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German Schooling: Controversy Over Diverging Paths

German schooling is diverse, and often difficult. Some teenagers compete in the honored Young Scientists competition; others don't even make it to graduation.

German children in a daycare center

German kids first get a taste of school at kindergarten

For many children in Germany, the first step on the road to education is kindergarten. Some 74 percent of children in western Germany and 90 percent in the eastern states go to either a private or a state-run kindergarten starting at age three.

Today, kindergartens try and attract clientele with a variety of concepts: some focus on early foreign-language learning, others on art, still others stress contact with nature.

Once children reach the age of five or six, they can enter grade school. After four years (six in some states), they then face a very important question: “which type of further education is appropriate for me?"

Three-tiered system

Germany has three forms of further education: the Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. A less-frequent fourth form is called the Gesamtschule. There, all three levels of education are offered.

Child writing on a chalk board

Germany recently reformed its spelling rules

Hauptschule goes up through the 9th grade. But those who leave school at this level have a hard road in front of them. Nearly a third of them fail to find a spot in one of the state- and business-sponsored training schemes that are, in fact, the goal of such an education.

As a result, most parents try and see to it that their children make it to one of the next-higher education levels, the Realschule or Gymnasium. Between a quarter and a third of all German secondary students pass the highest secondary-school-level graduation exam, the Abitur.

School is mostly academics

Schools themselves are for the most part responsible for academics only. Children’s leisure-time activities are likely to take place outside of school -- in sports clubs, music lessons, dance schools and other forms of social involvement. As early as elementary school, many kids in Germany have an appointment calendar that's chock full of activities.

Gymnastics class

Kids sports often take place in clubs, not school

A recent study by the Robert Koch Institute showed some 84 percent of 11- to 17-year-olds said they had sports activities at least once a week. And “meeting with friends” topped the list of favorite leisure time activities. But instead of getting together in the park, Germany’s children are increasingly meeting over the Internet. Online social networks are blossoming.

Political involvement dropping off

Political involvement among Germany's youth appears to be on the wane. According to the 15th Shell Youth Study, only a third of German youth is interested in politics, while in the 1980s, the percentage was twice as high. But back then, Germany was still a divided country and the Cold War was going full force. Political parties were easily distinguished from one another, and there were more areas of conflict.

Today’s youth seems eager to return to traditional values -- hard work, achievement, security, and order, according to the Shell study. Family, friends and partnerships are the things most important to them. In addition, the world is open to them like never before. Many students spend a year studying in the US or France or elsewhere.

But as the possibilities for students to broaden their horizons increase, so do the chances that they'll through the system's cracks. Headlines about binge drinking among teens and more frequent incidences of school violenc offer a more disturbing picture of youth in Germany.

Two German students from Leipzig -- Stefan Doge and Beatrice Dittes -- are examples of what can come from hard work and innovation. They’ve invented wood-and-gas-burning stove for use in developing countries. The invention -- which aims to do away with unhealthy open-fire cooking -- was their winning entry in the Young Scientists competition.

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