Germany was among the first countries to introduce a compulsory system of education, with mandatory school attendance beginning at the age of six. Full-time attendance is required for a minimum of either nine or ten years, depending on the state, and children may attend school for up to 13 years in total. In addition, the German education system provides optional kindergarten level schooling for children between the ages of three and six.
The individual states (Länder) have different methodologies and each state possesses significant power and influence over schools and universities located there. As a result, depending on where in the country you go, you may find that institutions have vastly different structures, regulations, enrolment rules and exams.
Over the years, the education standards within the country have been a source of great pride for German people. However, a 2002 OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which assessed the ability levels of 15-year-olds across 32 industrialised countries, rated Germany on the lower end of the scale. The findings have subsequently sparked considerable debate on the topic of educational reform.
In the majority of cases, education is free from primary school level up until university. Yet, at present, there are attempts to introduce and increase tuition fees in order to pay for higher education.
In contrast to many of its European neighbours, Germany has always taken an egalitarian approach to education. While there are special schools to assist those affected by mental or physical disabilities, elite schools like France’s Grande Ecoles or the highly selective ‘Oxbridge’ universities in the United Kingdom are extremely rare. With that said, there have been some attempts to introduce special schools for the most gifted students.
Nevertheless, from the age of 10, students are separated into different school systems (Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule) based on their ability, which is assessed after four years of primary education. Critics have suggested that this is too early in a child’s development to accurately assess their capabilities, and some Länder have established common schools (Gesamtschulen) where children all taught together until they reach the 10th grade.
In order to gain a university place, high school students are required to sit the Abitur examination, which can be taken at either the Gymnasium or the Gesamtschule.
Furthermore, some have argued that the German education system places too much emphasis on career development and academic achievement, resulting in less focus on personal development than in countries like Britain and the United States. Indeed, most German schools offer little in the way of extra-curricular activities, such as sports or music clubs, opting to leave these to other organisations instead.
Germany’s teaching style can be considered more formal than in many countries, with very little contact between teachers and pupils outside of the classroom setting. In recent years, some city schools have experienced increased disciplinary problems, which some have attributed to the high proportion of children from ethnic minorities. Research shows that in some places, this proportion actually exceeds 50 percent.
Despite these problems, and the PISA results, the German education system is generally still considered to be of a very high standard. Schools in the country have adapted swiftly to new technology and have embraced the internet, with IT classes and high-speed internet connections commonplace.
After school, most children opt for either apprenticeship (Lehre), which combines practical elements with classroom training in a Berufsschule, or they progress to higher education in a university (Universität) or Fachhochschule.
It should be noted that Germany is less welcoming of foreign qualifications than some nations, meaning those who do not come through the German education system may find the transition from school to work slightly more problematic. Fortunately, this is less of an issue for those living in European countries, as current EU-wide regulations force member states to recognise appropriate foreign qualifications wherever possible.