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Germany's mind-boggling school system

Louisa Schaefer
January 24, 2019

Virtually every parent wants what's best for their child's education. But choosing a secondary school is tricky business in Germany, as DW's Louisa Schaefer personally experienced. Here's everything you need to know.

BG Deutsche Wörter, die es in andere Sprachen geschafft haben | Mädchen vor einer Schultafel
Image: picture alliance/BeyondFoto

You'd think signing your child up for a secondary school shouldn't be that tough. You fill out a few papers, sign them, and turn them in. But nope, in Germany, it's no walk in the park.

My friends from abroad and I, coming from the US, sometimes poke fun at the Germans and their notorious bureaucracy. "Why make things easy when you can make them complicated?" we muse about them. The same applies to the extensive educational system. In fact, an Australian friend recently quipped: "You need a PhD to understand the German public school system."

Too much, too soon

Educational systems and types of schools vary widely among Germany's 16 states, as they — and not the federal government — are responsible for education laws.

Still, some generalizations can be made. In most German states, your child moves on from primary to secondary school (called "weiterführende Schule" in German) beginning in the fifth grade; Berlin and Brandenburg are exceptions, allowing that to happen two years later. 

That means that during fourth grade, you spend a great deal of time contemplating where to later send your kid.

School girls walking down the street with backpacks
Children attend primary school for four years in most German statesImage: picturealliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Prepare for a breathless odyssey from September through February during that school year. You spend most of the fall and pre-Christmas season rushing around in the endeavor to find the right school.

You spend most Saturdays visiting a range of schools in an "open house" kind of setting where the schools show themselves off, you and your kid sit in on classes, tour schoolrooms and talk to teachers and pupils to see whether it's a good fit. It's time-consuming and overwhelming, slightly akin to entering the supermarket and being confronted with row after row of salad dressing, making you want to turn on your heel and run right back out of the building because there are just too many choices.

You then fret through the holidays and deliberate through the January doldrums about the schools. Then, at the beginning of February, mid-year report cards come out and with them, the recommendation from the teacher about which type of school could be best for your child. You have to make your decision and sign up in the hope of reaping a spot.

Read morePrivate schools: Why does Germany allow them?

A hierarchical system

Many Germans may not admit it, but the school system is rather hierarchical and based on tracking pupils. In our state of North Rhine-Westphalia, it generally boils down to a three-tiered system mainly consisting of Gymnasium for bright, well-heeled students headed to college, Realschule for more intermediate students who may or may not aim for white-collar jobs, and Hauptschule for the more vocationally-minded. There are also alternative forms of public schools, like the comprehensive Gesamtschule and Gemeinschaftsschule.  

Most parents in Germany, if they are honest with themselves, would admit that they are both proud and relieved when their kid receives a teacher's recommendation for Gymnasium.

Kids sitting at desks in a classroom, holding up their hands
Kids get recommendations from their teachers about which type of school would be best for themImage: imago/photothek/F. Gaertner

For my part, I find fourth grade to be quite early to be tracking students. My daughter did receive the Gymnasium recommendation from her teacher, but that doesn't mean I think she should be starting there in fifth grade.

Read moreBerlin students fight to get climate change onto lesson plans

An early switch

She currently attends a fairy tale-like primary school in the suburbs of Cologne. When I pick her and her brother up, they are often out perusing the petunias or engrossed in play somewhere in the massive, tree-covered schoolyard. Sheep and chickens actually graze the grounds, and wander into the buildings at times. The children run around freely during recess. They also cultivate compassion skills by learning to help kids with special needs who are integrated into their classes. And this, in a public school on the edge of a big city.

Granted, it is an exception. But who wouldn't want to keep their kid there at the tender age of 10? Why she should be thrown into a crowd of 15- and 16-year-olds already next year? I grew up in the US, where we'd progressively go through middle school (grades 6 through 8), junior high (grades 7 and 8), before moving on to high school (grades 9 through 12). 

Or why can't she stay in grade school for six years, like they generally do in Berlin? Or in many other countries in the world?

Boy sitting outside holding leaf up to a fawn
Primary school isn't only about reading, writing, and arithmetic: It's also about playImage: picture alliance/blickwinkel/F. Hecker

"In fourth grade, they still want to play, not worry about the next school they should go to," my daughter's teacher told me, relaying a conversation she's had many times with her teacher colleagues.

The Frankfurt-based teachers' union Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW) agrees. "It is just too early to be making decisions about the possible course of education for many 9-and-a-half year-olds," GEW told the Welt newspaper.

"Brandenburg and Berlin use the six-year primary school form because it allows kids to stay and learn together for a longer period of time," said Beate Stoffers, press secretary at the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Youth and Family. But even in Berlin, some students can attend certain Gymnasium schools as of fifth grade if they qualify by exam.

Boy sitting at desk doing homework
Kids need time to develop their academic abilitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Eisenhuth

The ultimate decision?

For my daughter (and for my son, one year later), I have decided on a Gesamtschule. Born from educational reforms during the 1960s, the comprehensive school aims to be more inclusive, melding the traditional, separate school systems into just one school.  

It seems to be most egalitarian and the closest thing to what I am familiar with as an American "high school." She can receive her Abitur there and go on to study if she wants, but she also has a range of other options.

Granted, this isn't the easiest solution. It is not the school just down the street. It's actually in another district, which equates to a 40-minute commute one way. And that, at the young age 10.

And yet, I have every confidence that my daughter will make this leap into secondary school in Germany with her own brand of intelligence and grace. Hopefully, she will also have a few excellent teachers to help her along the way.

But still, why did the whole process have to be so complicated?

You'll find more from Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans.

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