The German School System – Elementary School

Over the years, a frequent question in conversation with ex-patriots is about the complex structure of the German school system.

This short outline covers the main parts of elementary schooling.

* Grundschule

All children from ages six to ten years old must attend a primary school (Grundschule). You cannot choose the school, instead your child will be assigned to the one closest in your district. This is usually in walking distance.

Before school admittance, all children are tested (Einschulungstest). In the old days, if a child could reach with his/her right arm around the head and touch the left ear, the child was often found suited mature enough to start first grade. The criteria has changed a lot since then.

Today, children have to go through various tests to show their physical, mental, emotional, and social capabilities. There are also “Kann Kinder” (capable children) who may start school earlier at the age of five, provided they turn six before 31 Dec in the same school year. There are also “Darf Kinder” (“may start school early” children) who may start school earlier under different guide lines (more bureaucracy).

First day of school tradition: the Schultüte


A common practice throughout all 16 states in Germany is giving the Schultüte or also known as Zuckertüte (definition: large cornet of cardboard filled with sweets and little presents given to children in Germany on their first day at school).

This tradition began in Saxony and Thuringia in the 19th century. Today, the average parents spend euro 69,52 on its contents ( with parents in the eastern part of Germany spending more). More parents (54%) in the West make the Schultüte themselves, in comparison to only 16% homemade Schultüten in the East.

The contents are most often school supplies, candy, plush animals, and other small gifts.

In primary school, children are taught to read, write, do maths, and they study local history, geography, and biology. Unlike most other countries, students also have religious instruction classes. In addition to their homeroom teacher (Klassenleiter/in), they have separate teachers for music and sport.

Very little homework is assigned – usually 30 to 40 minutes a day.

In the student’s fourth and final year at primary school, teachers evaluate the child’s next level of schooling in discussion with the parents. If the students seems apt for university education, then he/she will move directly into secondary school (Gymnasium). Those students who need two more years to develop their academic skills can continue middle school (Gesamtschule), where they can choose from three tracks: intermediate schools (Hauptschule or Realschule) or Gymnasium.

My previous post about kindergarten can be read here:


The German School System – Kindergarten

Most expats have read about the German school system before moving here. But occasionally, whether contemplating enrolling the child at a German school or international school, even more questions arise. Newcomers might wonder why elementary school children finish school as early as 11:10, or how many of them make it through university (14.1% of all Germans have a university degree), etc.

Education in Germany is twofold; one being Bildung (knowledge) the other Erziehung (social skills).

German education is very diverse, ranging from late starters, when parents try to “spare their children from the harsh school life” by enrolling them a year late. Additionally, there is no home schooling as school attendance is mandatory.

When we came to Germany in 1995, there was only a half-day kindergarten program available. Also, schools had neither extra-curricular activities, study halls, nor substitute teachers. Students had no chance to make up missed lessons. Teachers did not and do not to this day communicate privately with students. The lack of respect for the teaching profession is common knowledge.

It was difficult finding a private day care mother for our toddler as most German mothers would rather stay home with their child (supplemented by the government) and therefore ruled by supply and demand. Nowadays, there is an abundance of day care mothers to choose from. But there are not enough early childhood educators for kindergarten.

This post’s focus is on kindergarten, a mix of facts and personal observations.

Kindergarten starts from the age of three and goes until the age of six. As mentioned before, some moms might opt for later school enrollment and keeping the child in kindergarten for an extra year. But there are also cases of early enrollment called Kann Kind (a capable child, not yet six years old at the time of school enrollment).

Kindergarten is not part of the regular school system, therefore it is not free, only subsidized. The fee might be based on income, number of children, etc. This varies from state to state and year to year.

Early childhood education in Germany stresses a child’s social development and focuses on playing, arts and crafts, music and physical education.

To work in a kindergarten does not require a university degree, but a vocational training as a Erzieherin (often a 10th grade education, followed by a vocational two-year training is sufficient).

Therefore, no school related items are taught or should be taught. Most elementary teachers would frown upon a child starting school with any kind of knowledge of phonics, the alphabet or counting.

Vorschule (pre-primary education) is being offered at most kindergartens one day a week, but I have not met a single child yet who could read after the Vorschule training.

Please also note there are hardly any pre-primary reading books on the German market.

Most kindergartens are run by churches or social organizations. There is an acute shortness of kindergarten Erzieherinnen (early childhood educators). They are not teachers, and therefore do not get paid as such.

There were times when I dropped off our toddler and I would hear a British mom telling her child, “Mind the teacher!” The Erzieherin in charge looked surprised and somewhat daunted, and her eyes said, “I am not a teacher! Don’t expect me to teach your child. This is not my job.”

What you can expect from a German kindergarten, in general, is cheap day-care, fun activities for the kids, and little feed-back on your child’s development.

Early education in Germany stands for children having a good time until Der Ernst des Lebens beginnt (the seriousness of life begins).

Stay tuned – my next post will be about The German School System – Elementary School


Truly German – Episode 01

Truly German is a new podcast that talks about the news in Germany. Sometimes this will by national news, maybe political, but we will also be covering some local topics.

We want to have some fun at the same time, so part of the podcast is our Länderquiz – in which my contestant has to guess in which Bundesland three different news stories took place in.

This week the topics are:

  1. Agreement ends strikes in German Kindergartens
  2. Swimming pool closed due to leak
  3. Divers find Mercedes in a lake
  4. German minister’s car stolen in Spain

The quiz covers the following stories:

  1. Europe’s first passive swimming pool
  2. New motorway has speed limits imposed due to heat
  3. German’s oldest steam engine

Please listen to the first episode and tell us what you think:

(Press the “play” button to listen to the podcast)

Download the MP3 file

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