An Introduction to the German School System [2023 English Guide] (2023)

The German school system, along with the higher education system, is known worldwide for its quality and accessibility, thanks to no tuition fees. Yet, the German education system is very complex and differs from those in other Western countries.

This article will introduce you to the German school system’s general structure and the many different study paths and opportunities for students in Germany. At the end of the article, we have compiled interesting facts and statistics about schooling in Germany.

Table of Contents

How Does The German School System Work?

The German school system is a rather complex one and can be quite confusing at first sight. There are multiple ways to acquire a school degree and higher-level education, depending on each student’s interests, skills, and abilities.

The public school system is the centerpiece of Germany’s school system, despite private schools becoming more popular and almost doubling over thepast two decades.

Every German state (Bundesland) is responsible for its education policy, from school types to school calendars and class subjects. However, the ministers of education from each of the sixteen states meet twice a year at a national conference (Kultusministerkonferenz)to align their plans and practices.

There is no regional draft as to which school a student has to attend. Families in Germany are free to choose the school for their children.

If you are interested in the specific school system in the different German states, take a look at theseindividual guidelines. Otherwise, let’s have a look at the general system and its different school types.

An Introduction to the German School System [2023 English Guide] (1)

Compulsory School Attendance In Germany

Children living in Germany at the age of six to fifteen must attend school (Schulpflicht). The compulsory school attendance in Germany has its foundation in the German constitution (Grundgesetz). It is designed to allow every child proper and qualified education, regardless of the family’s financial situation, to mix social classes, and prevent religious or ideological parallel societies.

Consequently, home-schooling is illegal in Germany.

Preschool Education In Germany

Whether it is kindergarten, daycare, or nursery, any type of preschool is optional and not part of the German public school system. There are many different types of preschool education in Germany. The traditionalKindergartenis for children from age three to six, whereas the Kita (Kindertagesstätte) already takes infants from six months old.

However, there is a chronic lack of enough spots for children, making it very stressful and tedious for parents to find a daycare place for their young kids close to home. We have heard stories from friends with children who had to apply for a Kita spot while still pregnant to stand a chance of getting one.

💡 For all parents in Berlin: Kietzee is a new initiative to help parents find a Kita spot in Berlin faster and with less stress. You can join the community club and benefit from how-to content and reviews from other parents.

The cost of daycare differs from state to state. In Dusseldorf, where we live, daycare for children between three and six years old is free, while the cost for children younger than three depends on the parents’ income and the hours of caretaking per week. Example calculation forKita cost in Dusseldorffor a child younger than three years: 35 hours of caretaking with a yearly income up to 60.000 euros cost 200 euros per week.

Next to preschool, parents also have the option to stay at home for up to three years while still being able to return to their job, thanks to a very supportiveparental leavesystem. As a parent in Germany, you can also apply forparental allowance, which is financial support from the German government for the first two years after your child is born.

Related Guides:
Parental Leave In Germany [Elternzeit]
Parental Allowance In Germany [Elterngeld]

Primary School In Germany (Grundschule)

In Germany, primary school is the so-called elementary school (Grundschule) for grades 1-4 (in Berlin and Brandenburg, grades 1-6). There are15.447 primary schoolsin Germany. Starting primary school is the official beginning of German school education. This is a big day for kids, which is celebrated with the entire family. In German, it is calledEinschulung, and tradition has it that kids get a big school cone (Schultüte) filled with school stationery, sweets, small gifts, and sometimes money.

An Introduction to the German School System [2023 English Guide] (2)

The typical age to start primary education is six years, although exceedingly bright kids can start school in some states already at five years of age, and those that are not ready yet can start at seven years of age.

Primary schools in Germany usually take place for half-days. Parents can choose the school themselves and have to sign their children up for school and make sure that they attend regularly. Students learn to read and write, the basics of math and English in elementary school.

At the end of primary school, teachers recommend which secondary school to continue with, although it is the parents’ choice to follow that recommendation.

Secondary School In Germany (Weiterführende Schule)

In most German states, secondary school starts with fifth grade, and this is when the differences in the German education system start. Every German state has its own school system and different names for specific schools. Despite that, there are three general types of schools in Germany that determine different education tracks and career possibilities. Those three types of German schools are Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium.

Secondary education in Germany is split into two parts: secondary level I and secondary level II. Secondary level I describes grades 5 to 10, and secondary level II describes grades 11-13.

Hauptschule (5-9th Grade)

There are1.818Hauptschulenin Germany. Generally speaking, theHauptschule(in some states calledMittelschule)offers the lowest, least demanding learning level in the German education system. It is an excellent choice for pupils who want to continue their education with an apprenticeship in craft or industrial trades – the famous GermanAusbildung.

TheHauptschulegets them ready for such vocational training, starting after the final examination (Hauptschulabschluss) after grade 9. Students that attend theHauptschulecan also decide to study one more year to finish with the higher-ratedRealschuldegree at the end of 10th grade.

After graduating from theHauptschule, the education continues as part of a two to three-year-long vocational training, which operates in a dual system. Students spend around three days a week in their company and around two days a week at vocational school (Berufsschule). These students/workers are referred to asAuszubildendeor shortAzubis. They usually get paid by the company around 1/3 of the standard salary for the job they are training in.

After completing their vocational school and training, they are certified tradespeople of the chosen craft.

Realschule (5-10th Grade)

There are1.752 Realschulenin Germany. TheRealschulein Germany offers mid-level education. It is more challenging than theHauptschule, but a step lower than theGymnasium. The Realschule prepares students with practical and theoretical knowledge for their future professional life. Students usually have the option to choose a focus area, such as an additional foreign language or science subject.

After completing theRealschulabschluss, a.k.a.Mittlere ReifeorFachoberschulreife, students have multiple options to continue their education. Should their grades and performance have been satisfactory, they stand the option to continue to the higher level of secondary school at aGymnasium. They also have the option to pursue vocational training (Ausbildung) or attend an internship for a better orientation of their desired profession.

As a last option, students completing theRealschulecan also take a year for volunteering (Freiwilligendienst). This is quite common in Germany; it helps to gain professional experience and orientation for future education. There aredifferent types of volunteering opportunitiesin the social, ecological, and cultural areas within Germany and abroad.

Even without anAbitur(seeGymnasium), students with aRealschulabschlussalso have thepossibility to continue with higher education. That is after they completed their three-year vocational training and gained a few years of work experience.

Gymnasium (5-12/13th Grade)

TheGymnasiumis the highest form of secondary education and aims to prepare students for continued university education. It is the most popular school typein Germany’s secondary school system, with a total of 3.146Gymnasien. You can find different types ofGymnasienin Germany. Some are boys and girls only; the church runs some, and others focus on sports, science, or arts. It is not uncommon that aGymnasiumandRealschuleshare the same building and schoolyard.

Traditionally theGymnasiumhas nine grades (G9), leading to a total of 13 years in school. However, in the early 2000s, a school reform decided to cut one year (while keeping the same amount of learning matter) to end the school education after grade 12 (G-8). This change should allow German students to be more competitive with other European students, who finish school at a younger age.

There have been huge protests and discussions regarding this reform, as students got overwhelmed and had no more time for social activities in the afternoons. Today, a lot of states have returned to G-9 and a total of 13 years in school. The curriculum at a Gymnasium has an academic focus, with a minimum of two foreign languages, higher math, and science courses, with the goal to reach the university level.

The secondary level II, which starts with grade 11 serves as a preparation for future university studies. Students have to choose two focus subjects (Leistungskurse) and two additional subjects for the big final exam, known asAbiturorAllgemeine Hochschulreife.

A German university must accept any student with anAbi(short forAbitur); however, there are no guarantees that the student gets accepted to their desired field of study. The final grade of theAbitur(also referred to as NC for numerus clausus) plays a big role in getting accepted by the favorable university to the desired field of study. Especially degree courses like law and medicine are highly competitive and require anAbiturwith a stellar NC or flexibility in terms of the university’s location.

Gesamtschule (5-13th Grade)

The Gesamtschule combines all three tracks of school education in one comprehensive school, making it easier to switch tracks if necessary. It was introduced in the late 1960s with the idea to replace the traditional three school system but it was never fully adapted. In some German states, the comprehensive school coexists with the three traditional schools.

While the traditional three main schools usually only have half-day classes, a lot ofGesamtschulenoffer full-day classes. There are currently 2.141 integrated Gesamtschulen in Germany.

Special Needs Schools In Germany

There are very few schools in Germany with an inclusive concept for children and teenagers with learning disabilities. Instead, there are specific schools for students with special needs. Those schools are calledFörderschuleorSonderschule. There is some controversy regarding this system, as it prevents disabled students from integrating into daily life.

International Schools In Germany

International schools are gaining in popularity in Germany, amongst German and expat families alike. Most international schools in Germany are private schools with a tuition fee and teach in English or bilingual. They teach in smaller classes and do not follow the German curriculum. Most international schools in Germany teach to acquire the International Baccalaureate (IB) degree after 12th grade. This means that students at international schools will mostly not get theAbitur. Though, the IB will allow them to study at German and international universities. With the following link, you can find anoverview of international schools in Germany.

Private Schools In Germany

Private schools have never played such a big role in Germany compared to other countries. However, private schools have doubled in the last two decades, making it5.855 private schools in Germany in 2020/2021. Those range from elementary schools to higher education institutes.

Private schools typically charge tuition fees and require an admission test. They follow the German curriculum to attain theAbitur, while some also offer other diplomas.

While there is no school uniform at public schools in Germany, some private schools have them implemented. Students in Eastern and Southern Germanyattend private schoolsa lot more than in Northern and Western Germany.

Unlike in other countries, private schools have to stagger the tuition fees based on the parents’ income or offer different benefits. As per the German basic law (Grundgesetz), private schools cannot cause a divide in society due to some families’ financial possibilities or lack thereof. In 2016, theaverage tuition feeper year per child was 2.000 euros.

Boarding Schools In Germany

A boarding school in Germany is calledInternat, and there areover 250 different boarding schools in Germany. They range from elite-type with a high academic focus and strict rules to sport or music boarding schools. Some of theInternateare still boys and girls only.

Almost all boarding schools in Germany are private schools, and they follow the German curriculum up to theAbiturwhile also offering specialized courses and activities.

Higher Education In Germany

Germany is renowned for offering high-class tuition-free university education. In some states, there is a so-calledSemesterbeitrag(semester contribution) of about 50 to 300 euros and a special tuition charge if a student exceeds the regular study-time. Foreign exchange students may also have to pay fees for specific programs. According to theQS-Ranking, 12 German universities are rated amongst the best 200 universities in the world.

Next to traditional universities, which focus mainly on theoretical studies, there are plenty of other higher education schools in Germany. According toStatista, in 2020/2021,Germany had a total of 422 higher education schools. Those consist of:

  • 210 universities for applied science (FachhochschuleorFH), which focus on a more practical way of teaching
  • 108 universities (Universität)
  • 52 art colleges (Kunsthochschulen)
  • 30 administrative training institutes (Verwaltungsfachhochschulen)
  • 16 theological institutes (theologische Hochschulen)
  • 6 teacher training colleges (pädagogische Hochschulen)

Thenumber of studentspursuing academic degrees in Germany increased by 52% from 2002 to 2021, making it 2.944.145 students.

Germany’s academic curriculum was changed and adjusted to international standards in 2002 by introducing the Bachelor and Master degrees. The previous‘Diplom’took mostly four years to acquire. Nowadays, the Bachelor takes three years, optionally followed by a one or two-year Master.

Is Schooling Free In Germany?

Yes, it is. Germany’s public education system, including universities, is open to anyone living in Germany at pretty much no cost if the qualifications are met. The cost for required study materials, school trips, or exchanges needs to be covered by each student or family individually.

The German School Year Explained

The German school year has two terms, the1. Halbjahrusually ends at the end of January and the2. Halbjahrusually ends in June or July. When a school year in Germany starts and ends differs from state to state. To avoid overcrowding, traffic jams, and sold-out tourist destinations, the 16 different German states have a staggered vacation schedule, which rotates every year. Historically though, the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg always start the school year last.

Generally speaking, school in Germany starts in late summer (Mid-August to Mid-September). Instead of one very long break in summer, the German school year has several shorter vacation periods (Schulferien).

These Are The Main German School Vacation Periods:

  • 2 weeks Fall vacation (Herbstferien)
  • 2 weeks Christmas and New Years vacation (Weihnachtsferien)
  • 2 weeks Easter vacation (Osterferien)
  • 6 weeks Summer vacation (Sommerferien)

Schulferien.orgalways lists the vacation schedule per state and year.

The German School Day Explained

A typical German school day starts around 8 am and finishes around 1 pm, with six 45-minutes classes and two breaks (Große Pause). When joining a school in Germany, a student becomes part of a fixed class with a lead teacher (Klassenlehrer). The class remains the same for the entire school education (for elementary and secondary level I school), except for elective subjects. The lead teacher usually changes about every three years.

Each class usually gets their classroom (Klassenzimmer), where they get all the main classes taught. Students usually move to another or specifically equipped classroom for specialized school lessons, such as science, sports, art, and elective subjects.

Each term, the class gets a new timetable, which repeats itself each week. Below you can find an exemplary German timetable. Please note that every school and state will have a slightly different format.

Example Of A German Timetable In Secondary School

An Introduction to the German School System [2023 English Guide] (3)

Most German schools don’t have a cafeteria, and students eat at home. There are usually some extra-curricular clubs that occur once a week; however, most afternoon activities, whether athletics, art, or music, occur outside of school at clubs or dedicated private schools.

In recent years, the concept of full-day school (often in form of aGesamtschule) has become more popular but remains a minority, as cafeterias have to be added to schools.

German Grading System In Secondary Schools

The German grading system in secondary school relies on the following 6-mark number system:

Grade (Note)Grade in WordsEnglish Translation
1Sehr gutVery good
2Gut Good
6UngenügendVery poor

An exam or an entire grade gets passed with a 1-4. If the school certificate (Zeugnis) at the end of the school year shows two or more 5s or one 6, the student usually has to repeat the entire school year. Usually, a student can repeat a school year twice during their education before having to change the school track to a less challenging school. The Germans call the repetition of a school year’sitzen bleiben‘, which literally means to stay seated.

When attending aGymnasium, there is one exception. While 5th and 6th grade serve as an orientation phase of whether the Gymnasium is the right fit for the student. The 7th grade is the so-called trial year and can’t be repeated. If a student fails to pass this grade, they have to change tracks toRealschule.

It is not uncommon that students, who received a 5 or 6 on a paper or exam during the school year, have to get the grade (which is written below the exam) signed by their parents to ensure that parents are aware of their child’s performance. In addition, schools send the so-called ‘Blaue Briefe‘ letters in a blue envelope at least ten weeks before the finalZeugnisto the parents of students at risk of needing to repeat the school year.

In certain cases, it is also possible for especially bright and talented students to skip one grade. If teachers, the school’s direction, and parents agree, it is beneficial for the student.

German School System Facts

We have researched and collected some stats and facts regarding the German school system. Here it goes.

Final Thoughts

The German education system is so complex and versatile to allow every student to match their abilities. Despite the lack of digitalization in most German schools,Germany’s school system is quite good compared to other countries. Be aware, though, that you will hear lots of Germans complain about it.


Is the school system in Germany hard? ›

The German education standards

German educational standards at local schools and also at higher education institutions are relatively high. In fact, precisely because the German school system is so well structured and rigorous, it produces some of the most accomplished students in the world.

What grade is a 15 year old in Germany? ›

The secondary school system in Germany

There is the lower phase (sekundarstufe I), which in most states takes place between ages 10 and 15/16 (or from grades 5 to 9/10). This is compulsory for all students. The upper phase (sekundarstufe II) continues until students are 18 and is optional.

What is 11th and 12th grade called in Germany? ›

Hauptschule (secondary general school for grades 5 through 9 or 10) Realschule (more practical secondary school for grades 5 through 10) Gymnasium (more academic secondary school for grades 5 through 12 or 13)

What grade is a 18 year old in Germany? ›

Most schools take students until 15 or 16 years of age. The Gymnasium students end at age 18 (grade 13).

What is the best grade in German school? ›

Grading System in German Universities
  • 1.0 – Excellent. You have successfully completed between 90 and 100% of the material required in the exam.
  • 2.0 – Overall very good. ...
  • 3.0 – Good. ...
  • 4.0 – Adequate.
  • 5.0 – Sufficient to pass the exam, but very poor otherwise.
  • 6.0 – Insufficient. ...
  • 1 to 1.5 – Very good. ...
  • 1.6 to 2.5 – Good.

What is the lowest grade in Germany? ›

Germany uses a 5- or 6-point grading scale (GPA) to evaluate academic performance for the youngest to the oldest students. Grades vary from 1 (excellent, sehr gut) to 5 (resp. 6) (insufficient, nicht genügend).

What is a 4.0 GPA in Germany? ›

Primary & Lower Secondary (1st-10th grade)
GradeScaleGrade Description
3-3.30 - 3.69Satisfactory (Befriedigend)
4+3.70 - 3.99Sufficient (Ausreichend)
44.00 - 4.29Sufficient (Ausreichend)
4-4.30 - 4.69Poor (Mangelhaft)
11 more rows

What is a good GPA in Germany? ›

2.0 gut

How long is summer break in Germany? ›

In Germany, summer vacation lasts six to six and a half weeks. The exact dates vary by state as well as from one to the next year, from the earliest (mid-June to late July) to the latest (late July to early September).

How many hours is a school day in Germany? ›

The School Day

Classes normally start between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. and can end between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. Class periods are normally 45 minutes long with a short break in between.

How is German school system different from American? ›

The biggest difference between the American school system and German school system are the grades. Germany doesn't have the major and daily grades system, or final exams and the end of the semester. And they don't have multiple choice tests.

What age is grade 10 in Germany? ›

The lower secondary education is the education offered for pupils of age 10 – 15/16 in grades 5/7 to 9/10. Lessons in this level are of a general nature and serve as preparation for the upper level of secondary education.

What is a 3.5 GPA in Germany? ›

CGPA (Best: 4.0, Worst: 2.0)German Grading System (Best: 1.0, Worst:5.0)
3.61.60 (Good)
3.51.75 (Good)
3.41.90 (Good)
3.32.05 (Good)
17 more rows

What grade is 70 percent in Germany? ›

So, if you were an average student at a such a college, your CGPA/ Percentage would be 7.0 or 70%. Using above conversion table, your GPA on German scale would be 2.80.

What age do Germans go to college? ›

Usually in Germany, most students start their studies when they are at least 18 years old. The majority even starts at the age of almost 24. However, more minors are currently studying at German colleges and universities than ever before.

Is 1 GPA good in Germany? ›

The grades awarded in the German school system range from 1 to 6. The lower the grade, the better it is: a 1 is an excellent grade, whereas 5 and 6 are fail grades.

What is the minimum GPA for Germany? ›

The minimum grade requirements in German universities may vary depending on the courses, universities etc. However, the minimum grade required for a middle profile course is GPA 2.5, GPA 1.5 for high profile study programs and there are no specific requirements for low profile courses.

Can you skip grades in Germany? ›

In Germany, skipping a grade level is rooted in the Schulgesetze (Education Acts) of all federal states as a pos- sible intervention method. Along with increased flexibility in laws during the past two decades, there has been a consider- able increase in grade skipping (Heinbokel, 2001).

Is the school system in Germany Good? ›

Germany is known around the world for providing excellent education and offering plenty of courses. The German higher education system is well known for high standards and enjoys a good reputation.

Is student life easy in Germany? ›

1. Is it easy to live in Germany for international students? Living in Germany as a student can be challenging initially but you will definitely get used to the German lifestyle and understand the country more in general and start speaking the language with time. That would make things a lot easier.

What is the education system like in Germany? ›

All Germans are obliged to attend primary and secondary education, ever since they reach the age of 6, up until they complete a 9-year full-time schooling at Gymnasium, or 10 years of full-time years for other general education schools.

What is a typical school like in Germany? ›

German students at public schools normally attend school in the morning. Classes normally start between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. and can end between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. Class periods are normally 45 minutes long with a short break in between.

What grade is a 14 year old in Germany? ›

What grade is a 14 year old in Germany? There is the lower phase (sekundarstufe I), which in most states takes place between ages 10 and 15/16 (or from grades 5 to 9/10). This is compulsory for all students. The upper phase (sekundarstufe II) continues until students are 18 and is optional.

How many days a week do German students go to school? ›

Some US vs Germany School Differences

More like a college schedule, with some classes three times a week, while others are only two days a week. German students attend school for 187-190 days in an academic year, depending on the state. The school year in the US lasts 180 days.

How can an American student live in Germany? ›

Remember your application for the residence permit in Germany must contain the following documents:
  1. A Valid Passport.
  2. A certificate showing you have no criminal record.
  3. German health insurance.
  4. Proof of German Language Proficiency (at least a B1 level)
  5. Proof of Financial Resources.
  6. University Admission Letter.

Are German students happy? ›

73% of students in Germany reported feeling satisfied or very satisfied with life (OECD average: 71%). 75% of students in Germany reported that they feel they belong to school (OECD average: 73%).

Can you survive in Germany without learning German? ›

Can you live in Germany without knowing German? It is just about possible to live in Germany without knowing much German. But in order to find employment and to fully integrate into society, you will need to be able to speak and read German to a good standard, especially if you live outside the major cities.

What curriculum does Germany use? ›

The hauptschule curriculum includes basic general studies, including German and one foreign language (usually English). It also includes pre-vocational studies, also called Economics-Work-Technology, and in some Länder, domestic science.

What are the three types of German schools? ›

Three levels in the Upper School
  • College Preparatory High School (Gymnasium) Many students in Germany go on to College Preparatory High School (Gymnasium) from fifth through twelfth grade. ...
  • Technical Academic High School (Realschule) ...
  • Lower Secondary School (Hauptschule)

Why German education is the best? ›

Ans. Germany provides free higher education to all the students irrespective of their backgrounds. This is the biggest reason why study in Germany is popular among international students. Other benefits of study in Germany include top ranked universities, good job prospects, low cost of living etc.


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