough for the school to accept the child. Also, the teachers in the “Grundschule” give a recommendation for which school type the child should go to. And, depending on the state, the parents have to follow these or can decide on their own.

These are the different types of secondary schools to choose from:

Hauptschule (grades 5-9 or 5-10)
One of the options is “Hauptschule.” The main objective here is to prepare the students to enter the world of work with focus on vocation-oriented courses and apprenticeships. It is generally considered the least demanding type of the secondary schools and has gotten less and less popular throughout the nation as an option. After the students earn their degree at Hauptschule, students often continue with a vocational training in different kinds of schools or businesses.

Realschule (grades 5-10)

The “Realschule” is designed for students who pursue mid-level and nonprofessional careers, while also allowing them with the possibility to access secondary level education (Abitur) and a university entrance. There is a wider range of subjects (in comparison to the “Hauptschule”) and more advanced courses. If the grades of a student are good enough, it is also possible to be transferred to a “Gymnasium,” which I will elaborate on in the following. By the way, it is possible to transfer between the different types of schools, but your grades have to be good enough and the school has to accept the students.

Gymnasium (grades 5-12 or 5-13)
The “Gymnasium,” not to be mistaken for a gym in the U.S., prepares students more specifically for a university education. The curriculum is more academic in comparison to the other schools and also has a long history in Germany, dating back to 1528. Here, at least two foreign languages are required (one is English and the other is most often French, Spanish or Latin). Grades 5-10 are still compulsory and grades 11-12 or 11-13 are voluntary, but need to be completed to gain access to university. In those last years, students earn their “Abitur” (final examination and degree), where students are able to choose which higher classes they would like to focus on. They have more variety of classes to focus and specialize on, but also need to fulfill certain requirements. Depending on the states, it varies if the Abitur is from grade 11-12 or 11-13. I had 13 grades, but soon after it was changed to 12 grades in my hometown. This is still debated today and changes still occur.

Gesamtschule (grade 5-10 and 11-13)
The “Gesamtschule” is another concept which has different goals. This school is meant for children with all sorts of different abilities and combines elements from the other school systems already described. It was introduced later than the other school types. Students can gain their certificates from all the different schools. And depending on their school level, they can also do their “Abitur” from grade 11-13. This model would come nearest to the U.S. high school system.

The last type is designed for children with special educational, mental and physical needs. Here, the teachers have to be trained specially and the classes are usually smaller than in regular schools. There is a current trend toward a more inclusive education model and children with disabilites in most states also have the choice to attend a regular school if they want to.

For a better understanding, this graph should help to understand the differences in the school types:


Another interesting fact is that (compared to the U.S.) in Germany, homeschooling is forbidden. Germany has a compulsory school attendance law that requires school attendance (Schulpflicht) from age 6 until age 15.
Last but not least, let’s focus on the school day. When I went to school, the day usually started at 8:00 am and finished around 1:15 pm. But in some schools, there are full days of education, which is most common in the Gesamtschule with study hours for homework and extracurricular activities. Each day you have different subjects and the class schedule resembles a U.S. college schedule. Some subjects are taught two times a week and some 3 times. One class lasts for 45 minutes and sometimes they can be combined to 90 minute classes. The break periods are usually short (5 minutes), with two longer breaks (20 minutes and 15 minutes) per day. Most schools have no cafeteria and students only eat snacks there and their main meal at home. Extracurricular activities are not as common as in the U.S. and athletics are practiced most often outside of school in clubs.
The school year is also different. It consists of two semesters and normally starts around August or September. The breaks are longer in fall, winter and spring where students get two full weeks off. In summer, on the other hand, they are shorter with only 6 weeks off. The dates for vacation are also different for each of the states, so usually the break times are on different dates which is good because otherwise everyone would be taking vacation at the same time.

So far, these are all the things that came to my mind when thinking of the education system. The higher education at university could be a whole new article in itself again. I hope you got a better view and understanding and are not overwhelmed by the different school systems. In the last couple of years there have been educational reforms and it has been a hot topic for discussions. So changes are still being made nowadays (which has been evolving from the traditional methods) and most people think that there are still many unsolved problems concerning education, but the problem is to agree on what needs to be changed and what doesn’t.

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