The ABCs of the German school system

Stacey van Hooven, an American lawyer living in Munich, draws on her experience with three children to set out some of the things you will encounter in the German education system. It's different here

The German school system differs from the American system in many respects.

Each of the German States (Länder) have their own school system which vary in different degrees from one another.

On average, children start school at the age of six. Some of the States have a cut-off date (such as 30 June). If the child is born after this date, they are considered a "kann Kind" (literally "can child") as opposed to a "muss Kind" ("must child"). This means that they can attend school if they pass a test but they are not obliged to start the following September.

The administrators generally try to discourage early admissions based on the assumption that even if the child is intellectually ready they may still be too socially and physically immature to begin school.

Prior to entering "Grundschule" (which is like elementary school in the US), most children attend "Kindergarten" (which is comparable to pre-school.)


Kindergarten is not a part of the regular public school system and is not required or free. Tuition is normally based on income.

Even though it's not mandatory, over 67% of three to six year olds attend them. (Many more children would attend if it weren't for the limited space).

Kindergarten in Germany differs from pre-school in the US in that the children are not given any formal preparation for school such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Some kindergartens provide a bit of school preparation in the year prior to school ("Vorschule") in the form of work sheets that require logical thinking, colour recognition etc.

Despite the lack of prior school training, once children enter Grundschule, they are taught at a pace faster than at an American school. Children are supposed to be able to read by Christmas.

Children attend Grundschule for four years. In some of the states, for example Berlin and Brandenburg, Grundschule lasts six years.

Elementary school

The first day of school in Germany is very festive.

Children bring a "Schultüte" with them, which is a large decorative conical parcel filled with candy and little presents.

They are accompanied by their parents and relatives and are treated to a performance by the older school children.

In addition to the "3 R's", the children learn about science, local history and geography. Additionally, children are given religion lessons.

Parents may opt their children out of religion classes by having them attend ethics lessons.

There are no marks given either the first two, three or four years, depending on which State you live in. Instead of marks, the pupils are given a written evaluation.

Non-German students

The school grade into which foreign pupils are placed when they arrive in Germany depends on how well they speak German.

Children who do not speak German at home and who have not attended a German kindergarten often repeat the first or second grade.

There are currently approximately 1.7 million children with non-German backgrounds attending schools in Germany.

Most of the children come from Greece, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain and Turkey.

The largest group of the almost seven million international citizens is formed by Turks, at just under two million.

Since the number of non-German students has constantly risen over the years some adaptations have been made. Children who were not born in Germany or whose parents do not speak German at home are offered additional lessons in the form of preparatory classes, bilingual classes, intensive courses and remedial classes depending on the State.

Foreigners whose children are born and raised in Germany are often concerned that their children are losing their cultural roots.

Therefore, children with non-German parents have the right to some tuition coverage for classes in the mother tongue of their parents.

Grundschule is the only level at which children receive the same education.

High school

In the last year of Grundschule, the children are evaluated for the next level of schooling.

More specifically, the decision is made as to whether he or she will attend the "Hauptschule", "Realschule" or "Gymnasium".

The system is quite rigid, but a certain amount of lateral mobility between the types of schools is possible. The pupils are placed into the different types of schools based entirely on their academic performance.

School hours

The school day starts at 8am and is generally over by 1pm.

German schools don't offer such a large variety of extracurricular activities, as schools in Germany are not the centres of the students' social life. In most Grundschulen, extracurricular activities are non-existent.

School vacations are also broken up differently than in the US. The children generally have six weeks of summer vacation, one week of autumn vacation, two weeks of Christmas/winter vacation, two weeks of Easter/spring vacation and two weeks vacation in June.


About a quarter of the children go to Gymnasium, which has no relation to sports or any kind of physical education.

It is the literal translation of "high school". Gymnasium lasts from fifth to 13th grade and is required for anyone planning on attending college. Thus, considerable emphasis is put on academic learning and a large variety of subjects are taught.

At least two foreign languages are required, (one being English and the other is generally Latin or French). In the 13th grade students prepare for the "Abitur". This is an examination that you need to pass in order to go on to college.

Repeating a grade is much more common in Germany than in the US.

In most of the German States, a student who fails more than two subjects will have to repeat the whole school year. However, he or she cannot repeat the same grade twice. The student is then required to change schools.

Unlike in the US, German students don't have the chance to make up failed courses in summer school.

Another difference between the two systems is that in Germany, the students cannot choose their own classes. Instead, they have to choose a "Zweig" (literally branch) in the seventh grade, for example, math/science or languages or humanities. The students then have extra classes or more hours in those subject areas.


In general, American schools are not as scholastically rigorous as German schools. The German students are held to a much higher academic standard.

On the flip side, German schools do no offer a wide variety of elective subjects such as photography, karate and a varied assortment of music classes that can be found in most American High Schools.

In other words, the types of classes which broaden the students' creativity as well as shaping other skills take a back seat to classes that hone a student's academic abilities.

The methods of testing the students is also somewhat different in Germany than in the US. In Germany, students are regularly given oral examinations. Pop quizzes are given in a much higher frequency, the belief being that the students should review their class notes everyday and be prepared to be tested. Multiple-choice tests are rare.


Approximately a quarter of the children attend Realschule. Here students learn the basic subjects which will prepare them for a mid-level job in business.

In a Realschule it's possible (if a student receives high enough grades) to transfer to a Gymnasium.

After six years, the students graduate with a diploma called the "Mittlere Reife".

This group is liable to continue on into vocational schools where they learn skills that put them in to the middle strata of business and industry.

Salesmen, nurses, mid-level civil servants, secretaries, and so forth generally have been to Realschule.


The final half of the elementary school children are sent to the Hauptschule.

Its five-year programme teaches basic skills, including one foreign language, and prepares its pupils for apprenticeship or an unskilled or semiskilled role in the job market.

They also continue learning basic subjects as well as English. After a student graduates a Hauptschule they can go on to a vocational school, which lasts about two years.

Private schools

The exception to the rule in this whole system is the private schools. There are currently about 2900 private schools in Germany, many of them boarding schools.

There are also international schools at which the classes are taught in English. For example, in the Munich area there are two such schools, The Bavarian International School (BIS) and the Munich International School (MIS).

Both schools have grades 1-12 as well as a pre-school programme.

BIS curriculum is designed to prepare students for the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.

The MIS curriculum prepares students for the International Baccalaureate or the American High School Diploma.

These schools have a longer school day and more closely resemble an American school than a German one.

In closing, parents moving to Germany need to examine all of their options before deciding on the best school for their children, just as they would in their own country.

And of course, nothing is written in stone. Within the constraints described herein, a child can always change schools if need be!

Stacey van Hooven works in co-operation with Trust in Business,, a business services and relocation company located in Munich. She is a consultant on American-related issues.

For further information, please contact Stacey van Hooven at

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