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Education  in GERMANY

Education in GERMANY

Chuck Emerson, writer and editor of the website for expatriates,, explains the education system in Germany, explores the significant growth of international schools in the country, and gives Winter's readers all the other key information they need...


German public schools

The German education system, renowned for producing high-performing students, is different in many ways from those in other countries. The overwhelming majority of German students attend public schools, and the whole German education system, including the universities, is available to the children of all residents of Germany. Instruction in the public schools is in German although some universities may offer some courses in English or other languages. There are also many private schools in Germany. Although education is a function of the federal states (Länder), and there are differences from state to state, some generalizations are possible.

It should be noted that home schooling is illegal in Germany. The law requiring students to attend public schools or approved private schools has been upheld despite challenges to it.

Compulsory attendance ages

Children aged three to six may attend kindergarten. After that, school is compulsory for a minimum of nine years.

Progression through the different schools

From grades 1 through 4 children attend a primary/elementary school (Grundschule) where the subjects taught are the same for all.

After the 4th grade, at the first phase of secondary level, the students are separated according to their academic ability and the wishes of their families, and attend one of three different kinds of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium. Grundschule teachers recommend their students to a particular school based on such things as academic achievement, self-confidence and ability to work independently. However, in most states, parents have the final say as to which school their child attends following the 4th grade.

The Hauptschule (grades 5–9) teaches the same subjects as the Realschule and Gymnasium but at a slower pace and with some vocational-oriented courses. It leads to part-time enrolment in a vocational school combined with apprenticeship training until the age of 18.


The Realschule (grades 5–10 in most states) leads to part-time vocational schools and higher vocational schools. It is now possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to a Gymnasium on graduation.


The Gymnasium leads to a diploma called the Abitur and prepares students for university study or for a dual academic and vocational course. Curricula differ from school to school but generally include German, mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, art (as well as crafts and design), music, history, philosophy, civics, social studies and several foreign languages.

In recent years many states have changed the curriculum so students can get the "Abi" at the end of the 12th grade. Other states are making the transition but may still require a 13th grade.


The Gesamtschule, or comprehensive school, is only found in some of the states. It takes the place of both the Hauptschule and Realschule. It enrols students of all ability levels in the 5th through the 10th grades. Students who satisfactorily complete the Gesamtschule through the 9th grade receive the Hauptschule certificate, while those who satisfactorily complete schooling through the 10th grade receive the Realschule certificate.


The next stage beyond the Hauptschule and Realschule is the Berufsschule, Berufsfachschule or a Fachobershcule. These schools often combine part-time or full-time academic study with an apprenticeship or internship depending on the course of study selected. The successful completion of an apprenticeship program leads to certification in a particular trade or field of work. Internships may be in the service industries (retail, hospitality) and other areas. Completion of Fachobershcule can lead to enrolment in a technical college or other higher education institution.

These schools differ from those previously mentioned in that control rests not with the state, local and regional school authorities but with the federal government, industry and the trade unions.

Chart illustrating the German education system from kindergarten through to university

Chart illustrating the German education system from kindergarten through to university

No matter what kind of school a student attends, he/she must complete at least nine years of education. A student dropping out of a Gymnasium, for example, must enrol in a Realschule or Hauptschule until nine years have been completed. Students are required to study at least one foreign language for a minimum of five years. A second foreign language is a requirement for students attending the Gymnasium.

The school day

German students at public schools normally attend school in the morning. Classes usually start between 7:30 and 8:15am and can end between 1:00 and 2:00pm. Class periods are normally 45 minutes long with a short break in between. There is no provision for serving lunch. There can be a lot of homework and the curriculum expands as students move up from Grundschule depending on which of the three secondary schools they attend. Recently, some German schools have started offering full day attendance.

Getting to school

Students in cities normally walk to school or have passes to use public transport. School buses are sometimes provided to transport students who live outside cities. Older students in outlying areas often use public transport.

The school year

The school year consists of two semesters and normally starts around the middle to end of August. There are longer breaks at Christmas and in the summer. Shorter breaks are around Easter and in autumn. There is no school on public holidays. The Christmas break is usually two weeks and the summer break is about six weeks. The exact dates of the various vacations and breaks are set by individual Länder. The dates of summer vacations are staggered in order to prevent the entire country from crowding popular destinations and the roads all at the same time.

"...recently, some German schools have started offering full day attendance..."

Special needs students

There are different schools for students with special needs called Sonderschule or Förderschule. Depending on the individual's needs and a school's availability, a student can attend one of the special schools, which are staffed with specially trained teachers and generally have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio than the regular schools. Some special-needs students don't attend these schools and are integrated into a Hauptschule or Gesamtschule. 

Private schools

There are different types of private schools in Germany. These schools usually charge tuition fees and may offer varied courses leading to the German Abitur as well as other diplomas and certificates at the conclusion of studies.

Boarding schools (Internat)

An Internat is a German boarding school. There are several hundred of them in Germany, offering a variety of study programs. They are often favored by the affluent who can afford to send their children to them. Most offer the Abitur and may offer additional specialized courses in different subjects or pursuits. There are sports Internate, music Internate as well as Internate that specialize in other areas. There are also some separate boarding schools for boys and girls.

Faith schools

There are many Protestant and Catholic private schools that offer the standard German Abitur.

Bilingual schools

There are many bilingual (and even a handful of trilingual) private schools. Some offer bilingual instruction for pre-schoolers up to the age of six. Others offer bilingual instruction in primary schools and in primary through to secondary schools. Many of these schools use “immersion” type language training and teachers use their native language in the classes.


Teacher training

German school teachers have to meet certification standards to work in the public school system. This generally entails four to six years of college or university study. All teachers are required to qualify to teach at least two different subjects.

School inspections

German schools are required to undergo regular inspections by the government. If any school is found deficient in any area, it is normally given two years to correct the problems and are subject to another complete inspection after the allowed period.

International schools in Germany

A brief history

International Schools have a long history in post-WWII Germany with the first ones being established in the 1950s. The early schools were established near large cities and population centres and catered to children of diplomats as well as children of personnel of European institutions, and the children of those from other countries assigned to work in Germany. Over the decades the number and locations of schools has expanded steadily. Today there are dozens of International Schools throughout Germany.

Photograph: The International School of Hamburg

Situation today

Most of the International Schools in Germany today offer instruction in English although there are some that offer instruction in other languages. There are normally multiple international schools in the biggest cities and usually one or two in medium-sized and smaller cities. More and more international schools in different locations are opening each year – in some cases they are entirely new schools; in others they are expanded campuses of existing schools. Some German schools are also expanding or opening campuses that cater for an international student body.

Types of international school

Most of the schools are private, non-profit institutions that charge tuition fees. There are some schools that are affiliated with businesses in their area and others that have multiple campuses throughout Germany. There are a handful of boarding schools and even some international schools that are part of the German Public Education system. Unlike German schools, most international schools offer in-house Kindergarten classes. 

 "...some German schools are expanding to include an international student body..."

The growth of international schools in the Frankfurt Rhein-Main urban area

The Frankfurt Rhein-Main urban area is a great example of the evolution of international schools in Germany as well as of the situation in the country as it exists today. The city of Frankfurt has a population of around 730,000 with about 25% of that number being non-German residents from over 170 countries. The ‘urban area’ consists of many smaller cities that mostly border Frankfurt proper and bring the total population of the Frankfurt Rhein-Main area to just over 2.2 million. 

There are over a dozen international schools in the area offering English language and bi- and trilingual instruction from Kindergarten through to secondary school. These schools include:

  • The Frankfurt International School (FIS) founded in 1961. It has its main campus in Oberursel and a satellite primary school in Wiesbaden and is a private, tuition charging non-profit entity.
  • The International School Frankfurt Rhein-Main is a co-operative effort between the city of Frankfurt, the State of Hesse and various multinational companies in the area.
  • Strothoff International School, located near Frankfurt, was founded by a wealthy businessman.
  • The Europäische Schule Frankfurt enrolls the children of diplomats and employees of European institutions.
  • Bilingual schools include the Taunus International Montessori School for children aged 18 months to three years.
  • Trilingual schools include the Erasmus-Schule (English-German-Spanish, Kindergarten through secondary school) and the Katharina-die-Grosse-Schule (German-English-Russian, grades 1–4).
Frankfurt skyline. Photograph: Christian Wolf,

Frankfurt skyline. Photograph: Christian Wolf,


International Schools in Germany meet the curricula required by the German government up to the 9th or 10th grade. In the last years of secondary school the schools normally offer instruction that leads to the standardized International Baccalaureate, European Baccalaureate, US High School Diploma, or other equivalent diploma or certification that would lead to eligibility to enter higher education institutions in Europe and other countries.

The school day

International Schools normally offer full-day instruction and have lunch facilities. Classes can begin around 8:00am and extend to 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Some schools have extra classes and offer a variety of extracurricular activities after the end of their standard school day.

The school year

International Schools normally follow the vacation and holiday schedule of the German public schools in their state.

Photograph: young students at The International School of Hamburg

Getting to school

As with German public schools, students can walk or use public transport to get to school. Some schools offer their own bus services for those students that may live further away.

Teacher qualifications

Teachers are required to have valid certification from colleges or universities in the country in which they studied. International school teachers normally have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and many possess a post-graduate degree. International Schools take pride in the fact that many of their teachers come from dozens of countries around the world.

Certification, accreditation and inspections

The handful of international schools that receive funds from the German Public School system undergo the inspection procedures required of all German public schools. The rest of the schools normally rely on certification and accreditation from various organizations. These can include (but are not limited to) the Council of International Schools (CIS), the European Council of International Schools (ECIS), the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA), New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education). Most of the international schools are authorized (or are in the process of getting authorized) for the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.

Top imageThe International School of Hamburg

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