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Understanding the German Education System

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Understanding the German Education System

If you're moving to German, it is important to be aware of the different school types in Germany in which you can enrol your child. There is a range of German schools that need to be considered, particularly once a student enters secondary school where there are some five different school types and such choices dictate their higher education opportunities. Trying to size up the education system in Germany is one of the hardest things facing those embarking on a foreign posting in Germany. We set out what you should know about German schools and education in Germany.

Germany rates relatively well in regards to education levels, more so in mathematics and science. According to latest OECD/PISA survey (2012) of educational standards among 15 year olds, Germany is ranked 12th in mathematics, 9th in science and 20th in reading out of 65 countries and economies. Notably, more than half of all students in Germany enter higher education. The PISA report also revealed that 90 percent of German students had a strong sense of belonging and feeling liked by other students. However, there is an emphasis on academic subjects in most German schools, with creative and more active subjects set outside the main curriculum. Most students also have to decide whether to follow an academic or non-academic route at the end of primary school, at around age 10, which creates a divided German education system. Past reforms have attempted to unify German education, but to little success.

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Local and international schools in Germany

Most students in Germnay attend local schools, which are free. However, foreign families may consider an international school to ease their child's transition by continuing education in a familiar language and curriculum. Your child's age and length of time in Germany are just some factors to consider. For more information on how to choose a school in Germany, see Expatica's guide to German schools: local, private, bilingual and international schools.

Compulsory education in Germany

Education is compulsory for all children who are resident in Germany aged six years to 15 years old, although education generally lasts until the age of 18 years. The majority of schools in Germany are run by the state and are free, although parents can opt for one of the fee-paying private schools or international schools. For information on the differences between state, private and international schools, see Expatica's guide on how to choose a school in Germany. Although general education policy in Germany is set by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), each Federal state (Länd) has its own Ministry of Education which sets its own education programme, schools and standards. This means that the school system and what students learn vary across the country: there may be different types of schools available, and students may learn different subjects and use different textbooks in each region. You can find information on your state's Ministry of Education. However across Germany, standards are high and pupils are tested regularly at every level, receiving two reports a year with grades from 1–6 (1 being the highest). In secondary school, if pupils fail to achieve the required grades in two or more classes they may have to repeat the whole year. In the 2012 PISA survey, one in five students reported that they had repeated a year at least once. Education attendance is compulsory in Germany – not just participation – thus home schooling is illegal in Germany and you will be fined (or worse) if you take your child out of the German education system. Most schools don’t have a school uniform.

The school year in Germany

The school year starts around mid August/September and ends around 1 July but exact dates and school holiday dates vary from state to state. There are generally six weeks over the summer holidays, two weeks in the autumn (Herbstferien), two or three weeks at Christmas (Weihnachtsferien), a week at Easter (Osterferien) and various state and religious holidays (see Expatica's guide to public holidays in Germany). There are strict rules about taking children out of school during term time and if you do so without permission from the school you could be fined. Private schools have their own school calendar.

The school week in Germany

In general, most state schools are open from Mondays to Fridays, mornings only, from around 8am to 1pm–2pm, although increasingly schools have lessons for older pupils in the afternoons until around 4pm. There are no canteen facilities for lunch in most state schools because the day ends before lunch and students eat at home. Lessons last roughly 45 minutes with a break of five minutes between each lesson to allow teachers to move between classes – in Germany the students tend to stay in one room for most lessons. There may be study hours allocated for homework (of which there is lots). In recent years, however, some German schools have started offering a full day of education (Ganztagsschule) alongside study hours for homework, extracurricular activities, and lunch at the cafeteria.

Support for non-German-speaking students

The school grade into which foreign pupils are placed when they arrive in Germany depends on how well they speak German. Children who do not speak German at home and who have not attended a German Kindergarten often repeat the first or second grade, but there is no real stigma attached to this. Since the number of non-German students has constantly risen over the years some adaptations have been made to ease their integration. Children who were not born in Germany or whose parents do not speak German at home may be offered additional lessons in the form of preparatory classes, bilingual classes, intensive courses and remedial classes, depending on the German state and availability. Foreigners whose children are born and raised in Germany are often concerned that their children are losing their cultural roots. Therefore, in some states, children with non-German parents may be able to claim some tuition coverage for classes in the mother tongue of their parents.

Language support for foreigners

Lessons in German state schools are taught in German. Your child’s language skills may be evaluated as early as kindergarten level or at least before enrolment into compulsory education. If necessary, you will be offered a support programme to help your child learn German. When you are considering a school and your child is not fluent in German, make sure the school offers German lessons (usually called ‘German as a foreign language'). These classes will help your child understand what’s going on and help him or her keep up with the lessons. There may also be multilingual education guides called Bildungslotsen, Elternlotsen or Integrationslotsen. Find out more through your regional advice centre via the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) website.

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