The German population is highly educated, with a large proportion of citizens having been to university (Universities in Germany are almost all public institutions, and are free of charge). Despite its high success rate, the German school system can be confusing to many expats. It is one of the only education systems in the world that divides pupils into different academic groups from the end of primary school onwards. These different routes can hugely influence a child’s options later in life.
School in Germany is free and compulsory from the age of 6 to 14 or 16 (depending on the federal state). Children can attend optional pre-school (known as Kindergarten) until the age of six, although places are usually competitive with waiting lists in advance. Unlike later schooling, this is not free.
The most academic of these is Gymnasium (grades 5-12 or 13), where students are prepared for the Abitur (equivalent to British A-Levels or American high school diploma), which is required to study at a German University. The Realschule (grades 5-10) is for an education with a vocational emphasis, graduating with a “Realschulabschluss” leaving certificate, which qualifies them for further vocational or commercial training. Students may also move to a Gymnasium within the German education system after graduating with good results.
The Hauptschule (grades 5-9) teaches the same subjects as at the Realschule and Gymnasium, but with a slower approach and some vocational-oriented courses. At around 15 or 16 years old, students may continue on to Realschule, although many opt to begin apprenticeships at this stage. In some states, students within the German school system may also have the option to attend a Gesamtschule, which combines different aspects of the aforementioned schools, or a Berufsschule which combines part-time study and an apprenticeship.
School days for German students usually finish in the early afternoon, although the homework workload is intense, particularly at the Gymnasium. All students must complete at least nine years of obligatory education from start to finish. For example, a pupil who drops out of a Gymnasium must enrol in a Realschule or Hauptschule until they have completed 9 years in total. It is also compulsory to study 1 foreign language for at least 5 years (and 2 foreign languages at Gymnasium).
There are a number of private schools in Germany which charge tuition fees. The majority of these offer courses leading to the German Abitur but are not part of the state German education system. There are also many boarding schools across Germany (known as Internat). Many of these offer courses specialising in sport, music or other subjects (and some are separate for boys or girls).
As the German school system is so unique, national qualifications are not always accepted by foreign universities. Many expat families choose to send their children to international schools ranging from American or British schools to French lycées. Many follow the curriculum of their country of origin or the popular International Baccalaureate. Although fees can be extremely high, many of these schools offer broader options to children of international families who may relocate regularly or choose to pursue higher education abroad.