National Educational System

National and Regional Educational Systems

The German school system is different from state to state (Bundesländer). However, there are some regulations and structures common to all 16 states (see below).

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When the children leave pre-school (Kindergarten) around age five to seven they will be sent to primary/elementary school (Grundschule). Grundschule starts at first grade and normally ends at fourth grade, in some states at sixth grade. 

Then, the children will go to one of the three secondary schools to continue their education: Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium

In most states students in Hauptschule (sometimes also called Mittelschule) spend fifth to ninth grade there. Sometimes the tenth grade is included as well. Hauptschule prepares the students for their entry into work and provides basic general education. After they receive their certificate (Hauptschulabschluss) they can for example start vocational training (Ausbildung) that combines work and school, attend full-time vocational school (Berufsfachschule) or continue their secondary education at Realschule.

In Realschule students will be educated from fifth up to the tenth grade, where they can receive a certificate (Realschulabschluss). Additionally, students can also take an exam after year nine to receive a Hauptschulabschluss. In comparison to Hauptschule students are given a wider general education and a general vocational orientation. After Realschule the students can start vocational training (Ausbildung) that combines work and school or full-time vocational school (Berufsfachschule). They can also continue their secondary education by attending the Oberstufe (classes eleven to twelve or 13, depending on the state and school) of Gymnasium or by visiting Fachoberschule

Gymnasium covers grades five to twelve, sometimes up to class 13. This school type offers a broad general education and prepares students for further studies and university. After the tenth grade students receive a certificate (Realschulabschluss) that reflects their grades at that time. After year ten students can choose to leave Gymnasium, for example to start vocational training or enrol in Fachoberschule. If they continue Gymnasium they will attend year eleven to twelve or 13, which are called Oberstufe. Sometimes Oberstufe is from eleventh to twelfth grade (G8), sometimes up to class 13 (G9) depending on the school and state. This is because of new regulations that are being put into action in some schools to shorten the years spent in school while still covering the same topics in class. After successfully completing the certificate examination at the end of Oberstufe the students will receive their Abitur. The Abitur allows students to enrol at university or Fachhochschule.

Sometimes there is also the option to go to a comprehensive school (Gesamtschule). This school type combines the elements of Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium. After tenth grade, the students can decide if they wish to continue their studies at the Gesamtschule or if they follow a different path. However, not all states offer these comprehensive schools. 

The decision on which of the secondary schools to pick is based on academic ability, test scores and the wishes of the parents and students. In some states the grades are the deciding factor, in others, the parents make the final decision.

The Fachoberschule is somehow similar to the Oberstufe in Gymnasium, however, the students can specialize in a specific occupational field. In Oberstufe on the other hand the students get a broader education in various fields. With the successful completion of the Oberstufe the students are given the Abitur (also called Allgemeine Hochschulreife), which enables the students to study at all kinds of universities (Hochschulen) in all fields. In the Fachoberschule the students can obtain the Fachhochschulreife after two years or can add another year (FOS 13) to be given the Fachgebundene Hochschulreife or the Allgemeine Hochschulreife (Abitur). Both Fachhochschulreife and Fachgebundene Hochschulreife have some restrictions on the types of universities and the field of studies the student is allowed to enrol in.

It can sometimes be very difficult to decide which school type might be the best for the child. Often times the children’s performance in school can change significantly during and after puberty. However, there are several ways to change from one school type to another. This might require more effort and studying in the final years of secondary school, but can be achieved nonetheless.

The concept of Duale Ausbildung (vocational/occupational training or apprenticeship) is rarely seen in other countries, but has gained huge popularity in Germany. This type of training combines practical work at a company or institution with the attendance of a vocational school (Berufsschule). The duration is very different depending on the kind of Ausbildung, but usually takes two to three years. Students with a certificate from secondary school can apply directly to companies or other facilities that provide free spaces for Ausbildung. Depending on the type of Ausbildung, however, there are different kinds of requirements regarding the type of certificate needed for a successful application. 

Universities and colleges 

Universities and colleges in Germany usually do not charge any tuition fees. However, depending on the state and university, tuition fees might be charged for second degrees, for foreign students from non-EU countries (this is the case in Baden-Württemberg and some universities in Sachsen) or if the duration of the studies is beyond the standard period of study. In general, there are also no entrance exams for university. Some university courses have no grade requirements, while others base their intake of students on grades, special interviews or assessment tests. In Germany the Bachelor (six semesters) and Master (normally four semesters) system is very common. For some university degrees, however, this is not the case, like law, medicine or a degree as a teacher. For more information on studying at a German university see:

Other kinds of schools

There are also other kinds of schools in the German educational system that might be the right fit for your child.

Germany has an extensive public school system, with private schools (Privatschulen) amounting to at least about 2,500 schools in total. Different to some other countries, the quality of education in public schools is generally seen as equal to those of private schools in Germany. However, sometimes parents like to choose private schools for other benefits that public schools might not have and vice versa.

International schools (Internationale Schulen) are schools that mostly offer English as the primary language used in class. There are also bilingual schools, for example Russian schools or French schools, which offer an education in German and one other language. These types of schools are most often private and therefore require tuition fees. Sometimes these schools also offer a reduction of fees if you meet certain requirements set by the schools. 

There are also schools run by the church or other religious institutions. These include for example Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish schools. Generally, these schools offer lower tuition fees than other private schools.

Other than the standard co-ed schools, single-sex schools only offer education for either boys or girls. Many are run by churches, especially by the Catholic Church.

There are also boarding schools (Internat) in Germany. These can be run by the state or privately and usually charge boarding fees. Generally, they already expect a medium level of proficiency in German.
In most areas, there is also the option to attend an all-day school (Ganztagesschule) or an all-day class (Ganztagesklasse) that some regular schools offer. Here the children are in school until 4 or 5 pm and will be able to receive individual learning support and help with their homework. Of course lunch and free time is also provided.

Special Classes for newly arrived children and young people who do not speak German

Children and young people who come to Germany during the course of their schooling without any prior knowledge of German need particular support. There are preparatory, support or language-learning classes for them where they are taught by specially qualified teachers before transferring to mainstream classes. These classes are often called Übergangsklassen, Vorbereitungsklassen Internationale Klassen or Willkommensklassen, depending on the state. They primarily teach children the German language, but also educate about the German culture. They should rapidly improve the children’s level of German so that they are able to join the regular class curriculum after one year. In some cases, newly arrived students join some regular classes already in the course of the first year. However, some primary and secondary schools only offer intensive German courses in addition to the regular class curriculum. There, newly arrived students join the regular class directly.

Preparatory classes are not needed for very young children, who are in the age group of first or second graders. For some of them, it might be advisable to add one year of Kindergarten before transitioning to first grade, so that the child can experience the new language and culture in a more informal setting. 

Newly arrived students between the ages 15 to 16, who already have a middle school leaving certificate often have the opportunity to attend special two-year programmes for a second certificate.

You can find out about the programmes available to your child from the school or the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). For more information also see:

Some universities also offer special preparatory classes (e.g. Studienkolleg) for non-German speaking migrants and refugees wishing to study in Germany. For more information see:

Parents and school

There are also special integration courses for parents to improve your German language skills, connect you to local schools and teachers and teach you about the education system in Germany:

In many cities in Germany so-called Elternlotsen or Familienlotsen can also help you with understanding the German school system and the process of enrolling in school. Elternlotsen have a migration background and therefore have an understanding of the German system and mentality as well as the culture and language of another country. Turn to your local city hall for more information.

Rights of Parents and Students

Germany ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that also includes the human right to education. On top of this, the Bundesländer also ensured the right to education in the laws of every state. This is why there are no tuition fees at public schools in Germany.

Parents have the right to get informed by the school about the school system and education options available to them as well as about their child’s performance. Depending on the state, parents often also have the right to choose the secondary education path for their underage children. Collectively, parents also have the right to be represented in school in the form of special organizations that function on the level of the class and on the level of the school, e.g. parents councils (Elternbeirat). Parents are generally encouraged to take part in certain school activities and decisions regarding the school.

Responsibilities of Parents and Students

Starting from ages five to seven, depending on the circumstances, school is compulsory for a minimum of nine years. After that, different regulations apply from state to state about the compulsory attendance of vocational school. Parents are therefore responsible for ensuring that their child attends school regularly. This regulation is very strict in Germany and could also apply to children with an unclear residence status. Not attending school for a few days without a reason could result in serious consequences. If your child is ill, you have to call the school and inform them about this before the start of class on the day the illness starts. 

Home schooling is considered illegal in Germany.

In Germany it is very common for parents to get involved in informal and formal activities in and around school, like baking a cake for the school festival or taking part in parent-teacher meetings. For more on this see the section on opportunities for parent engagement.




last modified: Tue, 10/30/2018 - 11:33