Skip to main content
European Commission logo
EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of primary education


5.Primary education

5.1Organisation of primary education

Last update: 27 March 2024

Geographical Accessibility

One of the responsibilities of the Länder in their education policy is to maintain a sufficiently varied range of schools. As the highest school supervisory authority, the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs of each Land is therefore concerned with establishing the base for an efficient school system. Accordingly, present and future school needs and school locations are identified in a school development plan drawn up at Land level or at the level of the school-maintaining body. The establishment of plans for developing schools is regulated by the Education Acts in some Länder.

The Kommunen (local authorities), i.e. the municipalities, districts and municipalities not being part of a district, must, in their capacity as the maintaining bodies of public-sector schools, ensure that a well-balanced choice of education is available in their area. This means that school development planning is a task of the local authority maintaining bodies, which identify the school capacity required and determine the location of schools. The plans of each of the local authorities must be established on the basis of mutual consultation and approved by the schools' supervisory authorities, in most cases by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs. The exception to this is Bayern, where schools are generally established by the Land in consultation with the local authorities.

Regional differences in the number and geographical distribution of schools depending on the type of school result from the number of children and youths of school age, demographic forecasts, the voting behaviour of parents, the economic and social situation in the region or school planning stipulations of the competent authorities.

Admission Requirements and Choice of School

Choice of school

In order to complete general compulsory schooling, pupils must, in principle, attend the local Grundschule (primary school). In Nordrhein-Westfalen and Schleswig-Holstein parents have been free to enrol their child in a Grundschule other than the one nearest their home. In Berlin, admission to a primary school other than the one in nearest their home may take place according to the availability of places. In Sachsen, children can apply to attend a school other than the local one, provided the school confirms the existence of an important reason. School maintaining bodies have the right and duty to establish school districts for elementary schools. In some Länder, maintaining bodies can establish overlapping or joint school districts for several elementary schools. For lower secondary schools, catchment areas can be defined.

Start of compulsory schooling

Compulsory schooling starts on 1 August for all children having reached their sixth birthday before a statutory qualifying date. Following the resolution of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz) of October 1997 entitled "Recommendations on starting school" ('Empfehlungen zum Schulanfang'), the Länder can set the qualifying date between 30 June and 30 September. They can also make provision for the possibility of starting school during the course of the school year. The aim of the recommendations was to reduce what are, in part, high deferment rates and to encourage parents to send their children to school as early as possible. The strengthening of the collaboration between day-care centres for children and primary schools in most of the Länder serves the same purpose. Offers of flexible school entrance phases are being further developed.

Early entrance

All children who have their sixth birthday after the statutory qualifying date as determined by the Länder may be permitted to start school early on their parents' application. Compulsory schooling for such children starts with their admittance.

Deferment of schooling

The conditions for a deferment of school attendance or a postponement of the start of school are regulated differently in the Länder. In most Länder a deferment is possible in exceptional cases if support in a school environment is not expected to create conditions more favourable to the child’s development. In some Länder a deferment of schooling is possible only on health grounds.

In the majority of Länder, the children involved may take part in pre-school educational programmes (Schulkindergarten, Vorklasse, Grundschulförderklasse). In Berlin and Brandenburg, the attendance of a pre-school educational institution for children whose schooling has been deferred is obligatory. If a flexible school entrance phase is in place, where teaching is provided across grades, and which pupils complete in minimum of one year and a maximum of three years, there is no deferment of schooling in some Länder.

Age Levels and Grouping of Pupils

Primary school pupils (aged six to ten, in Berlin and Brandenburg six to twelve) are normally taught in classes according to age. Lessons are taught in classes organised by grade; in some Länder classes are also organised across grades. In the first two grades especially most lessons are taught with just a few teachers, particularly the class teacher. It helps pupils become accustomed to school life if they can relate to a small number of teachers rather than having different members of staff for each subject. The principle of class teachers is used to ensure a certain combination of education and teaching, and a consistent pedagogical approach and makes it easier to respond to pupils' individual needs. From grade 3 onwards the children in the majority of the Länder increasingly encounter subject teachers, which helps them prepare for the transition to secondary school where subject teachers are the rule. In addition to lessons according to age group, individual Länder provide teaching for mixed age groups for the first two years of school in particular. In these cases, pupils can pass through the first two years of school in one to three years, depending on their own individual progress.

Organisation of the school year

With a five-day school week, teaching takes place on 188 days a year on average (365 days minus 75 days holiday, minus ten additional free days, minus 52 Sundays and 40 Saturdays). As a rule, in Länder with a six-day school week, there are two Saturdays per month on which no lessons take place. In this case, the number of days on which lessons are taught increases to 208 (365 days minus 75 days holiday, minus ten additional free days, minus 52 Sundays and 20 Saturdays). However, the total number of teaching hours per year is the same regardless of whether teaching is carried out on the basis of a five-day or six-day week, since the lessons which are held on a Saturday in the six-day week are distributed among the other weekdays in the five-day week.

In accordance with the "Agreement on the Common Basic Structure of the School System and the National Responsibility of the Länder in Central Questions of Educational Policy" (‘Vereinbarung über die gemeinsame Grundstruktur des Schulwesens und die gesamtstaatliche Verantwortung der Länder in zentralen bildungspolitischen Fragen‘), the school year begins on 1 August and ends on 31 July. The actual beginning and end of the school term depend on the dates of the summer holidays. Summer holidays have been restricted to the period between mid-June and mid-September for educational, organisational and climatic reasons. Pursuant to an agreement of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder, the six-week summer holidays are fixed within this period in accordance with a rota system, whereby the Länder take turns to have the summer holidays later or earlier. The long-term agreement adopted by the Standing Conference in December 2021 lays down the dates of the summer holidays for all Länder until 2030. Under the rotating system, the Länder are divided into five groups each with about the same population. Apart from the summer holidays, there are shorter holidays which the Länder decide annually on the basis of certain principles and their own considerations. These minor holidays fall at Easter and Christmas. The teaching administration can fix a shorter holiday at Whitsun and in autumn, and authorise individual variable holidays to take account of special local situations. The total annual duration of school holidays is 75 working days.

Organisation of the School Day and Week

In grades 1 to 4 of primary education pupils attend lessons for 20 to 29 periods a week. In most Länder there are 20 to 22 periods in the first year, rising to 27 in the fourth (final) year of primary education. As a rule each period lasts 45 minutes. Lessons are usually held in the morning, with up to six periods a day.

The weekly teaching periods laid down by the Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder for the different types of school may be distributed over five or six days in the week. As a rule, in Länder with a six-day school week, there are two Saturdays per month on which no lessons take place. In most Länder, the responsible Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs has introduced a five-day week for all schools. In some Länder, the Schulkonferenz (school conference) may decide the number of days in the school week.

In the primary sector, lesson times are laid down from 7.30/8.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. or 11.30 a.m. (Monday to Friday or Monday to Saturday) for the so-called reliable half-day primary school (verlässliche Halbtagsgrundschule).

Provision of all-day education and supervision and supervision of pupils outside lesson times

Changes in children’s living conditions have meant that the development and education of pupils before and after lessons as well as in the afternoon have become more important in the primary school too. All-day supervision and care in particular for children aged between six and ten is provided through intramural offers as well as in after-school centres (e.g. Horte) run by the public child and youth welfare services. Intramural all-day education and care offers are to be organised under the responsibility of the head staff and are implemented in many places in cooperation with partners from outside school such as the maintaining bodies of child and youth welfare services or bodies maintaining cultural education, youth sport clubs and parents associations. The pedagogical efforts concentrate on a close spatial and content-related cooperation of the partners.

All Länder are currently expanding their provision of education and care for children outside lesson time. A growing number of primary schools have introduced fixed opening hours (approximately 7.30 a.m. to 1.00/2.00 p.m. depending on local conditions) so that parents can be sure their children are cared for even outside compulsory lessons. This involves amended school and teaching concepts, and offering activities which complement lessons and are run by non-school bodies. The children are looked after, amongst others, by qualified employees and part-time staff who as a rule are paid by the maintaining bodies providing the care, which also cover the material costs. Parents are normally expected to pay a charge for such services, the actual amount depending on their circumstances. This extra supervision is subject to the consent of the school supervisory authorities in some Länder, particularly where there are provisions for subsidies by the Land. The primary school with fixed opening times (verlässliche Grundschule) and the primary school with guaranteed support and surveillance are currently being further expanded.

Schools can be set up and run as all-day schools. All-day schools enable individual, performance-differentiated, subject-related and social learning of pupils through an extended range of offers and contribute to an increase in educational success.

The nationwide and demand-oriented expansion of all-day schools in all types of schools is a priority goal of the Länder and represents an essential contribution to the future-oriented further development of the education system. With the expansion of all-day care in schools and of programmes in cooperation between schools and child and youth welfare services, the Länder are meeting new social and educational challenges such as improving the compatibility of family and work, increasing equal opportunities and participation in school and society and supporting parental educational work. By participating in all-day school programmes, pupils should be sustainably supported in the development of their cognitive, social and motivational competences.

In all-day schools, an all-day option is provided for pupils pursuant to the nationwide definition of the Standing Conference on the primary or lower secondary level on at least three days a week, comprising at least seven hours daily. There are three different forms:

  • in the fully bound form, all pupils are obliged to make use of the all-day offer;
  • in the partially bound form, part of the pupils (e.g. individual class units or grades) commit to making use of the all-day offer;
  • in the open form, the all-day offer is made available to the pupils on a voluntary basis; registration is usually binding for half a school year.

All-day offers are to be organised under the supervision and responsibility of the head staff and to be carried out in cooperation with the head staff. The activities should be conceptually linked with the lessons. Typical extracurricular offers include learning and practice offers, study periods, homework supervision, learning support and inclination offers, study groups, recreational activities, periods used by the class teachers to settle class business. All-day schools provide a midday meal on the days on which they offer all-day supervision.

Open all-day schools also include those offers that

  • provide an all-day option for pupils on at least three days a week comprising at least seven hours a day;
  • provide a midday meal for all participating pupils on every day on which all-day schooling is offered, 
  • the all-day offers are organised under the supervision and responsibility of the school head and are carried out in close cooperation with the school head as well as being conceptually related to the lessons.

The sharp rise in the number of schools offering all-day activities is reflected in the report Allgemeinbildende Schulen in Ganztagsform in den Ländern in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland – Statistik 2018 bis 2022 that is available on the website of the Standing Conference. An internet portal provides information on the development of all-day offers in the Länder and the current empirical accompanying research.

In the school year 2022/2023, 73 per cent of all public and private primary schools were Ganztagsschulen. A total of 49.6 per cent of all primary school pupils were involved in all-day education – an increase of 0.9 percentage points over 2020. Most of the all-day primary schools in Germany operate in the open form.

The Act on the All-Day Support of Children of Primary School Age (Ganztagsförderungsgesetz – GaFöG) will gradually introduce a legal entitlement to all-day care for children of primary school age from the school year 2026/2027. The legal entitlement will initially apply to the first grade level and will be extended by one grade level each year. From 1 August 2029, every primary school child in the first four grades will have an entitlement to all-day care for eight hours a day on working days. The child's entitlement to support in day-care facilities is deemed to be fulfilled to the extent of the time spent in lessons as well as the offers of the all-day primary schools, including the open all-day primary schools. The GaFöG also stipulates that, in future, data on the extent to which children of primary school age make use of extra-curricular activities will be collected in the official statistics.

Against the backdrop of the nationwide implementation of the legal entitlement to all-day support and care from 2026, in October 2023 the Standing Conference "Recommendations for the further development of the pedagogical quality of all-day schools and other all-day education and care services for children of primary school age" (‘Empfehlungen zur Weiterentwicklung der pädagogischen Qualität der Ganztagsschule und weiterer ganztägiger Bildungs- und Betreuungsangebote für Kinder im Grundschulalter‘). The twelve recommendations provide impetus for the further development of the quality of formal, non-formal and informal learning throughout the day and specify what pedagogical quality includes. For example, the guiding role of children in the design of the provision, the importance of well-being and positive pedagogical relationships, strong cooperation between professions and stakeholders based on a common understanding of education, the connection to the living environment and social space as well as a needs-based room concept and healthy lunchtime meals are highlighted. The recommendations are intended to make a substantial contribution to using the extended time frame of all-day schools and other all-day education and childcare services in an educational way and thus provide children with extended learning opportunities.