Choosing where your child goes to school can have a profound impact on how your child likes a new city, makes new friends and learns a new language. For parents relocating their family, it is a crucial decision. A year ago we made the choice, as English speaking parents, to send our son to the local Government primary school, known in German as Grundschule.
This is a story with a happy ending. Our little boy has never said he doesn’t want to go to school, has made friends and is speaking increasingly fabulous German after just 12 weeks. However choosing the right school for our son, navigating the process and understanding the structure of the school system has not been straightforward. If you are considering sending your child to a local school I hope our experience can help you with your journey.
Choosing a local or international or bi-lingual school is a decision that is determined by the needs of each family and child.
As English speakers in Berlin, most of our non-German friends have chosen to send their children to bi-lingual and international schools. This makes a lot of sense as children learn in two languages, it often makes integration back into the home country easier, and if a family moves regularly, it can provide curriculum continuity across countries.
We decided to send our son to a German-speaking school because we have no plans to leave Berlin, we wanted to be part of a local community, and we wanted our child to be truly fluent in German. We also figure he gets plenty of English at home! Also, my husband speaks German, and I am learning German, so we felt equipped to manage the process.
There are 400 elementary schools in Berlin. The idea is that children can walk or ride their bike to their local school. The school is very much embedded in the local community. Added to this there are also State Europe Schools in Berlin that offer bi-lingual instruction in German and other European languages. With these schools, it is normal that people travel much further to go to the school. We looked at a French/German school as we had recently moved from France but realized that this school is not about teaching children French or German as a second language but educating children from truly bi-lingual families who already speak fluent German and French.
When to start the enrollment process?
If you are interested in the local school system the first question is not “where to start?” but “when to start?” The German school enrolment process began much earlier than I had expected. However, in Germany, education is seen as a right, so if you arrive outside of the normal application times and are registered with the Bürgeramt you have a right to a government school place but not necessarily at your local or desired school.
Regular registration for schools in Berlin commences eleven months before the start of the school year in September. Enrolment is generally around the second last or last week in October of the year before.
It is very important to understand which local school you are “assigned” to. This is called the “zuständige Schule”, and is usually the closest one to your home address. This link will help you find it:
You are effectively guaranteed a place at this school, and if you also happen to like it, that makes the process fairly easy. It’s nevertheless a good idea to look around at the various schools nearby.
School open-days almost all happen in the last two weeks of September. This is a great opportunity to check out your local schools, meet other parents and compare your options. This process of school visits gave me more information about the system of education and expectations for children within the German school system. After seeing a wide range of different schools, I had increased confidence that the local school system was of a high quality. My opinion was based on seeing science labs, new gyms and the art on the walls and more importantly by meeting students and teachers.
This process should begin when you receive a letter from your “assigned” school with crucial dates on it. If you don’t receive the letter by early September check out the www.Berlin.de website.
This site has guidance on the process and important the dates. It says whether or not your child can be enrolled in another than the assigned school, whether children younger than 6 can be enrolled and whether children can be released from the obligation to attend school. It says which documents to bring to the admission office, and explains the conditions for additional care in the afternoon.
You are meant to register your child at the “assigned” school even if you intend to send them to a private or international school. For registration, you will need
- your papers of residency
- identity cards and
- the child’s birth certificate.
If you want to send your child to your assigned school, the process is pretty straightforward with registration.
Sending the child to another but the assigned school
If you want to send your child to a government school but not the school that you are in the feeder district for you have to make this application in writing, in German, at the time of registration. Eligibility for other schools is largely determined by if they have spare places, if siblings go to the desired school, if close friends are enrolled in the school or if the school provides a service particularly required by the applicant. The system is pretty flexible for a large bureaucracy, and I don’t know any parents who didn’t get a school they are pretty happy with. It can take a few attempts and a fair bit of paperwork though.
We did not know which school our son would attend until after the school readiness evaluation. We requested enrolment at another local school rather than our allotted school. Some people found out from the Schulamt in March which school their child was enrolled in, but we had to wait until May. If you are not happy with the school that you have been allocated, you can then appeal to the Department and I know families that managed this successfully in June and early July.
School Readiness Evaluation
After the registration process, a doctor from the Child and Youth Health Service (Kinder- und Jugendgesundheitsdienst) individually checks the children for “school readiness”. They check fine and gross motor skills, verbal and cognitive development and so on. My son really enjoyed the check-up, and the doctor was very friendly and helpful. People are meant to be informed about the necessity of this health check by mail. However, we never received this letter. We heard of families who had gone to the check-up, and on their advice, we went online, found the service, and made our own appointment in February.
Once you have been allocated a school the school itself sends information about parent information sessions, initial meetings with the teachers and new student adjustment assistance. Our son had half a day at his new school with all the other new children in July before he started school. You will also receive information about “Hort”.
Afternoon Care "Hort"
Hort is the activities that happen after class. Most but not all Berlin schools operate classes from 8:00 am to 1:30 pm. After this time the children are cared for by a teacher’s assistant until 4:00 pm. Parents pay a contribution to the activities based on their income. At Hort, children might play outside, build Lego, play board games, do a craft, learn an instrument, do football or karate. The programs depend on the local school, and some of them require a fee over and above the Hort fee. It is not compulsory, and almost 30% of my son’s class is picked up directly after lessons but we have found that our son loves the Hort activities and this is where he has made friends.
1st Graders' Celebration
After all the paperwork and process the school year starts with a marvelous German tradition - a starting school celebration. It happens on the Saturday before the first week of school. Parents give their children large cones, called a Zuckertüte or Schultüte, filled with candy, pens, pencils, books and small toys. All the first year children and their teacher meet at the school, and there is a performance or official welcoming. It is a fabulously positive way to begin education and, if you choose this path, hopefully, the beginning of very happy school days for your child.