How the German school system works


The German school system is quite different and curious.

The first level, equivalent to pre-school, is Kindergarten – a famous German word that is also used in English. It is not mandatory in Germany; parents decide whether or not to enroll their children. Then comes Grundschule, the elementary or primary school. It lasts 4 years, usually from ages 6 to 10. Starting from Grundschule on, education is mandatory (and free!) for everyone.

Until that point it is quite similar to other countries. It starts to look different at the end of Grundschule.

When the child is almost finishing Grundschule, around the age of 10, a decision needs to be made: which of the 3 types of school he/she will pursue. This is usually decided by the teachers and advised to the parents, based on the child’s school transcripts.

Now let’s go through the different types of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium.

Putting euphemisms aside and explaining it in a clear, straightforward way (as the Germans do): the difference between these 3 schools is the level of difficulty and demand on the students.

Hauptschule is the easiest school out of the three, demanding less from the students. Realschule is the one with intermediate level of difficulty and demand. Gymnasium is the hardest one, where the intellectual demand is the highest of the three and the student has to dedicate more time and effort to the studies. At the end of Gymnasium the students take an exam called Abitur (also referred to as Abi), which is somehow similar to the SAT in the U.S. or the Baccalauréat in France. The student who does not have high enough grades to pursue the Gymnasium straight after primary school can still (given that his/her performance improves) attend Realschule first and then Gymnasium, or even take a longer path of Hauptschule, then Realschule and then Gymnasium.

But what about those who attended Hauptschule and/or Realschule, without having finished Gymnasium and Abitur? They pursue vocational training, or technical courses.

Something one should know about German society:

In Germany, a university diploma is not a necessary requirement to land a good job with a good salary. That’s because there are hundreds of vocational training courses (Ausbildung), which are schools that prepare people for all the non-academic professions. For example: retailer, mechanic, hair dresser, product designer, dental assistant, among many others. And all professions are relatively well-paid. Of course some get better salaries than others, but the discrepancy is not as big as in my home country Brazil, for example. This results in a society with skilled workers in all areas, of both manual and intellectual labor. Each technical course lasts at least 3 years, and the apprentice has to go through theoretical and practical training and evaluations to be able to practice the profession. While in Brazil it’s very common to hire an electrician, for example, only based on referral, in Germany one can, in theory, trust any professional electrician, as they are all equally well-qualified.

Therefore, it is natural that not all Germans decide to go to university – since there are other attractive options where one can start working and earn money sooner. Some people also say that those who go to university spend years learning many things in theory but, at the end of the day, have no work experience and don’t know how the profession works in “real life”.

Indeed, a store salesperson probably does not earn the same amount as a medical doctor – but he/she earns enough to live well. In Germany each person has the opportunity to make the professional choice they consider best for themselves.

Pros and cons of the German education system:

  • CONS:

It is quite segregationist, since students are divided into schools of different difficulty levels.

It is a way of labeling students by their potential, and judge them for their school grades.

Kids are forced to decide on their future at only 10 years of age. They are too young to know what they will want to do afterwards.

If the children from Hauptschule were surrounded by dedicated classmates during high school, as the ones from Gymnasium, maybe that would motivate them to study more.

  • PROS:

This system is already so embedded in the German culture that they don’t see it as segregationist. Children grow up knowing this is how it works, and nobody thinks of it as ‘perverse’.

Different people have different rhythms and interests. Not everyone is meant for university. Not everyone is willing to study really hard at school.

A society is not and shouldn’t be made of only intellectuals, but also of skilled workers from all areas.

Placing all students in one single type of school would mean to slow down the ones who are willing to study harder because of those who prefer to pursue the path of technical training.

The decision is not irreversible. There is mobility and the students can change their minds and swap their school type if they want to and show interest for it.

This is a basic summary of the main points of the school system in Germany. It varies a bit from state to state and there are some exceptions, such as the school that integrates the Hauptschule and Realschule (Integrierte Sekundarschule) and the Gesamtschule.

I find some points very interesting, but disagree with others. But in general, this curious school system seems to work, and is strongly related to the job market and to the German society.


4 thoughts on “How the German school system works

  1. Wow, thanks for that summary! It’s always interresting, if people from other cultures reflect about things like that! Thanks for the effort. Now I’m curious, how it works in Brazil:) Cheers, Stefan.


  2. Interesting that you write about the german school system as a foreigner. Well written, I’d just like to add two things:

    There are people well aware of the segregating tendencies of the german school system and it causes us to have one of the lowest social mobility of the western world.

    Because parents you are well aware of it, don’t send their children to Hauptschulen so much anymore, the Hauptschulen seem to die a slow death. In some years there will be only the two upper forms of schools left, which also stems from the fact that jobs where a really low education is sufficient are less frequently to be found in Germany anymore.


    1. Thanks for that info! It’s really interesting to see how things are changing and adapting… I’m sure it will be different in the future.


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