• Education
  • Primary Education

The German School System


Date09 Dec 2021


Are you new to Germany and looking for a good school for your children? 

In many countries, this is a difficult task. Not so in Germany, where the public school around the corner or a few streets away is the first choice for most parents. There, your child will meet many children from the neighborhood, receive a high-level education, and do so without paying any school fees.

How does the German school system work?

The responsibility for the school and university system in Germany lies with the federal states. These have the so-called cultural sovereignty and can decide relatively independently how to design their school system. As a result, there are major differences between the individual federal states. However, the association of the Ministers of education of the individual states in the Kultusministerkonferenz (Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs) ensures that there are common educational standards across the states.

Compulsory schooling

In Germany, school attendance is generally compulsory. This means that unlike in countries where there is only compulsory education, parents are not allowed to teach their children themselves, but must send them to school. This applies not only to German citizens, but also to foreign children living in Germany.

School hours

In many schools, classes end at noon or in the early afternoon and students come home for lunch. For children who need afternoon care, there is the option of attending an after-school care center, called ‘Hort’. There, they can have lunch, get help with homework, or spend their free time playing sports or doing something creative. But the number of all-day schools, where classes extend into the late afternoon and students are cared for throughout, continues to grow.

School vacations

School vacations are also not uniformly regulated in Germany, but vary from state to state. This regulation is intended to prevent all families from setting off on vacation at the same time and causing major traffic jams on the roads. In total, there are about 12 weeks of school vacations, including 6 weeks in summer, 2 to 3 weeks at Christmas and Easter, and additional vacation periods in spring and fall.

Grades and report cards

Students' performance is assessed during the school year in written and oral tests and grades are given from 1 to 6, with a 1 being the best grade and a 6 being the worst. At the end of the school year, each student receives a report card. During the school year, however, there are several parent-teacher conferences in which the teachers inform you about your child's academic performance.

Which schools are there?

First you go to the elementary school, called Grundschule. Here children are enrolled between the ages of 5 and 7. At the elementary school you stay 4 years, in Berlin and Brandenburg 6 years. The choice of elementary school is usually not free. Children must attend the elementary school in their school district. This makes a lot of sense, because it allows them to get to know children from the neighborhood, to make the trip to school together, and to arrange to play and learn together after school.

At the end of elementary school, teachers make recommendations for students' future school careers based on their performance. Now the parents look for a secondary school together with their child. There are several options.

The 3 traditional types of schools are as follows.

The Hauptschule is designed to provide a basic general education. Students finish it after 9th grade with the`Hauptschulabschluss' or after 10th grade with a qualified ‚Hauptschulabschluss‘. This is the lowest school-leaving qualification in Germany.

The Realschule offers an extended general education. It ends after the 10th grade with the ‚Mittlere Reife‘.

Now compulsory schooling ends and young people can either start an apprenticeship or attend a vocational school. 

But don't worry. If your child wants to continue learning after the Hauptschule or Realschule and take the ‚Abitur‘ so that he or she can later go to university, there are various ways in the individual federal states for ambitious Hauptschule and Realschule students to take the Abitur after all.

The Gymnasium has a very comprehensive educational mission. To be able to attend a Gymnasium, you need a good grade point average at the end of elementary school. The general university entrance qualification, called Abitur, is obtained after the 12th or 13th grade. 

With the Abitur in your pocket, you can then go to study at a university.

An innovative school model is the comprehensive school, also called Gesamtschule. Here, no distinction is made between Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium, but all students learn together in one school until the 10th grade.

 After that, students can choose between vocational training or the Gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary school).

A similarly integrative approach is taken by the secondary school, the Sekundarschule, in several German states.  This usually covers the school years 5 to 10 and combines the Hauptschule and Realschule. The aim of the secondary school is to prepare students either for vocational training or for the Gymnasium. In some federal states, such as Berlin, the secondary school also offers an upper secondary school branch and the possibility of taking the Abitur there.

Open day

Almost all schools offer an open day in the spring so that parents and students can get information and choose the school that appeals to them most. Also, the summer festivals traditionally held in schools just before the end of the school year provide an excellent opportunity to see the school from the inside. 


This is an overview of the German school system. However, since there are really many differences from state to state, it is important to inform yourself well about the situation in the city or state where you live. The responsible authority for this is the school board, the Schulamt, and if you enter this with the corresponding city in Google, you get a good overview of the school situation locally.

Private IB schools

Of course, there are also private schools in Germany. And in larger cities you can also find International or European schools, which are either graduated with the IB, the Abitur or a double degree. 

It is important to be well informed about the implications of choosing such a school for access to a German university. While anyone who applies with a German Abitur, even if they do not have a German passport, is considered a ‚Bildungsinländer‘, IB students must observe special requirements for admission to universities and must also accept a minimal point deduction when aligning with the German Abitur. Here, too, there are different regulations in the individual federal states.

 We will discuss the system of IB schools in Germany in another article.

Written by: Konstanze Walz

Photo: cdc-GDokEYnOfnE-unsplash

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