The education system in the Federal Republic of Germany is divided into
- early childhood education
- primary education
- secondary education
- tertiary education
- continuing education
Early childhood education and care
Early childhood education is provided by institutions catering for children until the age of six at which they usually start school. Children of school age who have not yet attained a sufficient level of development to attend a school have a further option in some Länder, namely Schulkindergärten, Vorklassen and Grundschulförderklassen. These institutions are either assigned to the early childhood or the primary sector according to the particular Land. Attendance is usually voluntary, although in most of the Länder in question the authorities are entitled to make it compulsory.
A detailed description of the elementary sector is provided in the chapter on early childhood education and care.
As a rule, general compulsory schooling begins for all children in the Federal Republic of Germany in the year in which they reach the age of six and involves nine years of full-time schooling (ten years in Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen and Thüringen; in Nordrhein-Westfalen, depending on the duration of the educational path, full-time compulsory education lasts nine years or ten years. Those young people who do not attend a full-time general education school or vocational school at upper secondary level once they have completed their period of compulsory general schooling must still attend part-time schooling (compulsory Berufsschule attendance – Berufsschulpflicht). This usually lasts three years, according to the duration of training in a anerkannter Ausbildungsberuf (recognised occupation requiring formal training). For pupils who do not attend a general education school at upper secondary level or enter training, some Länder have regulations under which pupils are required to remain in full-time education and attend some sort of vocational school.
Children and young people with disabilities are also required to attend school and complete their compulsory education. On the basis of their sonderpädagogischer Förderbedarf (special educational needs), they are either taught in mainstream schools together with non-handicapped pupils, or in sonderpädagogische Bildungseinrichtungen (e.g. Förderschulen, Förderzentren, Schulen mit sonderpädagogischem Förderschwerpukt, sonderpädagogische Bildungs- und Beratungszentren). In recent years, based on a changed understanding of disability and the principles of participation and accessibility, the responsibility of general schools for all children and young people with and without disabilities has been emphasised. Since 2007, the proportion of pupils with special educational needs who are taught at sonderpädagogische Bildungseinrichtungen has been falling, while the proportion of pupils with special educational needs who are taught at general schools has been rising significantly. For detailed information on special needs education in special education institutions, see the corresponding article.
Compulsory schooling involves regular attendance of lessons and other compulsory school events. Both pupils and parents are responsible for seeing that this obligation is met and training companies are also responsible for ensuring that their trainees fulfil their obligation to attend vocational school. The school head checks on attendance records and can, if necessary, enforce attendance through various measures against the pupil, parents or the training company.
For children of school age, the child and youth welfare sector also offers before-school and after-school care options, as well as full-day school offers.
As a rule, in the year in which children reach the age of six, they are obliged to enter primary education. Pimary education comprises grades 1 to 4 or 1 to 6 (Berlin and Brandenburg). It is provided in primary schools and as part of comprehensive school types.
A detailed description of the primary sector is provided in the chapter on primary education.
Transition from primary to secondary education
The transition from the Grundschule to one of the different lower secondary school types where pupils remain at least until the completion of their full-time compulsory education is dealt with differently depending on Land legislation. The vote of the school which the pupil is leaving is taken as a basis for the decision or as guidance in the decision regarding the pupil's future school career. This is accompanied by detailed consultations with parents. The final decision is taken either by the parents or the school or school supervisory authority. For certain school types, it is dependent on pupils demonstrating a certain level of ability and/or on the capacity available in the desired school. For an overview of regulations specific to the various Länder with regard to the transition from the Grundschule to lower secondary education, see the website of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (Kultusministerkonferenz).
The secondary level of education follows on from the primary level and ends after grades 9 or 10. It is conducted at various types of school that lead to the First School Leaving Certificate (Erster Schulabschluss) or the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate or prepare for attendance of the gymnasiale Oberstufe.
In addition to the qualification designation which is uniform across the Länder, specific qualification designations of the Länder can also be shown as equivalent on the certificate.
The types of school in lower secondary level are divided into three categories:
- School types with a course of education leading to the First School Leaving Certificate or the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate or the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Abitur),
- schools leading to the First School Leaving Certificate and the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate, or
- school types leading to the First School Leaving Certificate, the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate and the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Abitur).
The lower secondary school system is characterised by the principle of permeability, i.e. all types of schools offer either within the respective type of school itself or via suitable connections the path to the First School Leaving Certificate, to the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate as well as to the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification.
Once pupils have completed compulsory schooling – generally when they reach the age of 15 – they move into upper secondary education. The type of school entered depends on the qualifications and entitlements obtained at the end of lower secondary education. The range of courses on offer includes full-time general education and vocational schools, as well as vocational training within the duales System (dual system). The majority of the Länder offer the following general education and vocational schools, with some forms specific to individual Länder:
General education schools:
- School types leading to the First School Leaving Certificate, the Intermediate School Leaving Certificate and the General Higher Education Entrance Qualification (Abitur)
- Berufliches Gymnasium
A detailed description of the secondary sector is provided in the chapter on secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education.
The tertiary sector encompasses institutions of higher education and other establishments that offer study courses qualifying for entry into a profession to students who have completed the upper secondary level and obtained a higher education entrance qualification.
The Federal Republic of Germany has the following types of higher education institutions:
- Universitäten, Technische Hochschulen/Technische Universitäten, Pädagogische Hochschulen, Theologische Hochschulen
- Kunsthochschulen and Musikhochschulen (colleges of art and music)
- Fachhochschulen/Hochschulen für angewandte Wissenschaften
Additionally there are a number of special higher education institutions which only admit certain groups, e.g. higher education institutions of the Federal Armed Forces and Verwaltungsfachhochschulen, and are not considered below.
Those with a higher education entrance qualification may also choose to enter a Berufsakademie offered by some Länder as an alternative to higher education. At state or state-recognised Studienakademien (study institutions) and in companies students receive academic but, at the same time, practical career training.
The Fachschulen and the Fachakademien in Bayern are institutions of vocational continuing education that, as a rule, call for the completion of relevant vocational training in a anerkannter Ausbildungsberuf (recognised occupation requiring formal training) and relevant employment. The qualification level achieved here is comparable to the first level of the tertiary sector in accordance with the International Standard Classification of Education ISCED.
A detailed description of the tertiary sector is provided in the chapter on higher education.
Continuing education and further learning are becoming increasingly important with the present demographic development. In terms of lifelong learning, institutionalised continuing vocational training addresses the further development of individual qualifications as well as individual reorientation relative to the qualification. The development, recognition and certification of competences will become more and more important in future, as will new, non-formal learning. Continuing education encompasses the general, vocational, academic and socio-political domains in equal measure. Their interactions are on the increase, particularly in view of the development and transfer of competences in the sense of lifelong further learning.
In response to the vast range of demands made on continuing education, a differentiated structure has been developed. Continuing education is offered by municipal institutions, in particular Volkshochschulen, libraries, music schools and youth art school, as well as by private institutions, church institutions, the trade unions, the various chambers of industry and commerce, political parties and associations, companies and public authorities, family education centres, academies, Fachschulen, institutions of higher education and distance learning institutions. Radio and television companies also provide continuing education programmes.
A detailed description of the continuing education sector is provided in the chapter on adult education and training.