THE GERMAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
produces top qualified graduates
The German way may be very different to what you are used to, and the educational concept may cause confusion. It helps to remember that German graduates have a very good reputation and are accepted as students at universities all over the world. We encourage you to trust the German school system and to believe in the ability of your child to learn with confidence, and with a pace that will best prepare them for a successful life.
GENERAL KEY FACTS
Going to school in Germany is obligatory.
As a parent, you cannot decide to teach your child yourself - if you did, the youth welfare office would quickly be on your doorstep.
The legislative and executive responsibility for schooling and education, in general, lies with the states so-called "Bundesländer".
While the schooling degrees are similar in all states, the technical knowledge necessary to achieve the best grade is quite different. So is the level of tolerance. The German schooling system is based on an ambitious target: pupils & students shall be able to achieve a university degree regardless of their families' financial status. Universities pull students from all over the country, however, the state in which someone graduates with an "Abitur", is, in fact, determining the waiting period to be admitted. Schooling is a continuously discussed subject. Many reforms have taken place, some with greater, some with lesser success.
One can also generalize that teachers (and parents) put a higher emphasize than other countries on 'learning-by-playing' and experimenting.
In fact, teachers and some parents discourage from teaching children to read while at kindergarten age. Reading should be learned together and with the same pace. Even first graders learn incredibly slow in the eyes of some expatriate parents. However, the system produces high-performing students, and according to the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development PISA study in 2012, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average in reading, math, and science.
While kindergartens are to a large extent private companies, there are very, very few private schools
95% of German pupils go to a public school, and the coverage is extraordinarily good. You will often find 3 or more schools in walking distance of your home, at least in urban neighborhoods. Actually, private schools are mostly boarding schools, and their reputation is to be the last resort for difficult, rich children. While there might be some truth in it, most boarding schools specialize in subjects (i.e., music, sports). The international schools are also privately managed and have a very good reputation.
Public schools are free of charge
To enable schooling from 1st grade onwards for children of parents with lower income, no school fees are charged. There are some limited extra costs for excursions and, where applicable, for lunch.
There is no rating of schools
Schools are not rated. There is no official information on how good a school performs in comparison to the average. The PISA assessment obviously has collected some comparative data, however, the results are only accessible to authorities. Mostly, one can say one school is as good as the other, however, there are still differences that grow over time. As a foreigner, it is next to impossible to get a grip on this kind of information.
Admission to a specific school is not granted
You will be applying for a specific school, and you will have to nominate your three preferred choices. You will also be asked to tell about any existing friendships or neighbors going the same way. The authorities will try to accommodate these preferences, but it is not a given. Schools with a special language concept, i.e., immersive or bilingual, are very popular and many parents apply.
School usually starts at 8:00 am and finishes around lunch time
This timing originated from the last centuries when "good German housewives" were expected to stay at home. Nowadays, many mothers want (or have) to work and a major, though very recent, reform established more and more full-day-schools, terminating at around 4:00 pm (the so-called "Ganztagsschule"). The reform is still only half-way implemented. Often, the academic part is still taught in the mornings only, and afternoons are filled with theatre, music, sports and the like.
School holidays vary by state
There is always a 6 week break in the summer. However, each state has a different time frame to keep traffic on German motorways at a reasonable level.
EDUCATION FOR THE YOUNGEST
Germany offers a broad range of childminding options, also for the youngest. Childminders or creches take care of babies and toddlers up to 3 years old. Kindergartens take over from age three onwards. Often, set-ups consist of a combination of childminders and kindergartens or creches and kindergartens.
Creches & Childminders ("Tagesmutter")
Creches are commercially managed set-ups, usually combined with or part of a kindergarten. Two or more groups are being taken care of within one building. Two caretakers look after 6-8 children. When your child is admitted to a creche, you can accompany it for a period of time, the so-called "Eingewöhnungszeit". This helps your child to adapt to the new environment, and yourself to gain the necessary reassurance that you are trusting your child to the right institution.
An alternative to crèche are the services of a qualified childminder, known as a "Tagesmutter" or "Tagesvater", which literally translates as "day mother" or "day father". Childminders are private set-ups. The location of the supervision is individual and ranges from the private apartment of the caretaker to a rolling concept of the parents' apartments. Individual care-taking agreements are entered into.
Like in a creche, one caretaker looks after about 3-4 children.
People offering their services as childminders have to meet certain standards and qualifications. The respective municipal authority heads such qualification programs and covers the science of education, psychology, communication, legal issues, and administration. Childminders must be interviewed at length and approved by the relevant authorities before being granted a permit to provide childminding services.
Where to find childminders?
Childminders are registered with the local authorities (Bezirksamt), and you can ask them for a list. The list contains further information on each childminder, including whether or not she speaks English (or any other language).
You can also post a request for English-speaking childminders on internet forums for expats such as Toytown or internations. However, you may receive responses from childminders who are not registered or approved by the local authority, which means you won't be able to avail of the childcare subsidies.
Children are granted a place from their first birthday onwards, however, it is possible to send them earlier.
Both creche and childminders are optional.
You need a place for your toddler
We will help you find a free place in a creche or with a childminder in your neighborhood. Cost depends on your demand. Hence please contact us.
Kindergarten is not obligatory, but highly accepted, and starts with 3 years of age. Depending on the individual situation of the nursery, they sometimes take younger children, i.e., turning 3 in the next 3-6 months.
The majority of children go to kindergarten. The most common period is 5 hours, usually starting around 7:30 or 8:00 am. Various concepts are available with regard to timing as well as the educational concept. Overall, one can say that education is much less protective in comparison to other countries. Independence and responsibility are highly regarded values. Children are encouraged to experience their own limits and learn to respect them. Supervision must be there, but ideally, the children would not recognize it.
The "kindergarten-year" usually starts in late summer (end of August, beginning September) and some kindergartens have other fixed times of the year when they accept new children, often in the spring. It is, however, difficult to enroll your child within the kindergarten year - simply because they aim to fill their groups at the beginning. Thus, often you will need to wait until a child is taken out.
It is still difficult to find a kindergarten place due to limited places. Some kindergartens have long waiting lists, and it is a running gag to ask a pregnant woman if she has already secured a spot. In reality, it is not as tight. However, the kindergartens with an immersive language concept are indeed very popular, and you may not be the lucky one. On the other hand, there are already a lot of kindergartens with such a concept. You may also consider sending your child to a regular kindergarten, where German is the main language of communication. At least one member of staff will be able to speak enough English to communicate with your child if there are difficulties. In some towns, the kindergarten situation is in fact extremely tight. You may not even be given an appointment in case the waiting list is too long. Berlin is such an example.
Choosing the "right" kindergarten depends, of course, on the child's individual experience and if they can establish a good relationship with the carers and other children. It is rare to see an evaluation of kindergartens by parents, but you may search the popular expat forums or chat to other parents in the area about their experiences. When your child has been accepted by a kindergarten, you can accompany it for one or several days. The period for this "Eingewöhnungszeit" needs to be agreed with the kindergarten management.
You need a place in a kindergarten
We will help you find a free place in a kindergarten in your neighborhood.
Pre-school, in Germany, is the one year before your child enters primary school.
Pre-school is a concept which was invented in 1970 when children with a migration background were found clearly disadvantaged in the German school system. The pre-school back than focused on helping these children to improve their language skills and thus make them fit for the future lessons. This then shifted to a more general concept of facilitating the big change between kindergarten and school, i.e., practicing to sit still for a longer period of time, listen more carefully, learning some basic numbers and even letters. The pre-school is free of charge (in both kindergarten or on the premises of the primary school).
The concept had been followed by most states in Germany but was then abandoned after several years as it was found not necessary. Hamburg is one of the very few states that stuck to the concept, and most parents have adapted to it. Parents have the free choice to choose if they want their child to receive pre-school lessons in kindergarten, in the primary school, or not at all. The only exemption is, if your child would otherwise have to go to school, but is found not yet ready to cope with it. In such cases, your child will be required to visit pre-school classes – in its current kindergarten (if available) or in the primary school.
The advantage of pre-school in the primary school is that your child can get accustomed to the premises and the people there. They see the older children interact on the yard. In some schools, the breaks are not shared to avoid conflicts or competition for toys or playgrounds. They will also see the teachers of the school. When the older classes prepare a theatre play or alike, they are invited to watch. They “work” in a real classroom and that again makes them feel “big” and helps a lot with self-confidence. Being part of the primary school makes them feel proud. Further, your child gets to know many other children who will be in his/her class when starting with real school and that helps to cope with eventual anxiety. School should be fun, the more friends you already have the better. Another advantage, you as parents get to know the school and reconfirm that it is the school your child should be enrolled in.
If the pre-school classes are taken in a kindergarten, there are also advantages. Usually, the number of children in such classes are smaller, thus the teacher can focus more on your child. Another good thing is, at least in most kindergartens with classes of mixed ages, that your child is one of the oldest and thus being admired for its capabilities from the youngest. That also boosts self-confidence. Although there are fewer children in the kindergarten, since they will mostly live in the same neighborhood, they will likely also go to the same school. As mentioned in the information about the primary school, you can hand in a wish list of your child’s best friends.
Whether pre-school lessons are taken in the primary school or the kindergarten, there is no better or worse. The best advice for making a decision is to first listen to your intuition and second to talk to other parents. Especially the parents of your child’s best friends.
There is, however, one big disadvantage of pre-school in the premises of the primary school: the supervision in the afternoon. Most primary schools still have difficulties in providing a proper care concept in the afternoons. Although you have the right to a place, that may mean that your child needs to change location and that may be a logistical problem. Hence, if you need supervision in the afternoon, inquire with the schools if that would be smoothly taken care of. Any afternoon supervision will cost, whether in kindergarten or school.
"Schulpflicht" - compulsory schooling
Children start primary, or elementary, school at the age of 6. Children who turn 6 before June 30th must start school at the beginning of the school year, which normally starts in August or September. Children turning 6 after June 30th have the option of starting school in the current year or waiting until the following year. If your child has turned 6 before June 30th, you can make an application to delay starting school until the following year, and a similar review will be carried out.
Normally, the authorities send out information pamphlets and application forms when your child turns 6, prior to the next school year. Thus, if you do already live here, you would not need to pursue this actively, just wait until the official letter arrives. First action you need to undertake is to have your child tested. The address where to go should be given in the information package you have received. The child's intellectual, mental, emotional, linguistic and physical development will be taken into consideration to determine if the child is ready for school. The doctors there will give a recommendation. It is a very friendly, no-pressure event. This, together with a recommendation from your child's pre-school teacher or kindergarten teacher will give you a good indication as to whether your child will be able to cope with school.
You can send your child to any school, however, schools in the neighborhood have to take your child while schools outside your neighborhood can take your child. In your application you can (and should) name up to three schools that you prefer together with reasons (e.g., best friends first choice, walking distance, special concept).
When the school is confirmed at a later stage, you will be asked if your child has some preferences concerning which friends he or she wishes to have as classmates. The school will try its very best to accommodate these wishes.
German school authorities offer extensive support for pupils with no knowledge of German. However, they keep their published information to a minimum as they prefer personal contact.
Good school - bad school?
There is no such thing as a ranking for primary schools. In priniciple, you can trust, that the school in your neighborhood is as good as any other in your community and that is: GOOD.
BUT: important is the teacher. If your child fails to bond with him or her, that is what will make school enjoyable or not. Which teacher is going to have which class is kept a secret until very late. The teachers available for the next year's first classes can be found out by questioning parents who have older children in the school or by addressing the school's head. Usually, it is those teachers who had 4th grade classes the year before. If you know the names of the teachers, ask parents to comment on them. But again, it is seldom that the teacher and a child don't bond. It may be difficult for you in a foreign country and a different way of teaching children than in your home country, however, you need to trust the system. Just tell yourselves that over the years German children are not less intelligent and knowledgable as British or French children. And if you get the feeling something goes wrong, don't hesitate to contact the teacher and ask for the reasons. If all goes wrong, find another school. You are free to send your child to another school.
You want help with primary school?
We will arrange meetings with the admissions office and accompany you to help you make the decision.
There is a broad diversity of different school types in Germany. The three most important ones are described below.
The so-called Gymnasium is the type of school most German parents wish their children to go to. It is believed to offer the pupils the best job opportunities. This is partly true, however, it is more a perception than an actual truth.
The Gymnasium offers the Abitur or Baccalaureat after Grade 12. The Abitur allows enrollment in a university. However, the choice of university subjects available to a pupil with Abitur is limited depending on his/her degrees.
The system only changed recently from a 9-year to an 8-year Abitur, and this is still creating a lot of problems. The teaching schedule has been adjusted (suboptimally) to fit into 8 years, the same volume of material must now be learned by the pupils in a shorter time.
Gesamtschule / Stadtteilschule (District Schools)
Hamburg is one of the cities which puts a lot of emphasis on its Gesamtschulen. In 2010 all Hauptschulen, Realschulen and existing Gesamtschulen became a Stadtteilschule. Similar concepts exist all over Germany.
Studies proved that it is very difficult to change from a lower academic level to a higher academic level if you are a student in either Hauptschule or Realschule. To make such a change easier, the Gesamtschule has been invented. Such schools combine all the three types mentioned above and allow their students to advance more easily to more demanding courses according to their level of academic proficiency.
Not only is "upgrading" easier, a bad year does not mean the student has to change to a lower academic level by changing the school. The difficult years of adolescence sometimes cause different learning speed without the need to academically downgrade.
Students can graduate with either degree:
- Abitur (see above for Gymnasium)
- Mittlere Reife after grade 10. With that degree, students can attend one of many different vocational schools (Berufsschule, Berufsfachschule or Berufsoberschule) and start a commercial training or become an apprentice in various arts-and-crafts professions. They can also subsequently attend a Fachoberschule which prepares them for the so-called Fachhochschule, a university with a less academic but more practical approach. The "mittlere Reife" is the final degree on a "Realschule".
- Hauptschulabschluss after grade 8. The degree allows its students to enroll in a vocational education or training in many crafts. The "Hauptschulabschluss" is the final degree of the "Hauptschule".
Unfortunately, in many traditional German companies, an Abitur made at a Stadtteilschule / Gesamtschule is not valued as high as an Abitur made at a Gymnasium. If the student finishes university studies, this thankfully becomes irrelevant.
The Realschule is the school for pupils who are not good enough to master Gymnasium. The final degree is the Mittlere Reife or Hauptschulabschluss. It is possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to a Gymnasium on graduation.
You want support with choosing a secondary school?
Like with primary schools, we will arrange meetings with the admissions office and accompany you to help you make the decision.
We would highly appreciate if you would share your experience with our readers! Please feel welcomed to give us a comment which we will post as a blog post!