School life in Germany

School life in Germany

„Schule ist Ländersache“- What does that mean?

Since Germany is a Federal Republic, some topics- such as education- are governed by the individual states. The states decide how long children need to go to school for in order to graduate with Abitur, the length and dates of school holidays, and the selection of subject taught. Here are some important facts you should know about German school life:


In Germany, school attendance is compulsory; children are required to attend school for at least nine or ten years, depending on the regulations of the federal states. Homeschooling is not permitted.


The first school children attend (primary school). Every child first attends a four-year primary school (six years in Berlin and Brandenburg), usually from the age six to ten, a period of four years. After that, there are several options for secondary schooling and different school forms.

Lehrempfehlung (for secondary schools)

In some states, students need a letter of recommendation written by their primary school teachers in order to apply for a Gymnasium or Realschule based on their academic achievements. In most states however, grades in primary school are not relevant for the application and parents can decide which school form is suitable for their children.


Since every state has its own school system, there are various secondary school forms and combinations. The following school forms constitute the traditional school system in Germany. However, school reforms have been taken place in many states now, which have been changing the school system since then (see further below).


The Hauptschule is considered as the least academic compared to the other secondary schools. The focus on the preparation of students for vocational education and usually leads to an enrollment in a vocational school (Berufsschule), combined with apprenticeship training. It finishes with the final examination, Hauptschulabschluss, after year 9. However, there is also a chance of achieving a higher degree which can lead to the Realschule.


The Realschule (year 5-10) finishes with the final examination Mittlere Reife and can lead to part-time vocational schools and higher vocational schools. Students with high academic achievements can switch to a Gymnasium after year 10 in order to do their Abitur.


This secondary school is for students who would like to study at a university. It is considered as the highest academic secondary school and leads to the qualification Abitur which makes students eligable for studying at a university. The Gymnasium finishes after either year 12 (recent change to G8) or 13 (depending on the state).


The idea of the Gesamtschule was to offer an alternative to the old three-school-system (Hauptschule – Realschule – Gymnasium). This school is considered as a comprehensive school (comparable to UK), which combines the secondary school forms Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium and offers the particular qualification depending on  academic achievements.


After having completed one of the above named schools with a qualification, students can start with a Berufsschule (vocational school), a combination of apprenticeship and part-time study, where the aim is to promote the functional training.


Besides that, there are a number of Förderschulen (special-needs schools) in Germany for students with learning/mental disabilities. Children with disabilities are given educational access and learning opportunities in order to enable them to participate in society and occupational life. The educational focus is on the students’ individual differences and needs.

In this context, it is important to mention Inclusion, which is highly discussed in Germany. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into effect in Germany in 2009 and aims to ensure equality of opportunity and inclusion in society. Inclusive education is a part of the convention and refers to children with disabilities and their right to attend a regular school. Although more and more students with disabilities have been integrated into the normal school system in the last years, Germany is still far away from their aim of total social inclusion. Especially the access to secondary schools is still quite difficult for disabled students. Again, there are regional differenences, depending on the particular state.

For more information see:

Vom gegliedertem Schulsystem zum integrierten Schulsystem?

The various school forms, combinations and names differ from state to state and can be really confusing. However the tendency moves from a traditional three-school-system (Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium) or four-school-system (Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium, Gesamtschule) to a two-school-system. That means that Hauptschule, Realschule and Gesamtschule will be merged to a new school form called mostly Sekundarschule (comprehensive school). Besides the Gymnasium, the aim is to develop a comprehensive school where students can receive different degrees depending on how well they did. The children won’t be separated into different secondary schools depending on academic achievement at such young age (this led to much criticism), instead they will be given the chance to receive all secondary school qualifications at a comprehensive school.

For more information see:

Elementarstufe, Primarstufe, Sekundarstufe I/II, Tertiärstufe

The five levels of education are one of the few things, that all federal states have in common.

Elementarstufe: Children between the ages of 2-6 attend a Kindergarten.
Primarstufe: Primary school
Sekundarstufe I: Secondary school year 5-9.
Sekundarstufe II: Year 10-12/13 (Oberstufe)
Tertiärstufe: Institutions of higher education (University)

Das Notensystem

The German grading scale varies from grade 1 to 6, with one (sehr gut) being the best grade and six the worst (ungenügend).


A German class schedule varies from day to day. Students have a weekly timetable, some subjects are taught several times a week (e.g. main subjects) while others are taught only once a week. A typical school day starts at 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning and a typical class period is 45 or 90 minute long.


Parent’s day is an opportunity for parents to learn about their children’s current achievement and social behavior, and it usually takes place twice a year. Especially in Primarstufe and Sekundarstufe I, parent’s day is very essential, students are expected to meet the class teacher.


A nightmare for German students! Class retention is part of the German school system. Students have to repeat the class if their grades are not satisfactory at the end of the school year. The number of deficits (grade 5) determine whether repetition is required. There are different regulations depending school form and differences between main subjects and subsidiary subjects, but usually two deficits in two of the main subjects lead to a repetition. However, there is the opportunity to compensate one deficit with a good grade (at least grade 3) in another main subject.

Blauer Brief

Warning! If you receive a “blue letter“ in school, it’s time to study hard. The blue letters are sent out to those students who have got deficits (grade 4 – ) and might not pass the class. Parents and students are warned of the current performance and students get the chance to improve their grades until the end of term. These letters are actually white, the term refers to the 18th century when royal order papers had to be nontransparent. Therefore paper was often made out of rags and old uniforms, which at that time had the colour Prussian blue.


Abitur is the qualification students receive after the last two years at a Gymnasium, which entitles them to study at University. It is comparable to the A-levels in the UK. At the end of grade 12 or 13 (depending on the state), students take four or five exams including science, humanity/social science, and language/art. One of the four or five exams is an oral exam. After having passed the exams, they get an average mark including the academic achievements of the two years. This average mark is called Numerus Clausus (NC) which is what students apply with for Universities. The NC varies from 1.0 to 4.0 (with 1.0 being the highest grade).

Note: the higher your NC, the higher your chances for being accepted for your field of study, especially if you would like to enroll in programs with high NCs, such as medicine, law or psychology.


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