Heike Wendt
Daniel Scott Smith
Wilfried Bos
TU Dortmund University

Overview of Education System

Germany is a federal republic with 16 federal states. Each state has supreme legislative and administrative authority over all its cultural policy issues, including its education system. Each state regulates its own course curricula and schedules, professional requirements, teacher recruitment, and quality development in schools. Certain crucial aspects of the German school system, such as the definition of a grading scale, are standardized across the country through interstate agreements. In addition, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the States in the Federal Republic of Germany (Standing Conference) coordinates the activities of each of the 16 state Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs in the areas of education, science, research, and culture.a

In 2003, the Standing Conference established national educational standards (Bildungsstandards), which all 16 states have committed to implementing. These educational standards specify the curricular elements for core subjects and serve as binding objectives for all states. The Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs in each state manages the curricula. As a result, almost every state has its own curricula for specific secondary school tracks, subjects, and grade levels.

The national educational standards determine the curricula for primary and secondary mathematics and for secondary science (except geography), among other compulsory subjects. There are no nationwide standards for science education at the primary level. The respective Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs in each state publish the curricula as compulsory for teachers. Head teachers are responsible for ensuring compliance. The curricula are formulated in a general way, allowing teachers considerable freedom with regard to content, objectives, and teaching methods. Teachers of a particular subject are encouraged to work together to reach consensus on the instructional methods and assessment criteria used in subject-specific or generalized school curricula. The Institute for Educational Quality Improvement (IQB), established by the Standing Conference in 2003, monitors and evaluates progress toward meeting these standards with regular national and international assessments of student competencies.

In this chapter, North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest state in terms of population, serves as an example in cases where the specificity of particular topics makes it impossible to give a universal description for all states, given the federated nature of educational policy and practice in Germany.

The majority of students in Germany are enrolled in state-sponsored public schools. In 2013, approximately 91.1 percent of all students were enrolled in public institutions offering general education. Approximately 3.3 percent of primary school students attended private schools.1 Some private schools or boarding schools are tuition-based. The states accredit, supervise, and to a certain extent, subsidize all private schools.2

Traditionally, preprimary education in Germany primarily included children ages 3 to 6. In 2013, the federal government introduced the legal right to early childhood education and care in a daycare center for children from age 1. While not compulsory, preprimary education is a universal right in Germany. The child and youth welfare sector oversees preprimary education, which is provided mainly by childcare institutions (Kindergaerten) caring for children up to age 6. In general, preprimary education is partially state-subsidized, although more states and communities have been fully subsidizing the final year or two. Since 2009, cooperation between institutions of preprimary education and primary schools has been compulsory. In 2004, the Standing Conference agreed on a binding framework for basic education in preprimary institutions, which specifies language, reading and writing skills, mathematics, natural science, and informational technology as explicit educational areas.3 For children with an immigrant background, special assessment and support programs are in place to enhance German language competencies.

Compulsory schooling for all children begins in most states the year children turn age 6, and it involves nine years of full-time schooling.b In some states, children who are not ready developmentally to start school by age 6 are accommodated within school kindergartens or preschool classes (Vorklassen). Since 1992, flexible school entry (flexible Schuleingangsstufe) has been increasingly implemented across the states. This system allows students to complete the first two class levels of primary school in one, two, or three years.

Primary school is the first level of the compulsory education system and generally comprises Grades 1 to 4 (ages 6 to 10). In 2 of the 16 states, namely Berlin and Brandenburg, primary school covers Grades 1 to 6 (ages 6 to 12). Students must, in principle, attend their local primary school. However, in some states, parents are allowed to participate in choosing a primary school.

Throughout primary education, German (comprising instruction in reading, spelling, writing, and literature), mathematics, and integrated science (Sachunterricht, an integrated subject of natural and social sciences) are considered main subjects and are mandatory in all states. Art, music, physical education, foreign language instruction, and (in most states) religious education also are taught throughout primary school.4,5 The total instructional time, as well as subject-specific instructional time, differs between grades and across states. In North Rhine-Westphalia, mathematics is allocated 19 percent of the total instructional time, and natural science (mostly comprising elements of biology and geography) is allocated 9 percent, with variations depending on the individual emphasis of the teacher.6

Traditionally in Germany, instruction in primary schools is organized for half-day attendance. However, following a rather large federal initiative (€4 billion, $5.3 billion USD), 51.6 percent of all primary schools offered all-day schooling in 2013, which extends care and supervision for children outside lesson time and involves activities educationally related to morning lessons. This presents a nearly 7.2 percent increase of all-day schools in Germany from 2010 to 2013.7,8 Variations of all-day schooling include the following: fully binding, in which all students are required to attend; partially binding, in which only certain groups of students are required to attend; and nonbinding, in which individual students may attend, based on parental discretion. In 2011, approximately 45.4 percent of all primary schools in Germany offered all-day schooling in a nonbinding or partially binding form, while 1.8 percent of all primary schools offered it in a fully binding form.9

After successful completion of primary school, children are assigned to different secondary school tracks (Bildungsgaenge) according to their ability level (based on prior achievement) and predicted academic aptitude. Secondary education is divided into lower and upper secondary education. Lower secondary education begins at Grade 5 (ages 10 to 12) in 14 statesc and ends at Grade 9 or 10 (ages 15 to 16). While secondary school track options are diversifying, students typically are assigned to one of the following tracks:

  • Basic general education (Hauptschulbildungsgang)—Covers Grade 5 or 7 to Grade 9 or 10, and qualifies students to proceed to vocational training or higher types of secondary school
  • Extensive general education (Realschulbildungsgang)—Covers Grade 5 or 7 to Grade 10, and qualifies students to proceed to vocational training, upper secondary school, or a vocationally oriented upper secondary school (Fachoberschule) that may qualify students for universities of applied sciences
  • In-depth general education (Gymnasialer Bildungsgang)—Covers Grade 5 or 7 to Grade 12 or 13, and leads to the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Allgemeine Hochschulreife, Abitur), which qualifies students for university and other tertiary education

These three secondary school tracks are taught separately either at specific types of secondary schools (Hauptschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium) or in parallel within schools that offer two or three of the tracks. In the 2012–2013 academic year, approximately 14 percent of German students in eighth grade attended a Hauptschule, approximately 23 percent attended a Realschule, and approximately 36 percent attended a Gymnasium.10

Although these school types are the most common in secondary education, there are several other types in the various German states that may differ considerably from this structure. For example, some states offer comprehensive schools (Gesamtschule) that are comparable to at least two of the aforementioned school types. In 2012–2013, approximately 13 percent of eighth grade students in Germany attended a comprehensive school.11

After completing lower secondary schooling, most students continue their education at the upper secondary level (ages 15 or 16, to 18 or 19). Students are assigned to different types of upper secondary schooling depending on the qualifications they obtain at the end of their lower secondary education. One type is full time general education, comprising Grade 11 to Grade 12 or 13, which leads to a higher education entrance qualification. Another type is full-time vocational schooling, which is combined with vocational apprenticeship training at the workplace. Within this dual system of vocational education, businesses that provide apprenticeships also make financial contributions.12

Languages of Instruction

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the official language of administration and the judiciary is German. In accordance with the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages of the Council of Europe, languages of minority groups with a history of residence in Germany (e.g., Danish, Friesian, Sorbian, Romany, and Low German) are acknowledged regionally as official languages.13 The demographic, cultural, and social heterogeneity in Germany differs among regions. Overall in 2014, 20.3 percent of the total German population had an immigrant background, and in 2012, 30 percent of students ages 6 to 20 did. Apart from German, Turkish and Russian were the most commonly spoken languages in families of fourth grade students in 2011.14,15

Although there are no legislative provisions on the language of instruction, German typically is the language of instruction in preprimary schools, general education and vocational schools, and institutions of higher education. Exceptions include certain private schools, bilingual schools and classes, and extra classes offered in the mother tongue for students whose native language is not German.16

  • a This is an updated version of Euen, B., Wendt, H., Bos. W. (2012). Germany. In I.V.S. Mullis, M.O. Martin , C.A. Minnich , G.M. Stanco, A. Arora, V.A.S. Centurino & C.E. Castle (Eds.), TIMSS 2011 Encyclopedia: Education Policy and Curriculum in Mathematics and Science, 1, 2, 313–340. Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from
  • b Ten years in Berlin, Brandenburg, and Bremen. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the duration of full time compulsory education is nine years for gymnasium, and 10 years for other school types providing general education.
  • c Grade 7 in Berlin and Brandenburg