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Education in Germany

Table of contents
1 History
2 Present situation
3 Life at a German school
4 The school year
5 Gymnasium timetables
6 Recent Developments
7 College and University
8 Weblinks


The education system in Germany has a long tradition of compulsory state schools. Under the influence of Lutheranan thinking, the Kingdom of Prussia was one of the first states in the world to install free universal school in the 18th century. This was an 8-year course of Volksschule and it provided what was needed in the early period of the industrialized world: reading, writing, arithmetics, but also strict morals and sense of duty, discipline and obedience. The children of the upper class and the affluent went to private schools with preparatory character for four years. The general population had practically no access to secondary education.

After the Napoleonic wars, Prussia introduced the requirement for a teacher to be state-certified (1810), which helped to raise the standard of teaching significantly. In 1812 the Abitur was installed as school-leaving exam for secondary schools.

When the German Empire was formed in 1871, the school system became more systematic and centralized. More secondary schools were established, as the learned professions demanded well-educated young people. The state claimed the sole right to set standards and to supervise the schools. Three different types of secondary schools developed:

By the turn of the 20th century these three types of schools had achieved equal rank and privilege (though not equal prestige). There were separate secondary schools for girls, which were recognized by Prussia from 1872 on.

After World War I, the Weimar Republic brought the universal 4-year Grundschule (elementary school), free for everybody. Most students stayed at these schools for another 4-year course but those who were able to pay a small fee went to a Mittelschule (Intermediate school) that provided a more challenging curriculum and lasted one or two years longer. Passing a rigorous entrance exam after year 4 students could also enter one of the three types of secondary school that were already known before the War.

The Nazi era (1933-1945) brought indoctrination to the students but basically did not change the school system.

After World War II the Allied powers (Soviet Union, France, Britain, USA) saw to it that the Nazi ideas were thrown out and they installed educational systems in their respective occupation zones that reflected their own ideas. When West Germany gained partial independence in 1949, its new constitution (Grundgesetz) granted educational autonomy to the state (Länder) governments. This has led to a widely varying landscape of school systems ever since, often making it difficult for children to continue schooling without problems when their parents have moved across state borders. Multi-state agreements see to it that basic requirements are universally met by all the 16 state school systems. Thus all children have to attend one school type or other "full-time", i.e. five or six days a week, from the age of 6 to the age of 16. If a student shows good abilities, he or she can always change from one school type to another. School-leaving certificates of one state will be recognized by all the others. Teacher training qualifies for teaching posts in every state.

Present situation

Here is a quick glance at the present school system:

Grundschule (Primary school) can be preceded by voluntary Kindergarten or Vorschulklassen (preparatory classes for special needs) and will last for four or six years, according to state.

After Grundschule (at 10 years of age), there are basically four options as to secondary schooling:

Parents choose where to send their child, after having been counseled by the primary school teachers. Year 5 and 6 are seen as an orientation phase in which decisions can be reversed. Achievements in the subjects of mathematics, German and English are taken to be most important for the direction the student is heading.

Standard classroom at a secondary school in Germany in 1998

Life at a German school

German students are not very different from other students in the world. Some organizational details may surprise some:

This is the general picture, although you might find exceptions to all these points.

The school year

School years start in August/September and are divided into two semesters. There are 12 weeks of school break, two in the fall, two at Christmas and New Year, two in the spring, and six in the summer.

Report cards are issued twice a year at the end of a semester. There is a grade scale ranging from 1 two 6, with 1 meaning "Excellent" and 6 for "Failed". Students who do not measure up to minimum standards have to repeat a year (which happens to almost 5 per cent every year).

Gymnasium timetables

Students have about 36 periods of 45 min per week. There are about 12 obligatory subjects: two foreign languages, one to be taken for 9 years, one for at least 3 years. Physics, biology, chemistry for at least 5, 7, 3 years respectively; math, music, art, history, German, geography, PE for 9 years. There is not such a wide choice of subjects at a Gymnasium as at a high school. But those that you take will not permit much spare time. Few afternoon activities are offered at German schools.

Typical grade 10 timetable at a Gymnasium in 2003
"F3" means third foreign language ("Fremdsprache"), which is either Latin or French usually

In grades 11-13 each students majors in two subjects. These are taught daily. The other subjects are taught three periods per week. All in all, attending Gymnasium is a full-time job.

There are many differences in the 16 states and there are alternatives to this basic pattern, e. g. Waldorfschulen or other private schools. Grown-ups can go back to evening school and take the Abitur exam.

Recent Developments

After much public debate about Germany's largely bad international ranking (PISA- Programme for International Student Assessment)), some things are finally beginning to change. There has been a trend towards a less ideological discussion on how to develop schools. These are some of the new trends: Since the 1990s already a few changes have been taking place in many schools:

College and University

Universities in Germany are part of the free state education system, which means that there are very few private universities and colleges. Organizational structures go back to the university reforms by
Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19th century. On the whole one can say that German university students largely choose their own study program and professors choose their own subjects for research and teaching. This elective system often has resulted in extra-long stays at university before graduation and is currently under review. But it is still in force and must be considered when planning to study in Germany. There are no fixed classes of students who study together and graduate together. Students change universities according to their interests and the strengths of each university. Sometimes students to attend two, three or more different universities in the course of their studies. This mobility means that at German universities there is a freedom and individuality unknown in the USA, the UK or France.

Students on both sides of the Atlantic usually are completely unaware that there are big differences between the two countries.

Generally, one must say that Germany does not know "colleges" the way the USA know them. What is learned at a US college, in Germany is partly taught at secondary schools, partly at university. That is why school lasts 13 years. The final 2-3 years are like the first two years at US colleges. Once they graduate, students go on to university - that is, professional school. There they get a training to become a lawyer, doctor etc. directly.

The Gymnasium graduation (Abitur) opens the way to any university. There are no entrance examinations, no SAT etc. Your "Abiturdurchschnittsnote" (GPA) is all you need to get a placement at the institution you prefer. And of course your Abitur GPA also means that you will not be accepted at all universities because if there are too many applicants they are chosen by GPA rank. This is called numerus clausus (restricted number). If you want to study medicine you ought to be very good (GPA 1.0 to 1.5, equivalent to 4.0 - 3.5 in USA). Otherwise your Abitur opens the way to any and all universities.

And another difference: while at Gymnasium you cannot take any courses that get you credits at any university. This might also have to do with the fact that the credit system is unknown in Germany so far. What counts at the end of one's studies is a bundle of certificates ("Scheine") issued by the professors proving that the required courses were successfully taken. Once a student has acquired the needed number of such certificates he or she can decide to register for the final examinations.

At Gymnasium students are under strict observation by teachers and their attendance at all courses is checked regularly. At German university rarely anybody cares whether you attend classes. There are few courses that resemble your college system. Students usually do not know each other. Life at German universities is very anonymous and highly individual. Especially in the liberal arts every student picks the lectures and seminars he/she prefers and at the end passes the exams. Every student decides for himself when he feels ready for the final exam. Some take the minimum 4 years, most take 5-6 years, some even 10 years at university (often because they changed subjects several times). After 13 years at school plus maybe 1 year in the military graduates are usually almost 30 years when they apply for their first job in life. After that little further university training is possible.

If they have successfully studied at university for two years (after a Zwischenprüfung, roughly corresponing to the Bachelor degree level, but not a degree), students can transfer to the USA or other countries for graduate studies. Usually they finish studies after 4-6 years with a degree that is like an M.A.

There is, however, another type of post-graduation university-like training available in Germany: the Fachhochschulen (University of Applied Science), where you can become e. g. an engineer or an administrator. They are much more like colleges in their structure since people start their courses together and graduate together and there is little choice in their schedule. This is actually vocational training. After 3 years you have a complete education and go right into specialized working life.

And one of the most important differences comes last: All courses at the ca 250 universities and Fachhochschulen are - like any school in Germany - free. You might also say the government offers a full scholarship to everyone. Tuition is free, just like high school. You do have to pay for your room and board plus your books. And then you must get an obligatory student health insurance (costs Euro 50 per month) and pay for some other social services for students (Euro 100 per semester). Then you can use the busses in the area for free. There are cheap rooms for students built by Studentenwerk, an independent non-profit organization founded by the state. These may cost Euro 150 (warm) per month, without any food. Otherwise an apartment can cost you Euro 500, but often students share apartments by 3 or 5 people. Food is about Euro 100 (figures for 2002).

There are no scholarships in Germany! However there is a law (Bafoeg = Bundesausbildungsfoerderungsgesetz) that sees to it that needy people can get up to Euro 550 per month for 4-5 years if they or their parents cannot afford all the costs involved with studying. Part of this money has to be paid back. Most students will move to the university town if it is far away. Getting across Germany from Flensburg to Konstanz takes a full day (1000 km or 620 miles). But, as said above, there is no "staying on campus" in Germany because for historical reasons campusses are scattered all over the city. Traditionally university students rented a private room with an old widow in town to give her some extra income. This was his home away from home. That is no longer the standard but you can still find it. One third to one half of the students work to make a little extra money, resulting in a longer stay at university usually.

Figures for Germany are roughly:

University degrees: Most courses lead up to a diploma called Diplom or Magister and these are about the same as the Master degree (after a minimum of 4 to 5 years). Then there is the doctoral degree (after about another two years), as at every university.

Recently changes have started taking place to install a more internationally acknowledged system which includes the (hitherto unknown) Bachelor degree and the Master degree. These changes are left to the universities to decide but they will accelerate as Europe grows together more quickly. So far students have been reluctant to start any of these new courses offered because they know that within Germany employers are not used to them and prefer the well-known system.

In addition, there are the courses leading to Staatsexamen (state examinations), e. g. for lawyers and teachers, that qualify for entry into German civil service but are not recognized elsewhere as an academic degree (although the courses are sometimes almost identical).

See also: Habilitation, List of universities in Germany.


List of schools in Germany