The ultimate guide to the German school system

Moving as a family unit to Germany comes with its own set of challenges like ensuring your spouse settles, finding work, and most importantly enrolling your child/children into the German school system. This is your guide to understanding everything that you need to know about the German school system, and if your child should enrol in it.

The general education guidelines are set at the federal level by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. One such important rule states that every child registered in Germany, who is over the age of 6 must be enrolled in a school.  It is also obligatory for children to complete at least 9 years of schooling. Each of the 16 states or (Länder) in Germany however, have their own education department which sets its policies and legislation to govern the state’s school system. This basically means that school systems, course material, subjects and textbooks vary from one state to another.

Free Public school education

Germany is known worldwide for having a very high standard of Public school education. Public school education is free for all children where all the classes are taught in German. These schools are ideal for children who are in primary school, as they are at a stage where they can cope with learning German easily.

Basic Public School System

Although the German school system follows the universal system of Kindergarten to Class 12 approach, it is also slightly different. Compared to other countries, schools in Germany have shorter days, where the students start school at 8:00 am and finish by 1-2:00pm. The school academic year usually begins in August/September and finishes by 1st of July; however this and national holidays vary from state to state. Below is the process of a child who goes through the German education system.

Day Care or Kindergarten (up to 6-year-olds)

In Germany, there are plenty of alternatives to enrolling your children in any one of the day care or kindergartens.

Kita short for Kindertagestätte (Day Care) or Kinderkrippe (crèche nursery or Child Crib)

These are for Toddlers under the age of 3 in Germany. These are not free, and the fee differs from state to state.

Tagesmütter  (private child care, childminders or nannies)

A popular option with working parents, the Tagesmütter usually minds a small group of children, usually 4-5 in their private homes. These child care professionals are trained and certified by the Child Care Service in Germany and are equipped to care for children who are a minimum of 8 months to 3 years old.

Kindergarten  (optional)

For who?:
These are preparatory schools for children between the ages of 3-6, before they begin the compulsory elementary school.

Support from the German government:
The state supports parents by providing exemption on tax and child allowance (Kindergeld). They also encourage the population in Germany to have children by providing special tax credits on childcare fee. The cost of this fee is determined by the income of the parents, number of hours and number of children.

Click here to read our article on Tax in Germany.

Admission Process:
Admissions in these Kindergartens are usually high in demand, and the application process starts early. So it would be best for you to keep an eye on enrolment information and dates at the kindergarten of your choice.

Different Options:
There are plenty of options for Kindergartens in Germany

  • Public
  • Private
  • Kindergartens run by churches.
  • Bilingual kindergartens: The recent increase in foreign population has made this a popular option amongst parents.
  • Waldkindergarten (forest Kindergartens): This interesting option is soon gaining popularity with the masses. These Kindergartens are held outdoors in the woods, where the children spend time playing and learning from nature.

Elementary School or Grundschule (6 to 10 years or so or Grade 1 – Grade 4)

For who?:
Compulsory school education begins for all children who are six years old and usually finishes by the time they are 10 years old. The only exception to this four-year elementary school rule is Berlin and Brandenburg, where children have to complete a total of 6 years instead of 4 before moving to the secondary school level.

School hours:
Students have about 20-30 hours per week and are given a little homework every day.

Subjects studied:
These range from German, Mathematics, Science, a foreign language, Geography and computer skills. Parents can choose between either religions or ethics.

Upon completion:
A child’s academic, intellectual abilities and ability to be a self-starter are keenly assessed during their elementary years by their teachers. Post this, the teachers recommend any one of the four secondary school options to their parents to keep in mind while choosing the next step. 

Secondary School
Students have four secondary school options based on how they perform academically. They can choose between Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule or Gymnasium.

Gymnasium (Grade 5 – 12 or 13 based on state they live in)

For who?:
The more academically inclined students opt to study in a Gymnasium usually for 8 – 9 years.

School hours:
Students usually have 32 -40 hours of lessons per week.

Subjects studied:
A highly wide range of subjects and two foreign languages (English, French, Spanish or Latin)

Upon completion:
Students receive a degree that is known as the Arbitur or Abi. This allows students to apply to University to further their education in undergraduate studies or any other academic program.

Realschule (Grade 5 – 19)

For who?:
This type of secondary school is for the intermediary students (lower academic standard than Gymnasium). The Realshule is the most common choice of secondary school after the Gymnasium.

Upon completion:
After their Grade 10 exam, students receive a Realschulabschuss diploma (leaving certificate). Those who receive higher grades have an option of switching to a Gymnasium and further continuing onwards to a University. Another option here for students would be to attend part-time or full-time vocational school known as Berufschule. Here they receive training in any skill or trade of their choice.

Hauptschule (Grade 5 – 9 or 10)

For who?:
This school is for the less academic students.

Subjects studied:
Same as other secondary schools such as Gymnasium and the Realschule. The only difference is that these subjects are taught at a much slower pace.

Upon completion:
On completing Grade 9, students are given a Hauptschulabschuss certificate.
If they stay till Grade 10, they receive a Realschulabschluss. Academic achievers can transfer to a Gymnasium if they aim to head to University. Else, they can continue to either a full or part-time vocational training.


Also known as integrated schools, they include elements of all the above secondary school systems – Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule.

For who?:
These schools accept students of all academic abilities.

Upon completion:
After Grade 9: Students receive their Hauptschule degree.
After Grade 10: Students receive their Realschule degree.
After Grade 13: Students can attempt the Abitur.

Post Secondary School:

It is entirely optional for every individual. If the young adult wishes to continue studying, they have the option to choose between applying to a University and opting for a work-study course.

What about private and boarding schools, international schools or homeschooling?

Why not public schools? Classes conducted in German might be hard to cope with.

Private schools and Boarding schools

Both these schools offer Abitur and other school finishing certifications, just like the public schools.

Advantages over public schools:
  • A few private schools are bilingual, making it easy to adapt learning in your native language.
  • Smaller number of children per classroom.

International schools in Germany

Most foreigners in Germany enrol their children in International schools. Usually, international schools are private schools which require you to pay the school’s tuition fees.

Advantages over public schools:
  • No language barrier (The medium of instruction is English) so these schools might be better if your child is too old to learn German in public schools where classes are held in German.
  • Greater accessibility especially if there is a lack of public schools in the neighbourhood
  • Greater flexibility with regards to the duration of parent’s work assignment in Germany.

Admission process:
Because of their limited numbers, admissions are usually high in demand.

Upon completion:
Unlike German public schools, the International Baccalaureate (IB) is offered as the school leaving certificate.

Below is a list of International schools in the top German cities.

CityInternational Schools

John F Kennedy School, Berlin

SIS Swiss International School

Berlin British School

Berlin Metropolitan School

Berlin International School

BonnIndependent Bonn International School

Internationale Friedensschule Cologne

St. George’s International School


International School of Düsseldorf

ISR International School on the Rhine


Internationale Schule Frankfurt Rhein-Main

Frankfurt International School

HamburgInternational School of Hamburg
MunichSt. George’s International School

Phorms education is brand of international schools located in most German states.


This is illegal in Germany as it is compulsory for every child to receive a school education.

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