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What to know about the different types of schools as an expat parent in Germany

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What to know about the different types of schools as an expat parent in Germany
The German Grundschule offers a standardized curriculum for all students. Photo: DPA
15:46 CEST+02:00
Whether you're looking to fully integrate your children into the German education system, keep them in an international environment, or perhaps a bit of both, we spoke to expat parents in Deutschland to discover how they went about choosing a school for their kids.

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Growing up in the US to parents from Haiti, Rose-Anne Clermont was used to a multilingual, multicultural upbringing, and wanted the same for her three children in Germany.

Married to a German and having lived in Deutschland for many years, she also wanted to keep American traditions alive. Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day are two holidays observed by her kids’ international school in south Berlin.

With classes taught nearly half and half in English and German, the Gymnasium (university-track secondary school) for her 12-year-old twins her 14-year-old also offers different styles of teaching in each language.

Classes in the German language led by German teachers are more structured around a set curriculum, whereas the classes in English taught by American teachers tend to be more creative and experimental, Clermont says.

The different types of schools in Germany

Whether in Germany for a couple years or a few decades, many expats parents are still scratching their heads over the most beneficial type of education for their offspring. Whether public or private, all German schools are open to foreigners with the non-surprising caveat being that the language of instruction is usually primarily in German.

Public and private schools

Both public and private schools in Germany offer several educational pathways, with each state of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer responsible for its school types, school calendar and subject matter. From the first through fourth grade, all children attend a Grundschule, which boasts a broad general curriculum.

But starting in the fifth year - depending largely on their academic achievement and parents’ final say - children can attend a Hauptschule or Realschule. In these two types of schools kids take vocational classes combined with vocational training. Another option would be for them to attend a Gymnasium, which is more academic-oriented and prepares children for an Abitur (a school-leaving certificate which leads to a university).

Private schools operate similarly: unlike in the USA or the UK, German Privatschulen receive most of their budget from the government, with each state putting a cap on how much they can charge parents.

In 2010, a court in Stuttgart ruled that its Privatschulen can’t ask for more than €150 a year, although the differently categorized international schools, religious schools and boarding schools (Internat) often have much heftier fees.

By 2012, there were 3,500 private schools in Germany, according to the German Office of Statistics. The German Association of Private Schools offers a comprehensive listing of the different private schools on offer throughout the country.

The first Waldorf school in Germany, founded in Stuttgart in 1919. Photo: DPA

International and bilingual schools

Germany’s international schools, which are mostly private, offer English as the main language of instruction and can cost upwards of €16,000 per high school student per year. Preschool and elementary grades cost about 30 to 50 percent less.

There are around 200 international schools in Germany, according to the Association of German International Schools, with 85 percent of their students coming from expat families. They differ from bilingual schools, which often have a mainly German student body who also seek to learn in the mother tongue of one or both of their parents.

American expat James Poisso and his wife decided to enroll their children in a private school in Wiesbaden with classes in both German and English and German is the primary language of instruction. Yet unlike at the international school their kids attended previously, the Poissos belonged to one of the few foreign families at the private school; 90 percent of the kids at the Wiesbaden school are German.

“When they opened in the 1960s, there was a large American population here thanks to the military and they decided to start teaching German children English as a portion of their normal studies. And so they continued to do that,” Poisso says.

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International and especially bilingual schools can also be public, especially in larger cities. Berlin is particularly unique for such schools encompassing many languages, including even a French-German school, founded in 1689 for the children of persecuted Huguenot children during the Prussian empire.

Italian parent Daniel Mosseri was drawn to these zweisprachige (bilingual) public schools for his young children, who are currently enrolled in one of them. “Compared to other capital cities, Berlin is unique in the number of its bilingual public schools,” says Mosseri. “Choosing a public school here was a no-brainer.”

An Abitur is given to students who pass their final exams, usually at a Gymnasium, allowing them university entrance. Photo: DPA

Choosing a school based on the child's length of stay in Germany

For many parents, opting for a state school over an international school makes the most sense if they plan to stay in Germany long-term and want their children to speak and study in fluent German - particularly if they are at an early age where reading and writing in the new language will come more easily.

“We thought, if we’re living here, we should treat our lives as we would in the US,” says  Poisso. “That means making sure our children have the best opportunities available to them and education is part of that.”

For parents with high-school aged children who are likely to return to their home country for university, an international school - especially with education criteria recognized by their home countries - could be a sound idea.

This option also makes sense for expats who move frequently, as international schools offer globally-recognized educational programmes, including the International Baccalaureate (IB) and US-recognized AP classes, with some also offering the German Abitur. They boast more extracurricular activities such as sports teams or an art club, which could better accommodate parents who have taken a full-time job. At most state schools, by contrast, classes for pupils end in the early afternoon.

Other private schools furthermore have a curriculum catering to a child’s interests, be it Waldorfschulen, which focus on creativity and the arts, or Montessori schools which base their teaching on the principles of child development. A key thing to note is that homeschooling is illegal in Germany.

Yet opting for a public school is not necessarily dependent on the length of the stay in the country.

Despite her family staying in Germany for only two years on a work contract, Cristina Sharpe decided to enroll her daughter at a public bilingual kindergarten instead of an international school.

“We felt it was important for her to learn the language, and there she was able to learn the language and interact with the local kids,” says Sharpe.

When the family returns to Florida, Sharpe says she plans to continue keeping her daughter involved with German language and culture, be it through local playgroups with German families or playing her German audiobooks.

“I think [a public school] has really given her an advantage,” says Sharpe,”not just with the language but also the culture and how to interact with other cultures in general.”

One of the many diverse subjects taught at a German public school. Photo: DPA

Keeping traditions from home alive

For some expat parents, the emphasis on interacting with other cultures - whilst keeping their own going - is particularly why they gravitate towards an international school, which accepts pupils from nursery age to university entrance level.

Growing up bilingual - and being able to speak a third language due to it being required at the school - has become a norm that will give them advantages for cultural understanding and the job market, US expat Clermont says.

“In Europe you need to speak at least two languages,” Clerment says. Many international schools like the one her kids attend are still public, with children needing to take a language test before they can be accepted.

Poisso adds that parents should also keep in mind the differences in the German system of education compared to international schools or the systems in their home countries.

When Poisso was about to enroll his daughter into the third grade, her private school suggested she repeat that year due to her German language and math skills which needed to be improved. At the time, Poisso's daughter had just learned her multiplication tables - a skill German children typically learn at a younger age - at her previous international school.

The expat dad says it was worth it for the long run to switch his two children from the international school they attended during their first two years in Germany to a private school.

Through studying primarily in the German language with mostly German peers, and with a structure that prepared them better for the Gymnasium, he felt they would better be able to integrate into the culture and educational system.

“We did look at continuing at the international school and realized that the only reason we would do so would be out of familiarity," says Poisso. “We realized our children would not get the most out of living in Germany by going to an American/English style school."

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