Before the period of compulsory schooling begins, 3 to 6-year-old children in Germany have the opportunity to attend pre-school institutions. Unlike schools, pre-school education is not free. The infants are not given formal instruction; instead, their development and relations with other children are fostered through play. Attendance at Kindergarten is totally voluntary. Although, since 1996, every child has had the right to a place in a Kindergarten, there is still a clear shortfall of places.
Normally, schooling for all children begins at the age of six in the first year of a Grundschule. Children attend the Grundschule for 4 years (6 in Berlin and Brandenburg), during which time they learn to read, write and to do arithmetic. In addition, teachers also offer some basic instruction in social science, history, geography, biology, physics and chemistry. Pupils can try out their creative powers in music, art, and craft lessons. Sport also forms part of the curriculum at the Grundschule. The teaching of foreign languages, which used to take place exclusively in secondary schools, is now also being offered at more and more primary schools.
Secondary Level I can consist of any of the following: Hauptschule(grades 5-9 or 10*), the Realschule (grades 5-10),Gymnasium(grades 5-10) and the Sonderschule (Special School). Most students are taught English at Secondary Level I. When they finish Secondary Level I, pupils sit the Mittlere Reife examination, which entitles them to start vocational training, to go to a vocational school at Secondary Level II or to attend a Gymnasium.
*The German ‘grades’ are different from the ‘years’ in England and Wales.
In the majority of the Länder (federal states), children spend five years at the Hauptschule (grades 5-9 or 10). The main objective of the Hauptschule is to prepare students for their entry into the world of work. From the first year of Hauptschule, all children learn English (sometimes French). They are also taught German, mathematics, physics / chemistry, biology, geography, history, religion (or a substitute subject), music, art, politics and sports, and are given an introduction to the world of work (Arbeitslehre). Once students have obtained their leaving certificate at the age of 15 / 16, they can go into practical vocational training, start work in the public service at basic or secretarial level, or attend a Berufsfachschule (full-time vocational school).
Students attend Realschule for six years (grades 5-11). Unlike theHauptschule, the Realschule gives children a broader general education and expects them to show greater independence. They also have a chance to learn a second foreign language (usually French), in addition to the first compulsory language (generally English). In comparison with the Gymnasium, the pupils are given a more vocationally-oriented education. At the end of their 10th year, successful pupils will obtain the Realschule leaving certificate. With this certificate, they have access to several training options: in-company vocational training, work in the public service at secretarial and executive level, further education in school at Secondary Level II or at a Fachhochschule. The Realschule is very popular in Germany.
Those school students who leave the Grundschule and go straight on to the Gymnasium still have another 8 or 9 years of school education before they take their final examination (Abitur or Hochschulreife). TheGymnasium is designed to provide students with an education which will enable them, once they have passed their Abitur, to study at a German university or equivalent. Students receive intensive specialised instruction to prepare them for academic work at a higher level.
Secondary Level II, i.e. the last 2 or 3 years at the Gymnasium, consists of courses, which students select themselves, depending on certain conditions and on their own preferences (with certain restrictions). All pupils have to select 2 Leistungskurse (special subjects) – 3 in the Saarland and Rhineland-Palatine. Students following Leistungskurse have to attend five hours of classes each week. The Abitur is based on the assessment of the subjects chosen as Leistungskurse and of two other subjects.
The Gesamtschule combines elements from the Hauptschule, theRealschule and the Gymnasium. This type of school was introduced later than all the other types, mainly on the initiative of the education ministers in Länder governed by the SPD (Social Democratic Party).
Children usually spend six years at the Gesamtschule, from the 6th to the 10th grade. Depending on their ability, they either obtain aHauptschule or a Realschule leaving certificate. Pupils wishing to sit the Abitur attend school for another three grades.