top of page

The German school system

Are you planning to move to Germany with your family? And are you thinking about sending your children to a local German school?

Then it will be important for you to understand the German education system and to know which options or choices your children have and what you need to consider.

In this article you will get an overview about the different types of school in Germany that will show you what to expect and help you to choose the right school for your child.

Is the school system the same all over Germany?

The answer is a clear NO.

The authority for schools and higher education lies with the Bundesländer (= states).

16 Bundesländer - 16 School Systems
16 Bundesländer - 16 School Systems

As Germany has 16 Bundesländer, this means that there are also 16 different school systems:

Each Bundesland decides about how schools are organized, the content and structure of the curriculum and even the difficulty of the final exams.

However, there is a very basic structure that is the same all over Germany.

Basic structure of the German education system

To give you a first idea of this Basic Structure:


The education system starts with a Preschool education up to the age of six.

Primary school

Children enter Primary school school at the age of six.

Depending on the Bundesland, primary school takes 4-6 years.

Secondary school

There are three types of secondary school:

  • Hauptschule (up to the age of about 16) The lowest track in the education system. Grades 5th-9th. Learn basic skills to prepare for their occupation.

  • Realschule (up to the age of 17) Learn basic skills to prepare for their occupations. If high enough grades, it is possible to transfer to a Gymnasium.

  • Gymnasium (up to the age of 18/19) Grades 5th-13th; prepares students for a university level education.

Is it compulsory to attend school in Germany?

Attending school for at least 9 years or, depending on the Bundesland, up to the age of 18, is compulsory in Germany: it is not possible to homeschool your children.

Do I have to pay school fees in Germany?

All public education in Germany is free, including public universities..

You will only need to pay for the workbooks, and e.g. crafting material.

There are also private schools and international schools in Germany, especially in the bigger cities.

However, the vast majority of Germans send their children to state schools.

School in Germany

Now, let's look at these stages of education in more depth:

What does 'Preschool Education' stand for in Germany?

Preschool education stage is dedicated to children up to 6 years of age and it is not compulsory in Germany.

Below the age of three, children may attend a Krippe (Creche).

In many areas of Germany, there are not enough places at Krippe. It is advisable to get information or even register for a place while you are still pregnant.

Traditionally, children in Germany attend Kindergarten from 3 to 6 years of age.

Even though every child is entitled to a place in the Kindergarten, there are not always enough places for them.

Institutions offering Preschool Education and Care

In Germany, preschool education is offered by Churches, Welfare organizations, private companies, Parent’s Associations or the local authorities.

What do children learn at Kindergarten?

Primary education in Germany

Children are encouraged to learn through playing and being outside as much as possible.

There’s usually no formal teaching and parents are even advised not to teach their children how to read and write before starting primary school.

However, during the last year at kindergarten, there may be a preparation for primary school.

For example, children will learn how to write their own name and how to recognize syllables in a word by clapping.

What happens if my child doesn’t speak German yet?

In some Bundesländer, there are special German courses for children whose first language is not German. You will receive further information by the staff of the nursery or by the local authorities.

What happens if a child is not ready for primary school?

If your child isn’t ready to attend primary school, there are different possibilities depending on the Bundesland.

In Bavaria, for example, you’ve got the possibility to leave your child in kindergarten for another year.

In other Bundesländer, the child can attend a Schulkindergarten (school kindergarten) or Vorklasse (preliminary class).

Primary school in Germany

At what age do children enter Primary school in Germany?

Children usually enter Primary school at the age of six.

In most parts of Germany, Primary school takes four years, only in Berlin and Brandenburg it takes 6 years.

What is the structure of Primary school?

Children will be in one class with their classmates throughout their time at Primary school.

Usually there is one main teacher who will stay with the class for two years and who teaches all basic subjects (Math, German, Knowledge and Understanding of the World) while other teachers might teach secondary subjects like Sports, Music, Religion/ Ethics or Crafting.

What does a school day look like in Germany?

Classes start between 7.30 and 8.15. At primary school, they end between 11.15 am and 1.30 pm.

Lessons are 45 min. long, with breaks of 5 min. - 20 min. in between.

The weekly number of lessons increases by grade. However, the majority of primary schools only have classes in the morning which can be quite a challenge for parents!

At most primary schools there is an after-school care, (Mittagsbetreuung/ Hort) but there are not always enough places for all children.

The Bundesländer are trying to establish more full day-schools (Ganztagsschule), but this depends on Bundesland and region.

Expectations towards the parents

In Germany, parents play a major role in helping their children succeed at school.

Numerous studies have shown that children with parents who are supporting them, e.g. by helping them with daily homework, have great advantages at school and ultimately better chances to become successful professionally.

Secondary school in Germany


Grade 5-9

At this type of school. children are taught at a slower pace, more focused on practical things, like cookery and other vocational-oriented courses.

After completing the Hauptschule young people are eligible for vocational training.

The Hauptschule as its own type of school does only exist in some Bundesländer today. However, students can take an exam that is equivalent to that of a traditional Hauptschule after grade 9.


Grade 5-10

The secondary school certificate (Realschulabschluss) is also called Mittlere Reife. It is equivalent to a high school diploma.

With this certificate you can start an apprenticeship.


Grade 5-12/13

The Gymnasium strongly emphasizes academic learning and is comparable to a grammar school in Britain or a prep school in the United States.

At a Gymnasium, students will take at least two foereign languages.

There are several types of Gymnasium:

  • Humanistisches Gymnasium (humanities oriented) The focus is on Latin and Ancient Greek

  • Neusprachliches Gymnasium The focus is on modern languages. Students will learn at least two modern languages, but often also Latin.

  • Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium The focus is on math and science.

There are also combinations of types or “branches”, e.g. for music.

Gymansium in Germany

Ath the end of the 12th or 13th grade, students take examinations (Abitur) which entitles students to go to university in Germany.

Other types of secondary schools

Gesamtschule (only in some Bundesländer)

It combines all three types of the other secondary schools: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium.

At this type of comprehensive school students can switch between the different tracks without changing schools.

Berufliches Gymnasium, Fachoberschule, Berufskolleg, ...

Having completed the Hauptschule or Realschule, it is possible to attend specialized schools to obtain a higher academic exam and even the Abitur.

There are different types of these schools in each Bundesland, e.g. Berufsoberschule (BOS) or Fachoberschule (FOS) in Bavaria.

How to choose a secondary school in Germany

During the last year of primary school, there will be the decision of choosing the right secondary school for a child.

In most Bundesländern, parents and teachers decide together which type of secondary school is the right one for the child, considering the academic performance and interests.

However, in Bavaria this decision is based strictly on the grades the child has received on the written tests during the fourth year of school in the subjects Math, German and HSU (Knowledge and understanding of the world).

Is it possible to change from one type of secondary school to another?

Depending on the progress a child makes, there is the possibility to change e.g. from the Realschule to the Gymnasium or the other way round.

Schools for Special Needs

There are a variety of schools for students with special needs in Germany. They have highly specialized teachers and therapists and offer a smaller teacher to student ratio.

However, if parents prefer a more inclusive approach, their children will also be able to attend other schools. Depending on the needs of the child, there may be a carer dedicated to helping the child to keep up with the rest of the class.

Is it easy to move and change schools within Germany?

If you move within Germany, your child will simply enter the same or corresponding type of school at the same grade.

However, it can be tricky to find a school with e.g. the same sequence of languages. In addition, the curriculum might be different.

It is common that even good students are struggling or even need to repeat a year if they move e.g. to Bavaria.

This means moving within Germany can be almost as tricky as moving to a new country.

School Students in Germany


Now you've got an overview about the most important features of the German school system(s).

Would you like to know more?

If you are planning to move to Germany with your family or have just moved here, a cross cultural training is the best way to settle in easily, qickly and successfully!


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page