German schools represent more than just an opportunity for your child to learn a second language and experience a foreign culture. Enrolling your child in a German school can aid in the integration of both the child and the parents. What's more, the public education system is tuition free.
Academically, the German school system has a good reputation, although it was hard hit by the OECD's study as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which revealed that German students scored below average in reading, math and science when compared with their peers from other developed countries. The report set off a firestorm of debate about what was right and wrong with the German educational system. Educational reforms have been underway ever since the release of the report, and progress has been made in establishing more all-day schools in order to boost education standards. The major complaints about the German system concern the short hours (in primary schools, it is common for children to finish school at noon), the lack of flexibility and lack of programs for gifted, remedial and foreign children.
In Germany, the school system is the responsibility of the state government. This means that in the Rhine-Neckar Metropolitan Region there are three different state school systems - each with slight differences. All states, however, have introduced reforms so that classes will not be cancelled (and students sent home) due to a lack of human resources in schools. With students spending longer days in school, more and more schools are now offering hot lunches. Organized sports teams and other extracurricular activities are usually not offered at most German schools, but are rather the domain of separate clubs (Vereine) or commercial companies (Nachhilfe).
Kindergarten starts as early as age three and continues until age five. It is not a part of the public school system and so is not free. Tuition is often based on income, though fees are usually not expensive. However, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate offers free kindergarten for children aged 2-6. Kindergarten in Germany stresses a child's social development as well as structured play, arts and crafts, music and coordination skills. Kindergartens are often run by churches, social organizations or municipalities.
All children from ages six through nine must attend a primary school (Grundschule). Here they are taught basic skills like reading, writing and math, as well as local history, geography and biology. In contrast to some other countries, students also have religion classes. Students are assigned up to 30-60 minutes of homework daily, and parents are often expected to actively participate in helping with homework.
In the child's final year (fourth grade) in the Grundschule, parents and teachers come together to evaluate the child's next level of schooling. If a child has the academic aptitude to warrant university education, he or she will move directly into the secondary school (Gymnasium). This is certainly one of the most nerve-wracking times for parents. However, the teacher's recommendations are not final and the parents make the ultimate decision.
It is important to remember that the German school system is not a one-way street and there are many opportunities to transfer between tracks. If the parents overrule the teacher's recommendation and place their child in a higher school track, the student must earn the grades required to remain at that level. Similarly, a student who performs well in a lower track can transfer to the next-higher track.
Hauptschule and Realschule
The lowest track in the German education system is the general school (Hauptschule). It starts with the fifth grade and goes through to the ninth grade. A Hauptschule is a school where students prepare for occupations that require vocational training. They also continue learning basic subjects, as well as English.
A Realschule is more advanced than the Hauptschule. Here students learn the basic subjects that will prepare them for a mid-level job in business or a technical trade. If a student has performed well in the Realschule, he or she can also transfer to the Gymnasium after grade 10. There have been a number of reforms in recent years. In Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, the Hauptschule has been merged with the Realschule into a new comprehensive school called Realschule plus. In Baden-Württemburg, a Werkrealschule has been created which finishes with the tenth grade.
This school is the highest level of secondary education in Germany and prepares students to enter the university. The Gymnasium lasts eight to nine years and students learn German, math, physics, chemistry, geography, biology and history, among other topics. Students are required to take a foreign language starting in the fifth grade. This is usually English, but in select schools Latin or French are also offered. Students specialize in certain subjects in their final years. In their last year, students take a week-long series of exams to obtain their Abitur, the diploma which qualifies them for university admission.
The comprehensive school (Gesamtschule) combines the Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule. First introduced in the 1960s, this type of school allows students to develop their skills and take special courses, so that they can then choose between the university track (Gymnasium) and intermediate schools (Hauptschule or Realschule).