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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of private education


2.Organisation and governance

2.4Organisation of private education

Last update: 26 March 2024

In all areas of education there are also, to a greater or lesser extent, privately-maintained institutions. Institutions which fall under this category are those at pre-school level, which are assigned to child and youth welfare, schools and higher education institutions, as well as adult education institutions. The fact that state and non-state institutions exist side by side and cooperate with each other guarantees not only choice in terms of the educational programmes available but also choice between various maintaining bodies, which promotes competition and innovation in education. Through their maintenance of educational establishments, churches and other groups within the community help shape both society and the state.

Early childhood education and care

The education, socialisation and care of children up to school age takes place mainly in privately-maintained day-care centres. Book Eight of the Social Code (Achtes Buch SozialgesetzbuchKinder- und Jugendhilfe – R61) gives priority to institutions run by non-public bodies (churches, welfare associations, parents' associations etc.) in the interests of providing a diverse range. The local maintaining bodies of public child and youth welfare should only establish their own institutions if non-public bodies do not offer suitable recognised institutions or cannot set them up in time. As a result of this principle, around 67 per cent of day-care centres in Germany were run by non-public bodies of the child and youth welfare services in 2023.

Day-care centres for children which are funded by local authorities or non-public bodies are subject to public supervision by the responsible bodies for the public child and youth welfare services at Land level. This is generally exercised by the youth welfare offices of the Länder (Landesjugendämter). Maintaining bodies for youth welfare services from the private sector receive financial support from the Land as well as from the local authorities (Kommunen) to run day-care centres (e.g. for operating costs and investments).

Privately-maintained schools

The right to establish privately-maintained schools is guaranteed by the Basic Law (Grundgesetz, Art. 7, paragraph 4) and, to some extent, by provisions in the constitutions of the individual Länder. This freedom to establish privately-maintained schools is associated with an entitlement to state subsidies and a guarantee of the privately-maintained school as an institution. Thus, constitutional law rules out a state monopoly of education. The proportion of privately-maintained schools varies considerably from Land to Land and between the different types of school. The main legal provisions for the establishment of privately-maintained schools are the relevant provisions in the Education Acts and the special laws on privately-maintained schools, as well as financial aid regulations in the form of laws and regulations of the Länder. Standard framework conditions in the Länder are guaranteed by an Agreement on Private Schools (Vereinbarung über das Privatschulwesen) of August 1951 drawn up by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz).

Under the Basic Law, privately-maintained schools are also under the supervision of the state. When establishing a privately-maintained school, general legal requirements must be observed first of all, for instance with regard to building and fire safety regulations, health protection and protection of children and young people. The personal suitability of maintaining bodies, managers and teachers also has to be vouched for.

Primary sector

In the primary sector, privately-maintained schools may only be established on very strict conditions (Art. 7, paragraph 5 of the Basic Law). Their establishment is permitted only where the school authority finds that they serve a special pedagogical interest or where – at the request of parents – they are to be established as Gemeinschaftsschulen (non-denominational schools), denominational schools or schools pursuing a certain ideology and no public-sector primary school of that type exists locally. Privately-maintained primary schools are therefore the exception; in almost all cases they are either denominational primary schools, Freie Waldorfschulen (Rudolf Steiner schools), reformist schools and schools with a bilingual and international profile, primary schools with an integrated boarding facility or schools of the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein.

Secondary sector

At secondary level two types of privately-maintained school are to be differentiated:

  • Ersatzschulen (alternative schools) are, in terms of their overall purpose, to serve as a substitute for a public-sector school which already exists or is essentially provided for in a Land. They must acquire state approval. At these schools compulsory schooling can be completed. However, these alternative schools, in their capacity as, for example, denominational schools, reformist schools, schools with a bilingual and international profile or boarding schools may also fulfil an educational mission of their own.
  • Ergänzungsschulen (complementary schools) are to complement the range of courses on offer from public bodies by offering types of education which do not generally exist in public-sector schools, above all in the vocational sphere. Complementary schools merely have to notify education authorities that they plan to start up. Under certain conditions, the school authorities can, however, also prohibit the establishment and operation of a complementary school.

State approval of Ersatzschulen

The criteria for approval of Ersatzschulen (alternative schools) are laid down in the Basic Law (Art. 7, paragraph 4). Such approval is given by the competent education authority of the respective Land on condition that privately-maintained schools are not inferior to public-sector schools in terms of their educational aims, their facilities and the training of their teaching staff and that they do not encourage segregation of pupils according to the means of their parents. Approval shall be withheld where the economic and legal status of the teaching staff is not adequately secured. The school supervisory authority must monitor whether the criteria on the basis of which approval was granted are being respected and can withdraw approval if these criteria are no longer being met.

The named individual prerequisites for state approval of privately-maintained schools as alternatives to public-sector schools include:

  • the equivalence of educational aims:

As far as the equivalence of the educational aims of private schools and the corresponding school type in the public sector is concerned, strict adherence to the approved teaching hours and curricula of public-sector schools is not required. The private school can pursue religious or ideological educational aims and may use its own teaching methods.

  • the equivalence of facilities:

This involves aspects such as school equipment on the one hand, and issues relating to school organisation on the other. Although schools must have equivalent buildings and equipment, differences are permitted in the organisation of privately-maintained schools (e.g. management by staff, particular rights of participation for pupils and parents).

  • the equivalence of teacher training:

The teaching staff must have an academic education and teaching qualifications comparable to those provided by the state system of teacher training; in practice, most teachers have completed state teacher training courses.

  • teachers economic and legal security:

A contract of employment is required, covering duties, conditions for resignation or dismissal, holiday entitlement, sufficient emoluments and a right to future pension payments. In this way it should be ensured that teachers at privately-maintained schools are not in a significantly worse position than teachers at public-sector schools in terms of economic and legal security.

  • no segregation of pupils according to means:

Under the Basic Law (Art. 7, paragraph 4) pupils should be able to attend alternative schools regardless of their economic means. School fees may be charged but must be socially equitable. State-approved alternative schools therefore only charge moderate fees or guarantee relief to pupils whose parents are of limited financial means (e.g. reduction in school fees, reduction for additional siblings attending the same school). Details on the financing of privately-maintained schools may be found in the section on the funding of early childhood and school education.

State recognition of Ersatzschulen

In almost all Länder, state approval of a private school as an Ersatzschule (alternative school) does not automatically give that school the right to hold examinations and award leaving certificates corresponding to the qualifications gained at public-sector schools. The pupils concerned may only receive these through an external examination (Nichtschülerprüfung, Schulfremdenprüfung), i.e. an examination before a state examining board at a public-sector school.

Only state recognition permits the alternative school to hold examinations in accordance with the regulations in force for public-sector schools and to award certificates; state recognition thus confers the legal powers enjoyed by public-sector schools on the alternative school. A prerequisite for this recognition is that the conditions already required for approval are fulfilled on a permanent basis (operation of school without complaint from school supervisory authority), and that the regulations applicable to public-sector schools are applied to the acceptance of pupils and their transfer between school grades, as well as to examinations.

The approval or later recognition also involves several additional rights and obligations for the Schulträger (the body maintaining the school), and for teachers, parents and pupils. These include, for example, a fundamental right to public funding from the Länder for the school from the time a free school is approved or, in most Länder, after a waiting period of two to three years. Public funding for pupils of public-sector schools is used as a yardstick for funding directed at pupils of Ersatzschulen. Teachers may also be granted sabbatical leave to work at recognised alternative schools and have these years included in their years of teaching service. They bear titles like those conferred on teachers in the public sector; and schools can train student teachers. On the other hand, recognised schools in some Länder are also obliged to abide by public-sector school provisions relating to Schulordnung (school regulations), provision governing council meetings and rights to participation.

State-recognised institutions in the tertiary sector

The Länder laws governing higher education (Hochschulgesetze) stipulate what minimum requirements have to be satisfied if non-public institutions are to be recognised as institutions of higher education by the state.

The Länder alone are responsible for awarding recongnition to non-public institutions. On behalf of the German Science and Humanities Council (Wissenschaftsrat) carries out institutional accreditations of non-public institutions within the framework of recognition procedures. Institutional accreditation is a procedure of quality assurance which is to determine whether an institution is capable of providing study courses which according to legislation belong to the sector of higher education. Within the framework of the accreditation procedure, thus is to be examined and established whether standards of quality are fulfilled. These standards result from the requirements laid down in the Länder laws governing higher education and shall be related to the individual profile of the institution to be recognised. Official recognition by the respective Land, as a rule,  is dependent on proof of that the non-public higher education institution is of equivalent status (not identical in form) to state higher education institutions. Therefore there is a whole list of points where the non-public institution must prove that it satisfies the demands, the standards and the performance of a comparable state institution. Furthermore, it must also be ensured that those belonging to the institution of higher education have at least a minimum level of co-determination in teaching and research matters. Recognition involves establishing the designation and organisation of the higher education institution, as well as the courses of study and examinations it plans to offer and the award of higher education degrees.

While the number of state-run and state-recognised institutions of higher education has remained relatively constant in recent years, the number of students has risen steadily. As at the 2023 summer semester, according to the German Rector’s Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz – HRK), there were a total of 422 state-run and state-recognised institutions of higher education in the Federal Republic of Germany. These include 1549 – mainly small – state-recognised institutions of higher education maintained privately or by the Churches.

Berufsakademien (professional academies) are governed by regulations specific to the Länder. Whilst the professional academy is publicly maintained in Sachsen, the Berufsakademie laws in Hessen, Niedersachsen, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein only provide for the existence of exclusively state-recognised professional academies, which require the approval of the relevant Land ministry. The Hamburg Berufsakademie law facilitates the establishment of state as well as state-recognised institutions. In Baden-Württemberg and Thüringen, the state Berufsakademien have been converted into the duale Hochschulen (dual institutions of higher education). Sachsen plans to transform the Berufsakademie Sachsen into the Duale Hochschule Sachsen on January 1, 2025.

Privately-maintained institutions providing adult education and training

The continuing education schemes on offer cover a broad spectrum of courses in continuing general, political and cultural education and continuing vocational training, which are supported by a diverse range of institutions – state and private-sector, non-profit-making and profit-oriented, in-company and public – and of institutions attached to the Protestant and Catholic Churches, the trade unions and other social groups.