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If you come to Germany as an EU citizen and have children, then the topic of school is very important. Here we explain the special features of the German school system and what you should consider when choosing a school for your children.

1. Compulsory schooling

All children who live in Germany have to go to school, which means that schooling is compulsory. Compulsory schooling generally starts after reaching 6 years of age. If a child only becomes 6 years old after the start of the new school year (for example in October), they usually start school in the following year. This depends on when the respective Federal State in which your child will go to school sets the “cut-off date” (this can be between 30 June and 30 September). If your child turns 6 before the cut-off date, they will be required to attend school that year. In all Federal States the new school year begins in August or in September. Compulsory schooling also applies to disabled children and adolescents.

Tip: When a child can or must attend school at the earliest varies from Federal State to Federal State. Find out more about the regulations in your Federal State from the education authority in your municipality or city and from the Migration advice centre.

The specific regulations on compulsory schooling differ in the individual Federal States. Depending on the Federal State, children and adolescents have to go to school for at least 9 or 10 years (primary school and lower secondary level). This is followed by mandatory attendance at a secondary school of upper secondary level (academic secondary school or part-time vocational school) in some Federal States.

School attendance at State schools is free. In addition, there are private schools in Germany, for which school fees usually have to be paid.

In Germany, the Federal States are responsible for education, so there are special features in each Federal State, especially the names of the secondary school types can differ.

2. The structure of the school system

The structure of the school system is however similar in all Federal States:

1. Primary school (elementary level)
From 6 years old, as a rule, compulsory schooling applies and the children enter primary school. Primary school ranges from grades 1 to 4 (in Berlin and Brandenburg 1 to 6) and is the only educational institution that is attended by almost all students together. The principle of residence applies here: This means that the children usually attend a primary school near their place of residence. In some Federal States, parents can also choose the primary school for their children themselves.

2. Transition from primary school to lower secondary level
In the last grade of primary school it is decided which secondary school (lower secondary level) the children will attend after primary school. On the basis of the school grades (and possibly other criteria such as learning and working behaviour), the teacher makes a school career recommendation for the secondary level. This school career recommendation is discussed in joint consultation with the parents. On this basis, the further education of the child is decided. In most Federal States, the recommendation is not binding, meaning that the parents can decide which secondary school their child will go to after primary school. However, depending on the Federal State, if students choose a type of school that is not recommended, they usually have to pass an entrance examination and/or pass a probationary period at the chosen school.

3. Secondary schools (lower secondary level and upper secondary level)
After primary school, the school system is divided into different types of school with different syllabus and types of leaving certificate. The offers of the individual schools in lower secondary level and upper secondary level differ greatly from one another.

Tip: Parents, together with their child and their teachers, should carefully consult on which school to choose for the child. Find out more about the local schools from the local education authority, on the Internet or from other parents. The education authority also offers information on this.

3. Choosing the right school

The following questions can help you choose a school for your child:

  • Which secondary schools are there in your Federal State?
  • Which school qualifications can be obtained there?
  • What additional courses does the school offer (e.g. foreign languages, study groups, sports courses, music/theatre courses, language support, help with homework)?
  • How are children supported in the case of learning difficulties?
  • Does the school offer all-day or afternoon care?
  • What further educational path (e.g. vocational training or study) do the qualifications entitle the students to?

In the lower secondary level there are the following types of schools:

  • Secondary general schools (up to the 9th or 10th grade)
  • Intermediate schools (up to the 10th grade)
  • Schools with several courses of education (secondary general school or intermediate school qualifications can be obtained here)
  • Academic secondary schools (up to the 9th grade)
  • Comprehensive schools (all qualifications can be obtained here)

The upper secondary level includes the following schools:

  • the academic upper level (academic secondary school or comprehensive school from 10th grade up to 12th or 13th grade)
  • the vocational schools
  • the advanced training schools for adults (evening schools and full-time adult education colleges)

A general school leaving qualification can be obtained at all school types. This entitles the student, depending on the qualification, to attend various further educational institutions (e.g. university, university of applied sciences, vocational training).

At schools, the aim of which is to provide a specific school qualification, all of the lessons are related to that specific qualification. These are for example:

  • The secondary general school (qualification: Secondary general school-leaving certificate
  • The intermediate school (qualification: Intermediate school-leaving certificate / Intermediate certificate / Intermediate school graduation
  • The Academic secondary school (qualification: Higher education entrance qualification)

But there are also schools at which different school qualifications can be acquired (comprehensive schools). It is only in the course of the school career that it is decided which qualification the child will achieve.

At Integrated comprehensive schools, on the other hand, the students do not attend any particular course of education. Instead, they can choose between courses with different levels of difficulty in the individual subjects - so-called support, basic and extension courses.

During the course of schooling, changing from one type of school to another is in principle possible if the required achievements are reached.

In Germany, a school leaving certificate is not a prerequisite for starting vocational training, but there are hardly any companies providing training that accept young people for vocational training without a school leaving certificate. More information on this in the FAQ.

There are also opportunities as an adult to study for a school leaving certificate subsequently. More information on this in the FAQ.

4. Additional information

Each Federal state Ministry of culture or education has a website on which all educational paths are explained. The school administration and the schools themselves also offer advice.

You can find more information on the following websites:

  • In German and English on the Bildungsserver website.
  • On the Planet Beruf website with 2-page graphics on school education and listing of contact points in the respective Federal states.
  • You can also find information about training on the Planet Beruf website. The two-page overview „#meinwegzumberuf “ explains in English and German how you can find your way into an apprenticeship and who can support you.
  • On the website of the Federal Employment Agency on the topics of secondary schools, catching up on school qualifications and training at part-time vocational schools.

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