Skip to content

German School System

Expatrio 2024-02-15
A student holding a pen


You may feel like the German school system will be a labyrinth to navigate, but it’s quite straightforward once you understand the main elements. Moreover, a high quality of education makes it worth investing the time to explore the opportunities especially if you're planning to move to Germany with children who are of school age.

Consider this article your introductory guide with the overview of the school system in Germany, covering everything from early childhood schooling to higher and adult education.

Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education in Germany is entirely optional.

What you might know as preschool is known as Vorschule, and other day-care options range from nurseries and private childminders (Tagesmütter) to small, in-home groups for children too young for Kindergarten.

Some private nannies or Tagesmütter can start with babies as young as eight weeks.

There are also more structured education options you can look into, such as:


Intended for babies and children before (and up to) three years of age. However, it's not free, and costs vary.


This is preschool for children aged two to three, which offers a relatively relaxed, playful vibe in which children can start to learn concepts in mathematics, literacy and other subjects.


For children between the years of three and six, there's Kindergarten. The rates are based on the parents' income. Spaces are limited nationwide - even though it's not mandatory, most kids do attend Kindergarten. You can expect Kindergärten to be a little more structured in terms of academic goals and timetables.


Only after-school or holiday care for primary school-aged kids.

Voucher for "Kindergarten"

Look into whether your family is eligible for a state-funded "Gutschein" (voucher) that can help you pay for "Kindergarten" fees.


Primary Education

It's mandatory for German students to attend school from six years old.

Children typically attend primary school from the ages of six to ten. This first stage is known as Grundschule: the first part of compulsory education in Germany.

What age do Germans start school?

Children usually experience their Einschulung (official school entry) when they are six years old.

How does the German school system work?

Once children have started school at the age of six, they remain in Grundschule until they are ten. In some cases, this can extend to the ages of 11 or 12. This means that Grundschule only has grades one to four, typically, with some extending until the 6th year.

Primary school age varies as well. There are cut-off dates for when a child can enter primary school depending on when the child turns six. Generally, if a student turns six before June 30th, they're eligible to begin school that year. If they're younger, it's up to the administrators to determine if they'll accept the child.

See the German Education System main page for more information on muss Kinder (children who must enter school) and kann Kinder (children who could enter school but don't have to legally based on their age).

In Grundschule, lessons aim to give children a solid educational foundation and get them used to homework. Subjects like literacy, mathematics, foreign languages, religion, science, and even computer skills add up to 20 to 30 tuition hours a week, alongside about half an hour of homework each day.

German "Schultüte"

In Germany, it's traditional for a child to bring something known as "Schultüte" to school on their first day. This is a kind of decorative paper cone or parcel filled with candy and small presents.


How long is a school year?

The German school year begins somewhere around late August to early September, varying between the 16 German states. There are breaks for summer, winter, and, of course, Easter holidays. There are also a number of public holidays where schools close for the day. See our German Holidays and Celebrations page for more info on national and regional holidays.



Secondary Education

So, to German high school! Now, this is where it gets interesting because there are different types of secondary school

According to German concepts of education, there is real value in starting to "sort" students according to their natural (and somewhat chosen) proclivities for academics at high-school age.

There is, of course, some flexibility - just because you choose one stream does not mean you cannot cross over and opt for a traditionally more academic or vocational stream later.

Which are the types of Schools for Secondary Education in Germany?


Aimed at students who plan to go for tertiary or university-level education, Gymnasium schools typically offer rigorous levels of academic education. Here, students study from the ages of 10 to 18 years, which spans the 5th to 13th grade of education.

Once they've hit grade 11, their intended preparation begins: students enter the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, which is a two-year prep level for their final exams. These are for the Abitur, or Abi: the qualification students need to graduate from the Gymnasiale Oberstufe and progress to university. Gymnasium students can also choose to study certain courses at a further advanced level known as Leistungskurse.


Realschule schooling is the most common form of secondary education.

Although not considered as prestigious, maybe, as the Gymnasium schools, Realschule still offers a highly academic environment with a range of subjects including one to two foreign languages. Subjects and skill levels prepare students for mid-level jobs in businesses and industries.

Education here cumulates in a Realschulabschluss diploma, allowing students to take training courses, vocational qualifications, apprenticeships in commercial trade, or to pursue medical studies.

Students in a Realschule complete their studies aged 15 or 16. From here, they can opt to transfer to a Gymnasium and complete the Abitur exams if they wish to go to university.


This is a vocational school for students between the ages of 10 and 15–16. It's intended for students who will eventually enter a trade or an apprenticeship and aim to work in industrial sectors.


Integrated schools or Gesamtschulen result from education lawmakers wanting to create a school system that was not only more inclusive but that also offered more than one kind of educational stream.

In some regions, schools will amalgamate the Hauptschule and Realschule curricula or stream students according to their abilities. All three education options - Hauptschulabschluss diploma, apprenticeship options, or further study for the Abi - are open to them.

How many years is high school in Germany?

High school years in Germany vary by which stream or level you choose to study at. Most schools take students until 15 or 16 years of age. The Gymnasium students end at age 18 (grade 13).

Secondary school in Germany

Base the choice of your child’s secondary school on what you think is in their future. What academic or career path do you see them taking after secondary education? What are their skills and strengths? And how will the qualifications of each option translate to universities or employers in their home country?


Tertiary Education

Which are the Institutions of German Tertiary Education?

Germany "tertiary" education or post-secondary education is what students do after secondary school. There is a variety of universities and university "types" that make up tertiary education, and a student's secondary school grades will determine which is the most appropriate for them.

There are several different kinds of German tertiary education institutions, including:

  • General universities (Universitäten)
  • Universities of applied sciences, also known as Fachhochschulen
  • Technical colleges known as technische Hochschulen/technische Universitäten
  • Pedagogic colleges known as Pädagogische Hochschulen
  • Institutions offering dual studies (Berufsakademie)
  • Institutions for Federal Armed Forces
  • Theological colleges or Theologische Hochschulen

What are the differences between universities and universities of applied sciences?

Universities in Germany, known as the Universitäten, offer courses and scientific research programs. They offer academic Studium courses (B.A., M.A.) and award PhDs (Doktorgrad) in a wide range of subjects.

Meanwhile, the universities of applied sciences, or Fachhochschulen, provide a much more practical and responsive method of teaching. Their aim is to move students towards the labor market, making them job- and profession-ready.

Students in the Hochschulen usually undertake a paid training known as the Praxissemester.

Student loan - "BAföG"

You could possibly take advantage of a student grant/loan known as "BAföG" ("Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz").


Continuing Education

Once an individual is in their chosen profession, there's no reason why they can't make a lateral move to another path of interest - nor why they can't opt to undertake further studies

In Germany, this is known as continuing or adult education and it gives individuals already working in the job market a chance to further their skills. For the country in general, it encourages productivity by responding to the needs of the changing labor market.

Usually, these are privatized forms of education and are offered by vocational schools, municipal or private institutions, family education centers, trade unions, and the like.

book, glasses and a pen


"Quereinsteiger- Fortbildungskurs"

You can check whether you are eligible to undertake a "Quereinsteiger"- or "Fortbildungskurs" to change professions with the needed training and support.

About Expatrio

We're building the best solution for internationals coming to Germany.


This might also be of interest to you

A group of students in a meeting

Studying in Germany vs. Canada: 15 Reasons Why

When it comes to deciding where to study, there are many factors that students need to consider. Two of the most popular destinations for...

German Degrees complete guide

German Degrees [Complete Guide]

Germany is one of the finest places in the world to study. With its huge network of universities, laboratories, and research institutes, skill-based...

Computer mit Daten

6 Best Data Science Courses in Germany [2022]

Germany has a long and storied history in data science. The country is home to some of the world's leading data science researchers and educators,...

Frau im Gebirge


ISIC is an internationally accepted student identity card that allows you to prove your student status worldwide and save a lot of money on various...

Graduation in Germany

Graduation in Germany

High school graduation in Germany is a pretty big deal. It signifies the student's achievements and persistence through Germany’s rigorous and...

Application Process to Study in Germany

Application Process to Study in Germany

Germany is one of the world's greatest academic centers. Famous for producing a stream of Nobel prize winners, the country hosts some of Europe's...

Frau am Laptop

German dual apprenticeship system

In Germany, school leavers have the option of taking up a vocational apprenticeship instead of choosing full-time academic education. Known as ‘dual...

Guide to TU9 Universities in Germany

Guide to TU9 Universities in Germany

Universities in Germany are administered by each state (Bundesland). Therefore, there are slight differences in how university education is...

How to Decide on a University Course

How to Decide on a University Course

Tips for International Students It's that time of year again – university application season! With so many universities and courses available, it can...