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German school system

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School-level education in German is the responsibility of the 16 individual Länder (federal states), which each have their own education departments and policies. The following is a general summary of the main stages of the German education system at school level.

Pre-school education (Kindergarten)

Before the period of compulsory schooling begins, children aged three to six can attend pre-school institutions. Unlike schools, pre-school education is not free and attendance at Kindergarten is voluntary.

Primary level (Grundschule)

Normally, schooling for all children begins at the age of six in the first year of a Grundschule. Children attend the Grundschule for four years (six in Berlin and Brandenburg), after which they transfer to one of four different types of secondary school.

Secondary level

Secondary level I can consist of any of the following: Hauptschule (Klasse 5-9 or 10), Realschule (Klasse 5-10), Gymnasium (Klasse 5-10), or Gesamtschule. When they finish Secondary level I, students can obtain a leaving certificate and /or the Mittlere Reife examination. Depending on what they obtain, they can then start work, do vocational training, go to a vocational school, or continue in / transfer to a Gymnasium.


In the majority of the federal states, students spend five years at the Hauptschule. The main objective of the Hauptschule is to prepare students for their entry into the world of work. Once students have obtained their Hauptschulabschluss (leaving certificate) at the age of 15-16, they can go into vocational training, start entry-level work in the public sector, or attend a Berufsfachschule (full-time vocational school).


Students attend the Realschule for 6 years. It gives them a broader general education and expects them to show greater independence. In comparison with the Gymnasium, the pupils are given a more vocationally-oriented education. At the end of Klasse 10 they obtain the Realschulabschluss (leaving certificate), which gives them different options: in-company vocational training, work in the public sector at entry and executive level, or further school-level education at secondary level II or at a Fachhochschule.


Students attend the Gymnasium for eight or nine years before they take their final examination (Abitur or Hochschulreife). The Gymnasium is designed to provide students with an education which will enable them, once they have passed their Abitur, to study at a German university or equivalent. Students at secondary level II (the last two or three years at the Gymnasium) select two or three Leistungskurse (specialist subjects). Their Abitur mark is based on the assessment of these Leistungskurse and two other subjects.


The Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) combines elements from the Hauptschule, the Realschule and the Gymnasium. This type of school was introduced later than the others. Students usually spend six years at the Gesamtschule and either obtain a Hauptschule or a Realschule leaving certificate. Pupils wishing to sit the Abitur attend the school for another three years.

There are also other schools which combine two or three school types in various ways; the way in which this is done varies between the federal states, as do the names used.

Children with special educational needs mostly attend special schools (Sonderschulen), although there is currently a move towards more a inclusive education model.


Informationen über das britische Schulsystem (auf Deutsch) finden Sie auf den deutschen Seiten unserer Website.


Further information

Overview of the German education system (in German):