The German School System Explained

The German School System Explained

Germany's school system offers a variety of different paths for students based on their abilities and interests—from getting hands-on training at vocational schools to doing research at top-notch universities. Young Germany explains the system from the ground up.
by Caitlan Reeg

The main guidelines governing education in Germany are mostly handled at the federal level by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. For instance, every child must enroll in school by the age of six and complete at least nine years of schooling. But much of the education policy in Germany remains in the domain of the 16 German states. That means there is a fair amount of variation state to state.

The First Years

Parents in Germany have the option of enrolling their children under age three in nurseries called Kinderkrippen or finding private childcare or nannies, Tagesmuetter, to watch small children. Between the ages of three and six, children can attend Kindergartens or Kitas. Some Kitas are state-sponsored, while others are run by the Catholic and Protestant churches, or are private. Parents can find many different kindergarten models for their children. Some schools operate almost solely outdoors. They're called Waldkindergarten or forest kindergartens and are becoming progressively more popular. Children spend almost the entire day outside and learn about the natural world. Other kindergartens focus on international education and offer instruction in additional languages like English.

When children are six years old, the German government requires them to begin attending elementary school called Grundschule. The school day usually lasts until around noon and children usually spend around 20 to 30 hours per week in class. They will take classes at a Grundschule until they are around ten years old or in the fourth grade. At this point, parents and teachers evaluate the academic achievement of the children and decide what secondary school is the best fit.

Differences to the North American School Model

Germany's education system differs from the North American model in a few key ways. The school days in Germany tend to be shorter with most children attending only in the mornings and it is rare for after-school activities to be offered. There are now more full-day schools being opened throughout Germany, but it is still the exception. Another difference is that students at the secondary level are separated into different schools depending on academic achievement and interests. Only a handful of schools in Germany combine classes of students with different academic abilities. These are called Gesamtschulen and only some of the German states offer this type of education.

In Germany, there are four main secondary school options.

Secondary School


Students at the Hauptschule attend from grade five until grade nine or ten. At the Hauptschule, students take the same courses as at other secondary schools, but the focus is more on vocational training and hands-on learning. The courses are also taught at a slightly slower pace. The education often concludes with enrollment at a part-time vocational school, along with an apprenticeship, lasting until the age of 18.


Realschule typically runs from grade five to grade ten and concludes in part-time or full-time vocational school. Students may also go on to higher vocational training at a Berufschule. Some very high achieving students can now also switch to the Gymnasium, Germany's most academically challenging secondary school, when they are in the tenth grade.


For those students who plan to continue on to university or who want to receive a dual academic and vocational degree, the Gymnasium is the best choice. Students typically attend Gymnasium from grade five until grade 13, though same states have shortened the length of study to end at grade 12. Gymansium curriculum is different school to school but most offer a variety of classes including chemistry, biology, physics, history, philosophy, computer science, German, mathematics, social studies and foreign languages. Gymansium students receive a final degree called an Abitur, or Abi. The Abi is necessary for university admission.


Another type of secondary school available in some German states is called the Gesamtschule, or comprehensive school. The Gesamtschule accepts students of all academic abilities and awards those students who finish in the ninth grade a Haputchule degree and those who finish in the tenth grade a Realschule degree.

Other Secondary School Options

Students can also attend private schools, which usually charge tuition. The Protestant and Catholic churches run elementary and secondary schools. A few hundred Internat, or boarding schools, are scattered throughout Germany, and international schools are available, which offer courses in languages like English.

Beyond secondary school, students have different options depending on their degree.

Beyond Secondary School


Students who have attended either the Hauptschule or Realschule can then go on to a Berufschule, which pairs academic study with apprenticeships. Once the apprenticeship is complete, students who pass their final exams will be awarded with a certificate for a specific line of work. This curriculum is overseen by the federal government, trade unions, and industry organizations.


Students who pass the Abi at the end of secondary school may apply at universities. There are a few different university models including classical universities, which offer a broad selection of coursework and a final Bachelor's degree. In the past, students attended traditional universities in Germany for up to six years, but current Europe-wide school reform has many universities changing to a four-year model. Technische Hochschulen are four-year technical universities geared toward students who want to work in more specific careers. Hochschulen specialize in the creative fields like art and music.

by Caitlan Reeg