An Overview of the German System
of Education

The German education system provides different paths for students based on individual ability. Children enter the Grundschule at age 6, and students of all levels of ability remain together as a group through the fourth grade of Grundschule (sixth grade in two states). Following Grundschule, when most students are around 10 years old, the German school system tracks students of differing abilities and interests into different school forms. In spite of the far-reaching changes of the past 30 years, including the shift from elite to mass education, Germanys traditional three-tiered system of education at the secondary level remains intact. In addition, support for this system remains strong among teachers, students, and parents of differing educational and social class backgrounds.

Grundschule teachers recommend their students to a particular school based on criteria such as academic achievement, potential, and personality characteristics, such as ability to work independently and self-confidence. However, in most states parents have the final say as to which school their child will track to following the fourth grade, and some parents go against the teacher's recommendation because they believe the higher level tracks offer their children more opportunities.

In most states, students enter one of several school forms at the lower secondary level (which comprise of a pyramid of academic achievement).

Although it is possible for students to switch to a higher-level school form with improved performance, it is not a frequent occurrence. It is more common that a student will move to a less rigorous school if they cannot meet their school's performance standards.


The lowest-achieving students attend the Hauptschule, where they receive slower paced and more basic instruction in the same primary academic subjects taught at the Realschule and Gymnasium. Additional subjects at the Hauptschule have a vocational orientation. In most states, students enroll in the Hauptschule beginning in the fifth grade and continue their education at the Hauptschule through the ninth grade. However, some states require school attendance through the 10th grade, and in one of the southern states all students who do not enroll in the Gymnasium for the 5th grade are sent to the Hauptschule for a minimum of 2 years. Enrollment figures reported 25 percent of 14-year-olds attended Hauptschulen in the 1992-93 school year (Statistisches Bundesamt 1993).


The Realschule provides students with an education which combines both liberal and practical education from the 5th through the 10th grade, but the emphasis is on liberal education. Enrollment figures for 199293 reported by the Statistisches Bundesamt (1993) listed 24 percent of 14- year-olds enrolled in Realschulen, and an additional 7 percent enrolled in combined Haupt/Realschulen (the latter located mostly in the eastern states).

The education focus of the Realschule is differentiated between the Unterstufe (lower level), which incorporates the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades, and the Oberstufe (upper level), which includes the 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. The lower level has a strong pedagogical emphasis, while the upper level is more closely oriented to various disciplines. The combined Hauptschule and Realschule, which exists in some of the former East German states, is called a Mittelschule.


The Gymnasium provides students with a liberal education and traditionally leads to study at the university. According to statistics reported by the Statistisches Bundesamt (1993), 30 percent of 14-year-olds at schools in Germany in the 1992-93 academic year were enrolled in Gymnasien.

Students may enroll in the Gymnasium at the lower secondary level (5th grade) or may transfer to the Gymnasium after the completion of the Realschule (11th grade). In some states, it is also common for students to transfer to the Gymnasium following the sixth grade. The final 3 years of Gymnasium (grades 11-13 in most states) are called the Oberstufe (upper level).

The three most common education tracks offered by standard Gymnasien are classical language, modern language, and mathematics-natural science. A variation of the traditional Gymnasium is the Berufliches gymnasium, which offers specialized orientations in areas such as economics or the technological sciences in addition to core academic courses. Students who successfully complete study at a Gymnasium (or Berufliches gymnasium) and pass the comprehensive examinations receive the Abitur.


These schools, otherwise known as comprehensive schools, are not found in all states. The Gesamtschule arose out of a social movement in the 1960's that promoted the idea of more egalitarian access to education for everyone, and it is the school form most like public schools in the United States. Most Gesamtschulen are located in states that have been governed by the Social Democratic Party.

Gesamtschulen enroll students of all ability levels in the 5th through the 10th grades. Students who satisfactorily complete the Gesamtschule through the 9th grade receive the Hauptschule certificate, while those who satisfactorily complete schooling through the 10th grade receive the Realschule certificate. Enrollment statistics from the Statistisches Bundesamt (1993) reported 9 percent of Germany's 14-year-olds attended integrated Gesamtschule in 1992-93, although enrollment in the Gesamtschule was nonexistent in states which do not provide this school form, in other states enrollments varied from 15 and 35 percent.


The Berufsschule is an upper secondary school form which students may enter to pursue part-time academic study combined with apprenticeship, following the successful completion of either the Hauptschule or Realschule. The successful completion of an apprenticeship program leads to certification in a particular trade or field of work. Unlike the general education (K-13) schools listed above, which are under the direct control of local and regional authorities, the responsibility for Germany's dual system, which combines education with vocational apprenticeships, is shared by the Conference of Ministers of Education, a national coordinating and advisory body, the federal government, the states, representatives from industry, commerce, the trades and trade unions, and vocational teachers.

Figure 1 provides a basic illustration of the German education system.

The German school system

Regional Differences

It is important to note that there are regional differences in the education system in Germany. Each state's school structure has been influenced to some extent by different historical and political events. The Christian Democrats, who have held power predominantly in the southern states, strongly identify with the traditional school forms and the fostering of the academic elite, while the Social Democrats have encouraged school reform as a means of increasing equality of educational opportunity. As a result, many aspects of schooling in the states of central and northern Germany differ from those in the southern German states, despite the fact that all states have basically the same education structure and core curriculum, abide by the uniform examination requirements for completing upper secondary schooling (Abitur), and recognize school completion credentials from around the country.

Funding K-13 Education

The German financial constitution (Finanzverfassung) requires tax redistribution between the states, meaning that states with higher tax revenue per capita share their revenue with economically weaker states. Because of this redistribution of funds, schools throughout Germany are at least on approximately equal standing in terms of spending on education, although differences do still exist. Most noticeable are the differences, which continue to exist between the states of former East Germany and those of former West Germany. The redistribution of funds does not yet apply to the new states of former East Germany, which operate with fewer resources. The economy remains weaker in those states and the financial support, which they have received from the old states has not brought them up to parity with the former West German states.

Throughout Germany, funding for K-13 education derives primarily from state and district funding sources; the federal government's share of the total school budget is relatively small; 11 million DM of a total of 52.7 billion DM in 1990 (BMBW 1993).

The largest percentage of the K-13 school budget goes to personnel costs for teaching staff and teachers with administrative positions. Most personnel costs are paid from state resources rather than by the district. State allocations for personnel are based on attendance numbers at each school. Principals tally up these numbers and convert them into classes, which are then assigned periods of instruction per week by grade level. The total number of periods per week (teacher hours) is submitted to the district offices, which approve or deny request for additional teacher hours. Principals also submit the number of teacher hours represented by the teaching staff presently stationed at the school, indicating how many additional teacher hours are needed, if any. The state then assigns teachers to each school according to the number of instructional hours approved to meet the school's instructional needs.

Personnel costs for the 1993-94 school year averaged 72 percent of the total school budget in all of Germany, and in the case study states the percentage ranged from 62 percent and 69 percent in South State and Central State, respectively, to 92 percent in East State (Statistisches Bundesamt 1995).

District funds are primarily used for school upkeep and nonteaching staff, i.e., secretaries, groundskeepers, and janitors (MPI 1994). In 1993-94, approximately 30 percent of school funding in Germany came from the district level. Both South State and Central State were inline with the average, receiving approximately 33 percent of their school budget from the district. Statistics regarding local funding in East State are unclear (Statistisches Bundesamt 1995).

As a result of the redistribution of funds between states and the reliance on state level funding for schools' instructional needs, there is a fairly even distribution of financial resources between schools in former West Germany. This is reflected in the per pupil spending figures, which include budget expenditures comprised of both state and district funds. In 1993-94, per pupil spending in all of Germany averaged 9,283.40 DM ($4,485). The average per pupil spending in South State was 10,094.01 DM ($4,876), in Central State 9,909.66 DM ($4,787), and in East State 7,787.61 DM ($3,762) (Statistisches Bundesamt 1995).