Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Structure

While optional, Germany has near universal enrollment of 3- to 5-year-olds in kindergarten which was recently expanded to full day. Compulsory school is from age 6 to age 15 or 16 (depending on the Länder) but part-time education is required until the age of 18 for those who do not attend a full-time school.

All Länder have a comprehensive primary school (grundschule) for grades 1-4, though in some primary school extends through grade 6. Students attend secondary school for five to nine years, depending on the type of secondary school and the different Länder. This means some students attend through ages 15 or 16 and some through ages 18 or 19.

The secondary school system has undergone major reforms in the last two decades.  Traditionally, there were three types of secondary schools: the gymnasium, which prepared students for university, the realschule, which offered students general academic education, and the hauptschule, which prepared students for work or further vocational education in Germany’s Dual System for vocational training. Teachers recommended which school students should enroll in at age 10, based primarily on their grades in German and mathematics. Once students enrolled in one of these schools, their options to change direction were limited.

The recent reforms have focused on delaying the differentiation of school pathways and allowing students flexibility to move among them. The motivation was the recognition that the traditional tripartite structure increasingly segregated disadvantaged students in the hauptschule. The hauptschule had once been the pathway into Germany’s world renowned Dual System of vocational training and a good job, but as more students entered the gymnasium and the realschule, these students competed with the hauptschule graduates for Dual System apprenticeships. As a result, hauptschule students were less likely to transition successfully from school to work.

The structural reforms have taken different forms in the different Länder, but include:

  • creating comprehensive secondary schools that offered differentiated programs only after three years of a core program;
  • combining the realschule and the hauptschule into one school;
  • eliminating the hauptschule altogether; and
  • allowing students to enroll in any secondary school of their choice rather than relying on teachers to assign them to these schools.

In addition to these structural reforms, many of the Länder are changing policies to allow students to move among the different secondary schools, at least in the early years; making the curriculum for the first two years of all of the secondary schools increasingly comprehensive to facilitate movement among the pathways; and opening pathways to university from all secondary school pathways, as well as from the Dual System.

While the structure is evolving, the three secondary school pathways still retain distinct features. The gymnasium program prepares students for university. It is usually eight but sometimes nine years. It leads to an abitur, which is a university entrance certification. The realschule program provides a general education, is usually six years in length, and leads to a certification that qualifies students for either a tertiary technical school (fachschole), which can lead to technical university, or a specialized gymnasium, which offers an alternative route to the abitur. Realschule students can, and do, also enter the Dual System for vocational training. Hauptschule programs also provide a general education, are generally five years in length, and lead to a vocational certification that qualifies the student to pursue vocational training in the Dual System or other types of post-secondary vocational schools.

Student enrollment in the gymnasium and the realschule has been rising while enrollment in the hauptschule has declined. The percentages of students in gymnasium or realschule grew from approximately 65 percent in 1992 to about 78 percent in 2014.

Standards and Curriculum

In 2003, the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Culture (KMK) agreed to set common education standards for compulsory schools. KMK is the group of education ministers from all the Länder. The national standards are set for German and mathematics for primary school and for German, mathematics, foreign language, and science for secondary school. The secondary school standards differ for each of the three major pathways. In 2014, the KMK added national STEM standards for secondary schools that cut across the discipline areas. The Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs of each Länder is responsible for developing its own curriculum. In general, the Länder curricula allow teachers considerable freedom with regard to content, objectives, and teaching methods.

While there are variations across the Länder, most primary school curriculum is broad and generally covers German and mathematics based on the national standards and then general studies, a foreign language, art, handicrafts/textile design, music, sports, and religion based on the Länder’s own standards. There is a strong focus on interdisciplinary studies in the primary schools.

The KMK developed a framework for secondary curriculum that requires different core subjects, depending on the school pathway. The gymnasium curriculum is highly academic, requiring two foreign languages and offering high-level mathematics and science courses. The realschule curriculum is also academic, though less demanding than that of the gymnasium; only one foreign language (usually English or French) is required. 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.

Assessment and Qualifications

In 2008, following the implementation of common standards, the KMK developed national tests (VERA) to measure student performance against the standards. The assessments are administered to all students in all Länder in grades 3 and 8 every other year in either mathematics or German. Some Länder publish the results of VERA; in others, only the schools and the teachers get feedback about the results. The Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB), a research institute at Humboldt University in Berlin, oversees the process of test development by teachers across the country, which are then reviewed by test specialists. The Länder are responsible for administering the VERA tests. In addition, most of the Länder implement their own statewide assessments. Many of these Länder-level assessments are developed by the IQB.

There is no leaving certificate at the end of primary school. Students do, however, receive a leaving certificate at the end of grade 9 or 10. Students earn those certificates by successfully completing classes with a mark of 4 or better (on a 6-point scale, with 1 being the highest). Most Länder also require students to pass a Länder-level leaving examination. Gymnasium students who complete their classes and pass examinations receive a qualification after the first three or four years that allows them to continue to the upper level program. It is at this point that high-performing students from the realschule can transfer into the gymnasium to study for the abitur, the university-entrance exam. The abitur consists of assessments in four or five subjects that must include any two of German, foreign language, or mathematics; and at least two subjects at an advanced level. The exam includes both written and oral components. In 2016, 31 percent of all students received the abitur certificate; this includes a growing percentage of immigrant students.

The Structure of Germany’s Education System

Notes on this graphic:

1. Students who require additional preparation complete one- to two-year “transitional” prevocational programs to strengthen basic skills prior to enrollment in upper secondary-level VET.

2. In some Länder, there is a special type of upper secondary VET school for Dual System completers to earn the Abitur qualification.

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