Education in Germany is a broad topic and one that is not easy to say much about because
a) each German state (Bundesland) is allowed considerable liberty when it comes to regulating schools and curricula and
b) new rules are made all the time, for example in the 11 years since I graduated from high school, my state both introduced and then abolished tuition fees for universities – and ditto for the accelerated high school graduation after grade 12 rather than grade 13. These are huge changes that are being done and undone on a whim.
All this to say that in this article more than any other, I will run the risk of saying something that is regional or no longer accurate and I invite other Germans to let me know if I do.
Within one state, there are few differences, because there is no public / private school distinction, all schools receive the same amount of government funds, education is free and teachers are centrally-assigned, so quality across schools is very comparable.
Education for Children
Compulsory education starts with primary school. Kindergarten is optional though recommended (and rather expensive I hear). Normally children enter primary school when they are 6 years old, though there are exceptions for particularly mature or immature children. Primary school lasts 4 years, i. e. grades 1-4. During this time, each class has a main teacher who teaches most of the subjects; this allows him to get to know each pupil very well and build a trusting relationship. In primary school, children have the subjects German, English, Math, Sachunterricht (a combination of physics, technology, geography, sociology and history), Music, Art, Physical Education and Religious Education.
Religious Education classes in state-run schools only exist in Western Germany, as far as I know, and East German states may have Ethics classes instead. These classes date back to a concession Hitler made to the Church in exchange for their support (you might have been wondering why so few Church officials resisted the Nazis). At the time, they would indoctrinate pupils in a mixture of Christianity and Germanic Mythology / Racism. Nowadays, Religious Education classes are less about indoctrination and more about getting an overview of different religions of the world and talking about social issues and ethical problems, but it does depend a lot on the teacher. Attendance is mandatory from grade 1 to 11, except if your parents write a note (or you, if you are 16 or older) saying that you can’t attend for reasons of conscience. In practice, I have seen plenty of atheists and Muslims attend Catholic Religious Education classes with me because it was learning *about* religion rather than learning religion. Depending on the school and location, Religious Education classes come in flavours of Catholic, Protestant or (since recently) Muslim.
Education for Teenagers
After primary school, German kids are separated into three different (main) types of secondary school. There is the Hauptschule for weak students, Realschule for average students and Gymnasium for good students. Additionally there is Sonderschule for students with mental disabilities and Gesamtschule, a comprehensive school that aims to combine all three types into one but falls noticeably short of Gymnasium standards in practice. Parents can choose which type of school their child will attend, though the primary school teacher will make a recommendation.
There are many differences between these three types of schools. One is the length: pupils graduate from Hauptschule after 9th grade, from Realschule after 10th grade and from Gymnasium after 13th grade (they can graduate earlier but not earlier than 10th grade). Also, Hauptschule teachers will explain things over and over again until everyone understands, while in Gymnasium the teachers often just explain things once and anyone who didn’t understand will have to review it outside school. Finally, the content of the education is quite different: Hauptschule students have more opportunities to learn crafts and tech, Realschule students are prepared with a lot of practical math etc. for white-collar jobs and a Gymnasium education is so theoretical and research-focussed that it really only prepares you for university. Originally, all Gymnasium graduates would go on to university, but nowadays there are many white-collar jobs or vocational trainings calling for Gymnasium graduates. Hauptschule and Realschule graduates also generally go on to one of many kinds of trade schools / vocational schools (see above diagram, orange phase) or join a business for training. They can also decide to join the Gymnasium for grades 11-13 if they are ready to put in a lot of work.
Switching between school types is always possible. Students who fail a grade have to repeat it and if they repeatedly fail, they will be sent to the next-lower type of school or a Gesamtschule. Students who may not have been diligent at primary school but who come into their own can also move up to a better type of school, but this requires a lot of extra studying because of the differences in what is taught. Nevertheless there are many students who go this way. In order to be allowed to enter university, you have to complete grade 13, i. e. study at Gymnasium or the Gymnasium-style part of a Gesamtschule. Alternatively, there is a possibility if you complete Realschule and then a certain kind of trade school (Fachoberschule), but I’m not sure exactly how it works.
Compared to other countries, going to university is considered less important in Germany and much less people do so. The reasons are that a) trade schools, apprenticeships and in-business training opportunities are valued much more highly than elsewhere and b) just completing Gymnasium already gives you the kind of education that Americans would typically only have after two years of college. German universities do not have any general knowledge classes; you immediately study towards your major.
There is an ongoing debate in Germany about whether this split into three different branches is really a good idea, considering that other countries don’t do it. There are arguments for and against.
- For pupils who are already struggling at school, it makes sense to not teach them how to do mathematical proofs and two foreign languages, while bright pupils should definitely learn that before going to university.
- A mixed class would progress too slowly for some and too quickly for others. Hauptschule and Gymnasium ensure that many fewer pupils are bored or overwhelmed.
- There is much less bullying of smart kids.
- 10 or 11 years old is quite early for such a major crossroad.
- Teachers are less likely to recommend working-class children to go to Gymnasium compared to children from more educated families.
- Social cohesion may be better if pupils spent more time around pupils from other backgrounds.
Anecdotally, my German friends are much happier with their school time than my American friends. Especially the very bright ones – in America, they almost all had a horrible time at school and are vowing to home-school their kids. In Germany, home-schooling is not legal (teachers have a much higher reputation, much better training and receive twice the salary), but also I only have one friend who is unhappy at the idea of sending his kids through the German public school system.
So what to you think? Do you like this system or do you prefer your country's? Leave a comment and let me know!