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EXPLAINED: What foreign parents should know about German schools

Pupils at their desks in a Munich school in September 2021.
Pupils at their desks in a Munich school in September 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel
It can be difficult to decide which type of school is best for your child when you're a non-German parent in the country. Here's a look at some of the options.

The different types of schools in Germany

Whether in Germany for a couple years or a number of decades, many foreign parents can be unsure about the most beneficial type of education for their children. One important thing to know is that whether you opt for public or private, all German schools are open to foreigners. You should keep in mind, though, that the language of instruction in most schools is usually primarily German, but not always. 

German schools are known for providing a high quality of education overall. 

In December 2019, Germany was among the top European countries in the a PISA report by the The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) measuring the abilities of students across the world – although performance had fallen compared to previous years.

Students in Germany scored above the OECD average in reading (498 points) as well as in mathematics (500 points) and science (503 points), but not quite well enough to place Germany among the top-performing group of countries. 

READ MORE: ‘Room for improvement’: How Germany’s schools compare to the rest of Europe

Public and private schools

Both public and private schools in Germany offer several educational pathways, with each state of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer (states) 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 be funnelled into 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, German Privatschulen receive most of their budget from the government, with each state putting a cap on how much they can charge parents.

READ ALSO: Three German states relax Covid mask rules in schools

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The costs of Privatschulen vary hugely depending on the type of school and can range from €50 to several hundred euros per month. Differently categorised international schools, religious schools and boarding schools (Internat) often have much heftier fees.

By 2019/20, there were 5,839 private schools in Germany, according to Statista. The German Association of Private Schools offers a comprehensive listing of the different private schools on offer throughout the country.

International and bilingual schools

Germany’s international schools, which are mostly privately-run, 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 dozens of international schools in Germany, with 85 percent of their students coming from expat families. They differ from bilingual schools, which often have a mainly German student body who are seeking to learn in the mother tongue of one or both of their parents.

READ ALSO: Where in Germany do all the Americans live?

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.

Some parents are drawn to these zweisprachige (bilingual) public schools so that pupils can enjoy and get fluent in two languages. 

The Association of German International Schools recommends that parents visit schools, learn about the curriculum and see what extracurricular activities they have to offer as well as how much parental involvement they have before choosing where your child will learn. 

An empty classroom in Hoyerswerda, Saxony. There's a lot to think about when choosing a school for your children.
An empty classroom in Hoyerswerda, Saxony. There’s a lot to think about when choosing a school for your children. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

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.

READ ALSO: Why private school enrolment in Germany is growing

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 recognised by their home countries – could be a sound idea.

This option also makes sense for expats who move frequently, as international schools offer globally-recognised 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 art clubs, 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.

Opting for a public school is not necessarily dependent on the length of the stay in the country. Some parents may feel it’s important for their child to interact with local children rather than expats in an international school setting. 

Other private schools 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. However, some groups and parents have been campaigning for that to change, particularly in light of the Covid pandemic when children were forced to learn at home. 


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