No matter where you live in Germany, your child must start attending primary school (Grundschule) by the age of 6. Prior to this, you can choose to send your offspring to a pre-school (kindergarten), although these will cost money. Kindergartens in Germany place emphasis on fostering learning through play and fun, and very little formal instruction is given. Generally, primary education in Germany tends to last for four years (six in Berlin and Brandenburg) – grades one to four; or one to six – and covers a wide range of key learning skills including German, maths and reading, as well as giving brief introductions to subjects such as Geography, social sciences and foreign languages (usually English but sometimes French).
It is when your children get to secondary school age (10 – or 12 in Berlin and Brandenburg) that things can start to get a little confusing. There are a number of different types of secondary schools in Germany, with the most common being Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium and Gesamtschule.
The Hauptschule tends to be the least academic option and is often for the students who have particularly struggled at Grundschule. The main purpose of these schools is to prepare pupils for the world of work. Generally, children will spend five years (grades 5 to 9) at a Hauptschule during which time they will be taught much the same subjects as those attending Realschule and the first five years at Gymnasium, but at a slower, more manageable, pace. At the end of these five years students should receive a Hauptschule leaving certificate after which they can go into practical vocational training, start work in the public service at basic or secretarial level, or attend a Berufsfachschule (full-time vocational school). These types of schools no longer exist in either Berlin or Hamburg and may soon be phased out in other areas, too.
A Realschule gives children a broader education than a Hauptchule, and typically requires six years of attendance. Students at these schools are also granted more independence in choosing to study subjects that are of particular interest to them. However, the education given at these schools still tends to be more vocationally orientated than that given at a Gymnasium. At the end of their 6th year (usually grade 10, but different regions may vary), successful pupils will obtain the Realschule leaving certificate. With this certificate they can either seek in-company vocational training, work in the public service at secretarial and executive level or seek further education in school – in other words, the final two or three years at a Gymnasium (see below).
Children who attend a Gymnasium straight from Grundschule will spend around eight or nine years there (until grade 12 or 13) by which time they will be around 18 years of age. During this time they will work towards their Abitur – Germany’s major secondary school qualification and the one which the majority of students who wish to attend university will need to obtain. Results from courses taken in the final two or three years at Gymnasium (most of which can be chosen by the student’s themselves depending on their own particular interests) count towards the final qualification. As Gymnasium’s tend to be more academic-led institutions than the two aforementioned types of schools, it is harder for children to be admitted straight from Grundschule and they will almost certainly need to pass an entrance exam and have a letter of recommendation from their primary school teacher in order to be accepted into one. In most cases it is possible for those with Realschule leaving certificates to attend a Gymnasium for the final two or three years in an attempt to receive their Abitur.
Finally, Gesamtschules are a newer – but increasingly popular depending on the länder you live in – type of secondary school. They combine a mixture of the elements seen in the Hauptschule, the Realschule and the Gymnasium types of schools. Generally, children spend six years at Gesamtschules at the end of which time they will (hopefully) obtain either a Hauptschule or Realschule leaving certificate (depending on ability). Depending on grades, it may then me possible for children to stay on in school for a further two or three years to study for an Abitur. In addition to deciding on which type of secondary school would best suit your children, if your offspring do not speak English you will also have to consider this as well. English is fairly widely spoken throughout Germany, with most children starting to learn to speak English as a second language from primary school on, but lessons in English are unlikely to be found outside of specialist international schools which, unfortunately, it will cost money to send your children to.
Should your child wish to stay on in higher education, then, as already stated, the chances are they will need to attend a Gymnasium and sit their Abitur. There are over 300 state and state-recognised higher education institutions in Germany. These comprise universities and equivalent higher education institutions such as technical universities, comprehensive universities (Gesamthochschulen) and specialised institutions at university level (for example, for medicine, sport, administrative studies, philosophy and theology). An impressive four German universities were placed in the top 100 of the 2012 Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings.