The education system in Germany has a long tradition of compulsory state schools. Under the influence of Lutheran thinking, the Kingdom of Prussia was one of the first states in the world to install free universal school in the 18th century. This was an 8-year course of Volksschule and it provided what was needed in the early period of the industrialized world: reading, writing, arithmetics, but also strict morals and sense of duty, discipline and obedience. The children of the upper class and the affluent went to private schools with preparatory character for four years. The general population had practically no access to secondary education.
After the Napoleonic wars, Prussia introduced the requirement for a teacher to be state-certified (1810), which helped to raise the standard of teaching significantly. In 1812 the Abitur was installed as school-leaving exam for Prussian secondary schools (after it had been invented in 1788 already) and it was accepted all over the German Reich from 1871 on.
When the German Empire was formed in 1871, the school system became more systematic and centralized. More secondary schools were established, as the learned professions demanded well-educated young people. The state claimed the sole right to set standards and to supervise the schools. Three different types of secondary schools developed:
- a nine-year classical Gymnasium (with Latin, Greek or Hebrew, one modern language)
- a nine-year Realgymnasium (with Latin, modern languages, science and mathematics)
- a six-year Realschule (without university entrance qualification but the option for becoming a trainee in one of the modern industrial, office or technical jobs) and a nine-year Oberrealschule (with modern languages, science and mathematics)
By the turn of the 20th century these three types of schools had achieved equal rank and privilege (though not equal prestige). There were separate secondary schools for girls, which were recognized by Prussia from 1872 on.
After World War I, the Weimar Republic brought the universal 4-year Grundschule (elementary school), free for everybody. Most students stayed at these schools for another 4-year course but those who were able to pay a small fee went to a Mittelschule (Intermediate school) that provided a more challenging curriculum and lasted one or two years longer. Passing a rigorous entrance exam after year 4 students could also enter one of the three types of secondary school that were already known before the War.
The Nazi era (1933-1945) brought indoctrination to the students but basically did not change the school system.
After World War II the Allied powers (Soviet Union, France, Britain, USA) saw to it that the Nazi ideas were thrown out and they installed educational systems in their respective occupation zones that reflected their own ideas. When West Germany gained partial independence in 1949, its new constitution (Grundgesetz) granted educational autonomy to the state (Länder) governments. This has led to a widely varying landscape of school systems ever since, often making it difficult for children to continue schooling without problems when their parents have moved across state borders. Multi-state agreements see to it that basic requirements are universally met by all the 16 state school systems. Thus all children have to attend one school type or other "full-time", i.e. five or six days a week, from the age of 6 to the age of 16. If a student shows good abilities, he or she can always change from one school type to another. School-leaving certificates of one state will be recognized by all the others. Teacher training qualifies for teaching posts in every state.
The German Democratic Republic started its own education system in the 1960s, for details see Education in East Germany. This system was standardized for the whole republic. At first all students attended the Polytechnische Oberschule (POS - polytechnical high school). Students with very good results could change to the Erweiterte Oberschule (EOS - extended high school), where they could pass their Abitur examinations after 12 school years. The other students could pass their Year 10 examinations at the POS after ten school years. Students with very good Year 10 results could do an apprenticeship with an Abitur.
This system was abolished in the early 1990s, but it has still some influences on the school life in the eastern German states.
Here is a quick glance at the present school system:
Grundschule (Primary school) can be preceded by voluntary Kindergarten or Vorschulklassen (preparatory classes for special needs) and will last four or six years, according to state.
Parents who are looking for a suitable school for their child have a considerable choice of elementary schools in Germany nowadays:
- state school in the neighborhood
- Waldorfschule (187 schools in 2003)
- Montessorischule (272)
- Freie Alternativschule (65)
- Lutheran (63) or Catholic (114) Parochial Schools
Teachers have the same qualifications at all these schools, but parents have to pay additional costs at non-state schools, since the state does not cover the full costs of tuition and administration and they are often not exactly close to home.
After Grundschule (at 10 years of age), there are basically four options as to secondary schooling:
- Hauptschule (the least academic, much like a modernized Volksschule) until year 9 plus three years Berufsschule (vocational school). The Berufsschule one normally attends twice a week during a two or three or three and a half year apprenticeship; the other days are spent working at some company.
- Realschule (formerly Mittelschule) until year 10 plus Berufsschule or technical school (more vocationally-oriented)
Gymnasium until year 12 or 13 (with Abitur as school-leaving exam, qualifying for university)
- Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) with all the options of the three "tracks" above
In some states children have to attend 2 years in Orientierungsstufe ("orientation phase"), a special school type that follows Grundschule and is intended to help deciding whether they should be sent to Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, or Gymnasium. Primary school teachers or Orientierungsstufe teachers counsel parents on where to send their child. Depending on the state, parents or teachers make the final decision.
Also in states without Orientierunsstufe, year 5 and 6 are seen as an orientation phase in which decisions can be reversed. Achievements in the subjects of mathematics, German and the chosen language, mostly English, French or Latin, are taken to be most important for the direction the student is heading.
Standard classroom at a secondary school in Germany in 1998
Life at a German school
German students are not very different from other students in the world. Some organizational details may surprise some:
- from year 1 to year 4 (elementary school) and from year 5 to year 10, they stay together as a group that has its own classroom (1--6 and 7--10 in some areas).
- in many schools all subjects (except PE, arts, science, music) are taught in this room (teachers move from class to class). This is even common in gymnasiums up to grade 10.
- there are usually no security guards at German schools, but sometimes traffic guards (Schülerlotsen) who control the traffic in front of the school building
- students sit at tables (usually two pupils at one table), sometimes arranged in a semi-circle
- teacher-student relationships are relaxed, even casual
- no school uniforms, no dress code
- no corporal punishment (banned in the 1970s)
- school usually starts at 8 a.m.
- there are 5, 10, 15 and maybe even 20-minute breaks but mostly no lunchbreak, because at about 1.30 p.m. school is usually over.
- multiple-choice tests are seldom done, there are essays instead
- at every school type students study one foreign language (English) for at least five years. In Gymnasium, students can choose from a wider range of languages, mostly English, French or Latin as the first language in 5th grade and a second mandatory language in 7th grade. Some students even choose a third language (sometimes Ancient Greek) in 9th grade.
- at the end of the school life there is a cumulative written and oral examination (Abitur in gymnasiums, Abschlussprüfung in realschulen)
This is the general picture, although you might find exceptions to all these points. Never forget that there are big differences in the education systems of the sixteen states of Germany.
The school year
School years starts on 1st August and are divided into two semesters. School reports are given out in February and June or July. There are typically 12 weeks of holidays, in addition to public holidays. Exact dates differ between states, but there are generally 6 weeks of summer holiday and two weeks for the Christmas season. The rest is given in spring and autumn. Every school can also schedule one or two days of special holiday per semester. Report cards are issued twice a year at the end of a semester. There is a grade scale ranging from 1 to 6, with 1 meaning "Excellent" and 6 for "Failed". Students who do not measure up to minimum standards have to repeat a year (which happens to almost 5 per cent every year).
Students have about 36 periods of 45 min per week. There are about 12 obligatory subjects: two foreign languages, one to be taken for 9 years, one for at least 3 years. Physics, biology, chemistry for at least 5, 7, 3 years respectively; math, music, art, history, German, geography, PE for 9 years. There is not such a wide choice of subjects at a Gymnasium as there are at American high schools. However, those that you take will not permit much spare time. Few afternoon activities are offered at German schools - mainly choir or orchestra, also some sports.
Typical grade 10 timetable at a Gymnasium in 2003
"F3" means third foreign language ("Fremdsprache"), which is either Latin or French usually, though Spanish or Ancient Greek are not uncommon
Typical grade 10 timetable at a Middle School in 2003
In grades 11-13 each students majors in two subjects. These are taught daily. The other subjects are taught three periods per week.
There are many differences in the 16 states and there are alternatives to this basic pattern, e. g. Waldorfschulen or other private schools. Grown-ups can go back to evening school and take the Abitur exam.
In Germany, schools are the responsibilty of the states (Länder). Teachers are hired by the Ministry of Education of the regional state and usually are employed for lifetime after a certain period. Instead of school boards as in the USA, a parents' council is elected to voice the parents' views. The local town is responsible for the school building and employs the janitorial and secretarial staff. For an average school of about 600-800 students there may be two janitors and one secretary. School administration is done by the teachers (who get a reduction in their teaching obligations if they share in this work).
After much public debate about Germany's mediocre international ranking (PISA- Programme for International Student Assessment), some things are finally beginning to change. There has been a trend towards a less ideological discussion on how to develop schools. These are some of the new trends:
- establishing federal standards of quality of teaching
- more practical orientation in teacher training
- transfer of some responsibility from Kultusministerium (Ministry of Education) to local school
Since the 1990s already a few changes have been taking place in many schools:
- introduction of bilingual education in some subjects
- experiments with different styles of teaching
- equipment of all schools with internet computers
- creation of local school philosophy and teaching goals ("Schulprogramm"), to be evaluated regularly
- reduction of Gymnasium school years (Abitur after grade 12) and introduction of afternoon periods as in many other western countries
College and University
Since the end of World War II, the number of youths entering universities has more than tripled, but university attendance still lags behind many other European nations. This is partly because of the dual education system with its strong emphasis on apprenticeships (see also German model). In the annual league of top-ranking universities compiled by Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2004, Germany came 4th overall, but with only 7 universities in the top 100 (USA: 51). The highest ranking university, at no. 45, was the TU Munich.
Universities in Germany are part of the free state education system, which means that there are very few private universities and colleges. Organizational structures go back to the university reforms by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19th century. On the whole one can say that German university students largely choose their own study program and professors choose their own subjects for research and teaching. This elective system often has resulted in extra-long stays at university before graduation and is currently under review. But it is still in force and must be considered when planning to study in Germany. There are no fixed classes of students who study together and graduate together. Students change universities according to their interests and the strengths of each university. Sometimes students attend two, three or more different universities in the course of their studies. This mobility means that at German universities there is a freedom and individuality unknown in the USA, the UK or France.
Students on both sides of the Atlantic may often be unaware of the differences between the two countries.
Generally, it can be said that Germany does not have "colleges" in the sense that is used in the US. What is learned at a US college, in Germany is partly taught at secondary schools, partly at university. This is part of the reason for the additional 13th year of school. The final 2-3 years partly function as an equivalent of the first two years at US colleges. Once they graduate, students go on to university. There they directly start a specific subject.
The Gymnasium graduation (Abitur) opens the way to any university. There are no entrance examinations, no SAT etc. Your "Abiturdurchschnittsnote" (GPA) is all you need to get a placement at the institution you prefer. This Abitur GPA also means that you will not be accepted at all universities, for if there are too many applicants they are chosen by GPA rank. This is called numerus clausus (restricted number), yet is restricted to very few especially popular subjects. If you want to study medicine you ought to be very good (GPA 1.0 to 1.5, equivalent to 4.0 - 3.5 in USA). Otherwise your Abitur opens the way to any and all universities.
And another difference: while at Gymnasium you cannot take any courses that get you credits at any university. This might also have to do with the fact that the credit system is unknown in Germany so far, although it is being introduced with the Bologna process that is intended to unify education and degrees for all EU states. What counts at the end of one's studies is a bundle of certificates ("Scheine") issued by the professors proving that the required courses were successfully taken. Usually there are few required specific courses, students rather chose from a more or less broad range of classes in their field of interest. Once a student has acquired the needed number of such certificates he or she can decide to register for the final examinations.
At Gymnasium students are under strict observation by teachers and their attendance at all courses is checked regularly. At German university rarely anybody cares whether you attend classes. There are few courses that resemble the US college system. Life at German universities may seem anonymous and highly individual to those used to the US system, but most students find a group of fellow students with common interests in their first year, and then often take courses together and study in this group up to the final exam studies.
While there are curriculae for the first two or three years in the sciences, in the liberal arts every student picks the lectures and seminars he/she prefers and at the end passes the exams. Every student decides for himself when he feels ready for the final exam. Some take the minimum 4 years, most take 5-6 years, some even 10 years at university (often because they changed subjects several times). After 13 years at school plus maybe 1 year in the military graduates may sometimes be almost 30 years when they apply for their first job in life.
If they have successfully studied at university for two years (after a Zwischenprüfung/Vordiplom, roughly corresponing to the Bachelor degree level, but not a degree), students can transfer to the USA or other countries for graduate studies. Usually they finish studies after 4-6 years with a degree that is equivalent to an M.A. or M.Sc.
There is, however, another type of post-Abitur university-like training available in Germany: the Fachhochschulen (University of Applied Science), which now offer many similar degrees like proper universities, but often concentrate (as the English name suggests) on applied science as opposed to basic research and purely academic subjects. They are much more like colleges in their structure since people start their courses together and graduate (more or less) together and there is little choice in their schedule. To get on-the-job experiences, internship semesters are a mandatory part of studying at a Fachhochschule. After about 4 years (depending on how a student arranges the courses he takes over the course of his studies, and on whether he has to repeat courses) a Fachhochschule student has a complete education and can go right into specialized working life. Fachhochschule graduates receive a title that starts with "Dipl." (Diplom) and ends with "(FH)", e.g. "Dipl. Ing. (FH)" for a graduate engineer from a Fachhochschule. For many purposes, a FH degree is equivalent for a university degree, and some employers prefer FH degrees. However, a university degree is still more prestigious, and an FH degree does not usually qualify the holder for a Ph.D. program directly -- most universities require an additional entrance examn or participation in theoretical classes from FH candidates.
Perhaps one of the most important differences: All courses at the ca 250 universities and Fachhochschulen are - like any school in Germany - free. You might also say the government offers a full scholarship to everyone. However, students that take longer than the "regular length of studies" (Regelstudienzeit) do have to pay "long-time study fees" (Langzeitstudiengebühren) of about 500 EUR per semester, in a growing number of states. Today there are a few private institutions (especially business schools) that charge tuition fees and offer better conditions for students than state financed universities. You do have to pay for your room and board plus your books. After a certain age you must get an obligatory student health insurance (Euro 50 per month) and you always have to pay for some other social services for students (Euro 40-100 per semester). Often this includes free public transport in and around the university town. There are cheap rooms for students built by the Studentenwerk, an independent non-profit organization partially funded by the state. These may cost Euro 150 per month, without any food. Otherwise an apartment can cost you Euro 500, but often students share apartments by 3 or 5 people. Food is about Euro 100 (figures for 2002).
However, the German Constitutional Court recently ruled that a federal law prohibiting tuition fees is unconstitutional, on the ground that education is the sole responsibility of the states. Following this ruling, several state governments (eg Bavaria's) proclaimed their intention to intruduce tuition of around €500 per semester within the next year.
There are no university-sponsored scholarships in Germany, but a number of private and public institutions hand out scholarships, usually to cover cost of living and books. Moroever, there is a law (Bafög = Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz) that sees to it that needy people can get up to Euro 550 per month for 4-5 years if they or their parents cannot afford all the costs involved with studying. Part (typically half) of this money is given as an interest-free loan and has to be paid back. Most students will move to the university town if it is far away. Getting across Germany from Flensburg to Konstanz takes a full day (1000 km or 620 miles). But, as said above, there is no "staying on campus" in Germany because for historical reasons most campusses are scattered all over the city. Traditionally university students rented a private room in town. This was his home away from home. That is no longer the standard but you can still find it. One third to one half of the students work to make a little extra money, often resulting in a longer stay at university.
Figures for Germany are roughly:
- 1,000,000 new students at all schools put together for one year
- 300,000 Abitur graduations
- 30,000 doctoral dissertations per year
- 1000 habilitations per year (qualification to become a professor)
University degrees: Most courses lead up to a diploma called Diplom or Magister and these are about the same as the Master degree (after a minimum of 4 to 5 years). The doctoral degree usually takes another 3-5 years, with no formal classes, but independent research under the tutelage of a single professor. Most doctoral candidates work as teaching- or research assistants, and are paid a reasonably competitive salary. This is different in medicine, where a M.D. is (effectively) required for work and hence a more streamlined process applies.
Recently changes related to the so-called Bologna-Agreement have started taking place to install a more internationally acknowledged system which includes new course structures - the (hitherto unknown) Bachelor degree and the Master degree - and ETCS credits. These changes have not been forced on the universities and the hope has been that they will develop them bottom-up. So far students have been reluctant to start these new courses because they know that within Germany employers are not used to them and prefer the well-known system. In the winter semester 2001 only 5% of all students aspired to complete either a bachelor or master degree, but this is changing as a number of universities and polytechnics (Fachhochschulen) change their course provision to exclusively offer only bachelor or master degree certificates (e.g. Erfurt).
In addition, there are the courses leading to Staatsexamen (state examinations), e. g. for lawyers and teachers, that qualify for entry into German civil service but are not recognized elsewhere as an academic degree (although the courses are sometimes almost identical).
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46