Germany Country Profile - Education System

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System structure

The education system in Germany is maintained by the state authorities and so there are some regional variations. In most areas, primary and secondary school education is compulsory and children must attend from the ages of around 6 to 18. Unlike in many countries, state education in Germany is often considered to be of a higher standard than private education, so the majority of children attend publicly-funded schools. Although the entire German education system is accessible to expats, many choose a private school for their children on the basis of language or qualification choice.

Academic year

The academic year in Germany runs from September to July. Most states have a summer holiday of around six weeks, as well as Easter, spring, autumn and Christmas breaks. If you are working in Germany, be aware that many schools only run classes in the mornings, so you may need to arrange afternoon childcare.

Higher education

Germany has just under 400 higher education establishments, including some of the oldest and most respected institutions in the world. Although all have unique focuses and characters, they are usually considered one of three types:

  • Traditional universities – which focus on academic subjects and research
  • Universities of applied sciences – which tend to specialise in a particular subject and may take a more practical approach to teaching
  • Arts colleges – which offer specialist training in the subjects like art or music

Universities in Germany are ranked annually by the Centre for Higher Education (CHE). To study at university, students must pass an exam known as the Abitar or hold an equivalent international qualification. Like German schools, higher education establishments welcome foreign students provided that they meet entry criteria. For more information, visit the German Academic Exchange Service website. For information relateing to PhDs in Germany see Studying in Germany.


Most German universities are publically funded and for undergraduate courses they charge either nominal fees or no tuition fees at all. Almost all the states have experimented with charging for university education, but most have now abolished these costs. Postgraduate courses or undergraduate courses at privately-owned institutions may be more expensive, but there are various grants and loan schemes to help students with the cost of their education.


German universities offer a diverse range of courses. Most are taught in German but an increasing number also run courses in English and other international languages. Compared to most countries, courses take a long time to complete, with an undergraduate degree typically taking at least four years and postgraduate qualifications at least another year or two. Often, courses can be tailored to the individual, which means that many students take even longer over their studies. The system has been criticised for preventing early entry to the job market and creating a shortage of experienced workers under the age of 30, but despite this Germany’s higher education sector remains one of the most respected in the world.


Research is considered vital to Germany’s continued development and growth and is well supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Funding for research is available from a variety of sources, and universities and private research centres remain keen to attract the brightest and best from all around the world.

Primary and secondary education

Primary school in Germany is called Grundschule, and covers the first four years of school life. The first day of Grundschule is a major rite of passage for youngsters, and schools traditionally welcome them with a bag of sweets called the Schultüte. After primary education is complete, there are four main types of secondary school:

  • Gymnasium – a type of grammar school where students take academic subjects in preparation for university
  • Realschule – a secondary school with more focus on preparing students to qualify for vocational professions
  • Hauptschule – a school that is designed to give students practical working skills
  • Gesamtschule – a comprehensive school which combines elements of Realschule and Hauptschule and offers a choice of qualifications at the end


The main preschool options in Germany are Kinderkrippen (for children of less than three years old) and Kindergarten (ages three to six). Attendance at these ages is voluntary, but waiting lists tend to be quite long. Depending on whether the preschool is state-run, privately-run or operated by a church or charity, parents may have to pay fees.

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