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How to enrol your kids in school in Germany

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Date26 Apr 2022

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Expats planning to settle in Germany or those who already live in the country will sooner or later get in contact with the fairly complex German education system. Be it because they search for a suitable study programme for themselves or in case they have kids and want to find a good school for them, newcomers to Germany often try to understand how the German school and university system works. Especially young parents can easily be overwhelmed by all the aspects they need to pay attention to. In this article, we will try to make things a little easier for you by outlining the broad contours of the German school system and explaining how you can find a suitable school for your kids.

In Germany, educational policy is mostly managed by the 16 states (Bundesländer). Since the modern German state is a federal republic, a lot of competencies have been delegated to the states, whereas the federal government (Bundesregierung) is responsible for policy areas like defence, immigration, external affairs and the like. Hence, the regulations to be followed at schools and universities can significantly differ from state to state. Nevertheless, certain overarching rules exist that apply to the whole of Germany. A key obligation to be followed by all residents of Germany is the compulsory school attendance for all children of a certain age (allgemeine Schulpflicht). This obligation is even entrenched in the German constitution and is thus of very high importance for the German education system. According to German law, all kids regularly residing in Germany and having reached the age of 6 are obliged to attend a public or officially recognised private school in Germany for at least 9 or 10 years. The kids have to regularly attend the classes, participate in activities outside the school grounds such as excursions or school trips and fulfill their homework. 

There are a few exceptions to this general rule, though. Firstly, parents have a certain freedom to send their kids to school earlier or later than at the generally defined age. Depending on individual factors such as personal development or emotional stability, parents can independently decide to enrol their kids at school even though they have not reached the prescribed age at the reference date. Similarly, enrolling your child one year later is quite common in Germany as well. According to German laws, the parents or legal guardians of a minor have a lot of freedom when it comes to deciding on their children’s upbringing. Nevertheless, teaching your child at home is so far only permitted due to specific outside circumstances, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, or in very few exceptional cases, such as a sickness for more than six weeks in a row. 

The detailed regulations for compulsory school attendance can differ from state to state. This includes the reference date (Stichtag) at which the age of the kids is checked in order to determine whether the child should start going to school in this year or in the next year. The age at which the kids will be enrolled at school also differs in the 16 states, but it will usually be between 5 and 7. Also, the deadlines for when to register your kid for school enrolment are not everywhere the same. Therefore, it is important for you to check the specific deadlines of the state you are residing in and also to inform yourself well in advance if you are planning to move from one state to the other. At this website you can find an overview that is listing the first day of school, the deadline for school enrolment and the reference date for 2022 in the different states of Germany.

Check out our article about the German School system in general to understand what implications which schools can have for the future of your kids!

Apart from these deadlines, you also need to find out which primary school your child should be enrolled in. Especially in bigger cities, there are many public and a few recognised private schools which could make choosing the right school a difficult task. However, there is a system in place that determines which school is responsible for you. This system works based on the location of your residence. The government of Berlin, for instance, has set up an online search engine which will show all the schools in the vicinity of your house or apartment. Finding a primary school close to your residence will make it much easier for your kids to reach the school grounds and to deal with any kind of emergencies. However, it is not compulsory to choose the primary school that is closest to your home but there is some freedom on the side of the parents to decide. Some parents might choose a different school because their child’s friends from kindergarten will join the same school or because they prefer a school with a specific focus in its curriculum, such as music or sports. 

In Germany, children attend primary school for 4 or 6 years (depending on the state) and afterwards they shift to a secondary school. Since they are obliged to go to school for at least 9 or 10 years in total, every child has to attend a secondary school. In order to graduate from secondary school with a university entrance qualification (Abitur), the children need to go to school for a total of 12 or sometimes 13 years and pass the final examinations. Due to this system, you need to search for a secondary school as soon as your child reaches the 4th or 6th grade. In this case, however, your kid will have reached a higher age and maturity which makes it more common to select a secondary school that is not in the proximity of your house. Especially for choosing the secondary school, other factors come into play such as the reputation of the school or a specific focus of the school. 

Both primary and secondary schools regularly organise open days (Tag der offenen Tür) when you can visit the school grounds and get information on all kinds of aspects regarding the school, its teachers and its curriculum. As soon as you have selected a school, you need to enrol your kid within the respective deadlines. For this purpose, you will need identification documents of your child and yourself. The enrolment procedure also includes a health check of your child in order to determine whether he or she is physically and mentally ready for going to school. This check has the objective to identify any special needs your child might have and then to address these needs in order to provide the best possible starting position at the beginning of your kid’s education. The governments of the 16 German states provide more information on the enrolment process for primary schools on their websites, see for instance here for the process in Berlin. 

We hope this article will help you to find your way in the German school system and to select the school that fits your child best. If there are any further questions, please comment below, connect with others in the New2 FORUM or write to us at [email protected]!

Written by: Ferdinand Schlechta 

Cover Photo: Element5 Digital - Unsplash

other photos: Michał Parzuchowski - Unsplash, Taylor Wilcox - Unsplash

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