The German School System: Your 5 Point Guide
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Last Updated on January 15, 2022 by A. Scott, BSDH
The German school system is completely different to that of the U.S. The way schools are set up is different, as well as the length of a school day. Then there is the pressure to perform. In Germany, heavy emphasis is placed on grade point averages.
So what else should you know about the German school system? Read on and find out…
1 – The German primary school system
You must adjust your idea of a “normal” school day while in Germany. Younger students are only in school from 8am to 1pm. Kindergarten is a separate school, considered the last year of nursery, not the first year of elementary.
The classes in elementary school are designed so that the students have the same teacher for 1st and 2nd grade and the same teacher for 3rd and 4th grade. Also, elementary school is from the first grade to the fourth grade and begins when the child is 6 or 7.
The student’s future educational path is decided in the fourth grade and is based heavily – if not solely – on the grades, or ‘Noten’, averaged from the fourth grade. Some states are more or less strict on how they apply this rule.
At 1pm, most children go home for lunch. Only a few places have them come back for afternoon classes.
Afternoon classes are uncommon in Bavaria, but if this were the case, the school would also provide a cafeteria, or ‘Kantine’. Here, the students can purchase meals if they cannot go home to eat. In Bavaria, any after school activities are extra-curricular and so are not mandatory. They usually end at 4pm.
Your child could then walk home alone or to any other activities that they may have. In Germany, children learn from a very young age to be independent and responsible. Navigating around town alone is perfectly normal, even for small children.
2 – The high school system in Germany
As previously mentioned, the fourth grade is as decisive for Germans as the eleventh grade is for U.S. high school students. Fourth grade teachers will push a child’s knowledge to the limits in order to expose their academic character.
Children that thrive under pressure and score well pass on to the educational path that will lead to university. This is the ‘Gymnasium’, or college preparatory high school path and is how Germany creates and sustains its white collar, professional class. This could include doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers.
Lower scoring children will then pass on to lower level educational paths. These can lead to blue collar jobs which do not require a university degree. One option is the ‘Realschule’ path. The Realschule prepares students to work in professions like banking, retail, and other support roles.
Then there are the lowest level paths, called the ‘Hauptschule’ or ‘Mittelschule’. These allow students to work in the blue collar sector like construction or maintenance.
While many parents push their children to score well and make it to Gymnasium, great value is also placed on graduating well from the Realschule path. This is because students could still test up to study at a Gymnasium and go on to university.
3 – Tutoring in Germany, or ‘Nachhilfe’
After confirming the educational path, children can still jump to a higher path. However, this is neither common nor easy to do. This is why tutoring is so popular in Germany.
Most large cities have a vast network of tutoring centers or private tutors for all major subjects. These are crucial in providing students with extra support, both in, and before reaching the crucial fourth grade year.
Tutoring centers also provide support to students who are at the point of sitting their ‘Abitur’, or Gymnasium exit exam, in preparation for college or university.
Whatever academic plans you have for your child in Germany, the goal is always to score well in the decisive fourth grade year. After all, colleges and universities are practically free, but only accept those who pass their Abitur exam. It is easiest to sit for the Abitur from the Gymnasium path.
4 – Planning your arrival in Germany with school age children in mind
If you plan to work in Germany with a child in the fourth grade (around age 9/10) or higher, and they don’t already speak German, there may be pressure to keep the child behind to dedicate a year to learning German. This is to give the student a chance to test well and reach a higher educational path in the future. Again, this is because students are practically locked into the educational paths in which they start.
Repeating the third grade was hinted at for my child. We arrived when she was already 8 and about to enter the fourth grade. Despite this, she was accepted into a normal German class and given extra language tutoring to help her perform well.
It was a tough year for her to enter the German school system because of the language challenges and the heavy emphasis on testing. Nevertheless, she survived intact and did not have to lose a year of school.
5 – Other German school system routes
Knowing how to navigate the German school system takes time and energy. But, you can avoid the complicated German school system by enrolling your child into a nearby international school. The costs for these schools can be very high (around €15,000 per annum) but it might be worth it for some families. These schools follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
It may also be worth noting that some Germans consider their school systems better than those offered by international schools programs. International school graduates in Germany can face bias, as some people consider them to have dodged the ‘proper’ school system.
Unfortunately, one cannot bypass the complicated school system with homeschooling. Germany does not allow any form of homeschooling, and they take truancy very seriously. Every registered child must go to a ‘proper’ school approved by the local government.
According to a letter sent to parents from the Bavarian Kulturminister (Culture Secretary) during the COVID-19 crisis, ‘parents are not teachers and should not try to replace them’. Thus, the government made no arrangements for parents to oversee the childrens’ educational objectives during the lockdown. Teachers are well respected in Germany and the government is not ready to allow parents to take over their roles.