Describing the German education system is not that easy, especially since, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a German education system. This is because education policy in Germany is primarily the responsibility of the German federal states. They have so-called cultural sovereignty, which means that the state governments are largely free to decide for themselves how to structure their education systems. This applies in particular to the organisation of the general school system, but there are also some differences between the federal states in the other areas of education.Despite all the differences, however, there is a common basic structure of the education system across all the federal states.

Primary school (Grundschule)

Initially, all children attend primary school for four years (six years in the Berlin and Brandenburg states). As a rule, they go to the primary school near their place of residence. In some states, parents can choose the primary school for their child.

In the last grade of primary school, the decision is made as to which secondary school the children will go to afterwards (lower secondary school). For this purpose, the teachers of the primary school give a recommendation (“transitional recommendationâ€) which should be combined with counselling for the parents. In most federal states, parents can decide which secondary school their child attends after primary school. The grades in primary school and the teachers’ assessments of the children are decisive for the recommendation.

Secondary schools (secondary levels I and II)

The school system at secondary levels I and II is very differentiated in Germany. Parents should carefully consult with their child and their teachers about which school to choose for the child. The school authorities offer information on this.

In some states, a child can attend a trial class at the secondary school. An overview of the individual regulations is available on the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs website.

The following types of secondary schools are:

  • Hauptschule (up to 9th or 10th grade)
  • Realschule (up to 10th grade)
  • Schools with several courses of education (at these schools you can obtain a lower secondary school-leaving certificate or a secondary modern school-leaving certificate)
  • Gymnasium (up to grade 12 or 13)
  • Gesamtschule [Comprehensive school] (with or without upper school leaving certificate, all qualifications can be obtained here).

In several states there are types of secondary school in which the courses of education of the Hauptschule and the Realschule are combined organisationally. Both the Hauptschule and Realschule qualifications can be obtained at these schools.

After completing the Hauptschule or Realschule, young people can continue to attend a school at secondary level II up to the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Abitur [general qualification for university entrance]) or the Specialised Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Fachgebundene Hochschulreife). They can then study at a university or college. Alternatively, young people can start vocational training after completing lower secondary school or Realschule and attend vocational school. With a Realschule certificate, more occupational fields are open than with a Hauptschule certificate.

Education in the Gymnasium or the gymnasiale Oberstufe ends after grade 12 or 13 with the Allgemeine Hochschulreife [general higher education entrance qualification] (Abitur [qualification for university entrance]) and entitles the holder to study at universities and colleges. The Fachabitur entitles the holder to study at (technical) colleges.

In some states, the Allgemeine Hochschulreife can also be acquired at vocational schools after the Realschulabschluss.

In principle, it is possible to change from one type of school to another during the course of schooling, provided the required performance is achieved.

Further information is available on the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees website.