Since the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic with the Unification Treaty of 1990, the school system reform has been a core issue in education.
In the 1992/1993 school year, the differentiated secondary school system of western Germany was adopted by the five eastern Lander (states). A number of legislative reforms helped remove the state monopoly in the eastern states and introduce continuing education courses based on free market principles.
The federal government and the states share the responsibility for education in Germany. Vocational education and financial aid for students and pupils, for example, are regulated by the federal government. The Lander states, on the other hand, have legislative powers in the field of education and are entirely responsible for the administration of the sector.
The German education system is composed of five basic elements:
Tertiary education and
School starts at the age of 6 and it must last for 12 years of education and/or training.
Pre-school education is available mainly, but not only, at Kindergarten, for children up to 6 years old. Pre-school attendance is usually voluntarily, however, most of the states are empowered to make it compulsory. Children who are not ready to continue their education in school at the age of 6 can be enrolled in institutions such as Schulkindergarten or Vorklassen.
Primary education, the so called Grundschule, is compulsory for all 6-year-olds and it continues for 4 years. In Berlin and Brandenburg, however, primary education includes the first 6 grades. A number of special schools, Forderschulen, provide the necessary education for children with special needs.
The procedure of transition from primary to secondary education varies from state to state. Generally, the assessment of the pupil's performance, made by the primary school he or she is leaving, serves as a basis for the selection of a secondary school, however, the parents' preferences are also considered. The final decision is made by the parents or school authorities.
Germany's secondary education includes the 5-12/13 grades divided within an internal structure. Secondary schools are comprised of:
Hauptschule (general school)
Realschule (intermediate school)
Gymnasium (college-preparatory high school)
Gesamtschule (comprehensive school)
Hauptschule graduates receive a certificate allowing them to attend a vocational training program. The intermediate school is a second option, which provides a broader range of education opportunities through a more intense educational program between the fifth and the 10th grade. Gymnasium covers nine years of study, including an upper stage between the 11th and 13th grade. Comprehensive schools combine education programs of the first three types of secondary schools.
The German secondary education system also offers special schools for pupils with disabilities or special needs. Some states have other types of secondary schools, with names that vary from state to state. During the fifth and the sixth grade students in all schools should go through a process of promotion and orientation towards their future educational development.
Following a first level of secondary education, pupils move on to the so called upper secondary stage, usually at 15 years of age. Education programs vary from full-time general school to full-time vocational courses. Approximately 70% of Germany's secondary-school graduates undergo three years of vocational training, combining theoretical knowledge and practice. Such combined approach to education represents the German dual system. Vocational programs can even take place independently for a 3-year term.
Germany's tertiary education comprises higher education institutions such as universities and colleges. The types of tertiary education institutions include:
Universitaten and Hochschulen (universities and university-colleges)
Kunsthochschulen and Musikhochschulen (art and music colleges)
Fachhochschulen (Universities of Applied Science, or UAS)
University admission is subject to the results of a test comprising questions from four or five subjects, known as das Abitur. Graduates with diplomas from vocational upper secondary schools and technical high schools are eligible to continue their studies in university.
Most universities in Germany are public and students can attend their first-degree courses without paying tuition. Some private universities, however, charge tuition. It was not until the 1998 reform that the German education system started to distinguish bachelor's degree from master's degree. Germany boasts more that 90 universities awarding doctoral degrees.
The International Standard Qualification of Education (ISCED) identifies Germany's Fachschulen, institutions for vocational continuing education providing training and relevant employment, as part of the tertiary system.
The importance of continuing education, as a representation of lifetime learning, has grown to the point that it has become part of the German system. Continuing education includes various follow-up courses for further development of knowledge and skills and new, informal learning approaches. Continuing education is provided by various public and private bodies, such as Volkshochschulen offered by municipal institutions.