German School System
Learning Schooling

Learn How The German School System Works in Düsseldorf

November 28, 2017

The German school system is very different from many international schooling systems. With that being said, many internationals moving to the city of Düsseldorf (or anywhere in Germany for that matter) have a number of questions before registering their children into the system. Luckily, we have Scott Groza here, Founder of the Groza Learning Center, who is going to give us an easy-to-understand explanation of the German school system and how it works.


It is fascinating to look at the German school system and learn about how it works. Although German educational laws are unique for each of Germany’s 16 federal states, there are some general patterns which help us understand the system. Here is an overview of the primary, secondary and tertiary schools that make up the German school system.



Children of ages three through six have the option of attending state-run preschool programs (often younger as well). These programs are not free, and they are also not mandatory. Parents can either choose to enroll their children, or not.


Elementary/Foundational School (Grundschule)

Mandatory schooling begins at age six. All students are required to enroll in school, whether this is in the form of a public, private, boarding, or special education institution. Homeschooling is illegal. Most students in Germany attend state-run public schools, which are free for the families. From age six to about age ten, (which means from grades one through four in North America), the students receive a foundational education. The curriculum is the same for all students, regardless of ability.


Secondary School

Following four years of Grundschule, parents, and teachers work together to “track” the student onto an educational path which is suited to that student’s abilities and goals. Teachers provide recommendations based on the student’s abilities in the classroom, confidence levels, and level of independence.

Parents usually have the final say in the matter and decide on which secondary school their child will attend. When deciding, they must take into consideration what the child’s future goals are, and what end the education will ultimately serve. Usually, the choices for secondary schools include Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. In some states, Hauptschule and Realschule are integrated to form one institution, called Gesamtschule.



Haupstschule is for students who do best working at a slow pace. They are not motivated by the prospect of receiving a degree which will allow them to move onto the University setting. Instead, they are interested in attending a vocational school and apprenticing for a chosen career. The Hauptschule programs generally end at grade nine, when a student moves on to vocational school. The Haupstschule curriculum includes many job-specific classes.



Realschule programs are more rigorous than Hauptschule programs in terms of academic learning. All students are required to take math, German, foreign language, and science. As they progress through the program they will also cover areas like religion, geography, social studies, home ec, and technology. Some, but not all, classes have practical job-oriented applications. The curriculum focuses on a mix of high-level vocational training, and general education. The students are expected to have a great deal of independence. Realschule students graduate after grade ten is completed with a certificate called the “Realschulabschluss”. At some point in their Realschule experience, they may also choose (if their academic achievements are high enough) to switch over to Gymnasium and pursue a diploma.



Gymnasium programs offer students the highest amount of academic rigor. Students who track into this program have likely been high academic achievers throughout elementary school. This program leads to a diploma, which is called the “Abitur”, or “Abi”. Generally, students receive their diploma after grade twelve or thirteen, and recently this is trending towards grade twelve. Once they have a diploma, the students are qualified to go on to University programs where they can pursue academic or vocational degrees. Gymnasium programs include classes in computer sciences, physics, civics, philosophy, music, and art.



In some states, Hauptschule and Realschule have been integrated into one program, referred to as “Gesamtschule”. Students who graduate after grade nine will receive a Hauptschule degree, while those who continue on through grade ten will receive a Realschulabschluss certificate.


Beyond Secondary School

Once a student completes their secondary program, whether that is Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium, or Gesamtschule, they will progress along their learning path into a tertiary school. There are many different kinds of tertiary schools in Germany, including vocational schools and several different categories of university programs. Statistics show that in the past ten years enrollment in universities has increased.



Graduates of Hauptschule and Realschule may enter into a Berufsschule, which will educate them so that they can perform a trade. Berufsschules consist of academic classes and apprenticeships. Instead of being controlled by the state, this type of a program may be overseen by the federal government or a trade union for a specific career field.



Students who have completed a Gymnasium and hold their Abitur diploma are allowed to apply to Universities. Also, students may receive qualifications based on specific areas of study, and gain admission to a university. If a student holds a school-leaving certificate other than an Abitur, such as a diploma from an international high school, the student might be required to pass an examination or take a specific foundational level course before being considered for admission.

The title “University” in Germany refers to an institution that can award students with a doctorate degree. University curriculum varies. Some are focused on specific areas of study, such as music, art, or education. Other universities may focus exclusively on applied sciences.


Alternative Paths

Some students do not follow the standard path of public elementary school to secondary school. Students with special needs, for example, will be treated in a unique manner so that they can receive appropriate learning aids. In addition, alternative paths may include enrollment at a private school or boarding school.

Unlike the United States or Canada, German students are formally tracked onto different educational paths as early as the fifth grade. The secondary school system in Germany goes from grade five to nine, ten, or even thirteen. The three main types of secondary schools set students up for varying tertiary education options, including vocational school or university studies.

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  1. Reply


    January 23, 2018

    I believe it should be noted, that in NRW aka Düsseldorf the majority of pupils attend Gymnasium. Which is principally the default education in this federal state.
    A very tricky point about universities in Germany is that the academic landscape is fundamentally different to many other countries in terms of degrees. The esteem of following academic degree decrease from the first one to the last mentioned.
    Ther are Univerisities (Universitäten), Universities of applied science (Hochschulen), professional academy (Duale Hochschulen / Berufsakademien).
    Universities focus on more scientific methods and require very high independent working and self-organisation skills. The other ones focus more strongly on practical / job oriented working. Especially the academies work closely with companies and organisations. Moreove there are private universities such as Steinbeis and FOM.

    • Reply

      Jenna Davis

      January 23, 2018

      Thank you so much for the additional information, Dave! There’s no doubt that all this information could fit within its own post focused specifically on “Furthering your education” after grade school. If you ever have an interest in putting together a more detailed post about Universities, Hochschulen and Berufsakademien for the English speaking crowd in Düsseldorf, I’d love to feature it!

      All the best,



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