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SCHOOLS

What foreign parents really think about German schools

It can be tricky for foreign parents in Germany to navigate the school system. We asked The Local readers to share their experiences.

Pupils at a secondary school in Heitersheim, Baden-Württemberg.
Pupils at a secondary school in Heitersheim, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

Aside from settling in to a new country, learning the language and the cultural differences, people with children have another aspect to figure out: school and education. 

This can be far from simple. In Germany, there are several different pathways for education which parents have to consider.

Germany has public and private education and the 16 states are responsible for its school types, school calendar and subjects. From the first to fourth grade, all children attend a Grundschule, which has a general curriculum.

But from the fifth grade children are sectioned off into different schools including 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 in a similar way. International schools – most of which are private – offer another path. 

Children with additional needs also have the option of attending other schools called Sonderschule or Förderschule if the family choose that route. These schools offer specially trained teachers. 

READ MORE: What foreign parents should know about German schools

Whether you’re thinking about having children in Germany, you’ve already got them or you’re just curious, here’s what foreign parents think about Germany’s schooling system. 

German state schools ‘not prepared for foreigners’

When we asked our readers about Germany’s education system, around 40 people got in touch with us to share their experience. The majority – about 76 percent – said their child or children went to German state school, about 15 percent went to international school and nine percent went to another private school. 

On the whole, German state schools were given the thumbs up by respondents to our survey. But there were calls for more tolerance to people with migrant backgrounds. 

Naidu, 42, in Ulm, said her offspring went to a German state school. She praised the school for having a “good curriculum” but said one of the negatives was that the grades are connected to German language skills.

She would like to see “more focus on foreign students who are less efficient in subjects because they are taught in German”.

Vanderson, 35, also praised the Berlin state school his child or children attend but said: “Schools aren’t prepared to deal with cultural differences, foreigners are treated with less leniency than their German peers.”

A road sign for a school in Bielefeld

A road sign for a school in Bielefeld. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

He urged for “more flexibility on the school’s side and better communication with parents”.

Marylin, 37, said the Bremerhaven state school her child attends is “nearby, affordable and friends from Kindergarten go to the same school”.

She said the negatives were that there is no food or canteen on offer, and everything is in German.

Marylin would like to see “more affordable bilingual schools” and that schools provide a canteen service.

Other readers said they would like to see more digital facilities in German schools. 

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

‘I wanted my daughter to learn German’

Lots of our readers praised state schools for helping foreign families settle into life in Germany. 

Fiona Boyd, 42, in Münster, said the local international school was too small and expensive, but that the German state school helps with integration.

“We wanted to join in with German life,” she said, adding that she likes the fact children are encouraged to walk to school independently from a young age. 

Pamela, 32, in Oberallgäu, said: “Teachers are very attentive and helpful even though we are foreigners – they go the extra mile to help! Integral for integration.”

Tim is based in Berlin and his son attends a state school.

“Previous experience of a Waldorf school was terrible and we wanted to give our son a more ‘normal’ school experience,” he said.

Tim praised the “very good all-round education” and said there was “good awareness of other languages and cultures”.

Scott, 37, in Bonn, said his family chose a state school. “I wanted my daughter to learn German,” he said. “We plan to stay for a long time.”

Children in a classroom in Osnabrück.

Children in a classroom in Osnabrück. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

William Kane, 43, in Oberkirch, said the state school his child or children attend has a “good quality of education, child friendly teachers” and “extended hours for working parents”.

He said the negatives are “old learning and teaching methods”.

Samira, 48, in Bonn praised German state schools for being “very open”, safe and with a good level of education.

Riaan Kritzinger, 62, in Burggen, Bavaria, said schools in Germany help children “get practical work experience before entering uni or the labour force”.

Questions over early segregation of children

One point that came up a few times is that children in Germany are sectioned off into different schools from the age of 10, which depends on their academic achievement and parents’ wishes. 

Seema, 37, in Bremen said: “I don’t like the fact the kids are divided into Gymnasium and Oberschule at a very early age. Like who can be so serious and responsible at the age of nine? I find it very ridiculous. All kids should be given equal opportunity and then their marks will decide what they will do.”

Scott in Bonn also questioned that “after group four I have to choose a school that will track my daughter”.

“That is way too early,” he said. “If that happened to me I would never have gone to university. I also think that Germany is in the middle ages regarding religion in schools. They seem to have no clue how exclusionary this practice is.”

Meanwhile, a few respondents flagged up that they wished lessons lasted most of the day or further into the afternoon rather than ending around lunchtime. 

Classes at German schools normally start between around 7.30 and 8.30am and typically end between 12noon and 1.30pm. 

What other options are out there?

Peter, 45, in Heidelberg opted for an international school because it teaches English along with German classes. 

He said there were still a lot of “language challenges for non-native speakers” in the school system and said it could be improved by more “language tolerance”.

Guneet, 35, in Berlin, also praised international schools for having classes that are “a mix of German and English”. 

Ewa P, 35, in Hennigsdorf, opted to use a private school because it had smaller class sizes (around 18 kids in a classroom) and there are English lessons from the first grade.

“It teaches kids to be independent and learn at their own pace,” she said. 

Member comments

  1. It’s very difficult for kids here unless they begin early. The teachers at some schools are almost oblivious as to how long it takes to learn the German language. They expect the kids to understand everything in “months”. All I can say is if your child is going to a public German school, take some time with them every evening to talk about school, what’s going on, and to practise their language skills.

  2. I see no mention at the article on Gesamtschule (which mixes Realschule and Gymnasium until class 10).
    Specially for people that comes with older kids or teens (older then 10 or 12), this provides a good alternative: you can integrate into a public German school, learn the language, learn the other subjects, and still find your way to the Abitur.
    The level of German proficiency that gymnasiums expect is _very_ hard for a kind that learned German 1 year ago.
    Also, I must say that I also find this split between students when they are 10/11 years awful.

  3. This is a much nicer review than what I have actually heard from my fellow foreigners- I think we all understand that German schools are great, educationally, but the way they split out kids young is very difficult on the children. German schools are a lot of pressure, with very little focus on the social emotional parts of growing up. I want my children to grow up as decent humans, not just well educated robots. I have seen children yelled at for writing a letter or a number top to bottom instead of bottom to top- you can’t see the difference once it’s done. They squash creativity out of the children from a young age and their methods are antiquated. Will they be well educated? Yes, but at what cost?

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Getting permanent residency can be a great way to secure your rights in Germany - but what's it like going through the application process? The Local spoke to readers about their experiences.

'Lack of transparency': What it's like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

For non-EU citizens living in Germany, permanent residence is often the go-to status when they decide to build a life here. For years, there have been strict rules that make it difficult to obtain dual nationality, so those who aren’t keen on losing their old citizenship can secure their rights by becoming permanent residents instead.

On the Make it in Germany website – set up by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – information in English states that most applicants simply need to fulfil a short list of requirements. They need to prove they know German, are well integrated, have a secure livelihood, and have held another residence permit for at least five years.

But how are these rules applied in practice, and how long does it take to switch from a temporary visa to permanent residence?

When The Local spoke to readers about their applications, we found hugely varied experiences for people on different types of visa and in different parts of the country.

“The requirements for permanent residency are clearly defined in the law,” said 27-year-old Manpreet J., who’s originally from India. “What is not defined is how to prove that they are met. This is where the problem begins.”

According to Manpreet, there are even different definitions of a secure livelihood in different regions. In Aachen, for example, a temporary work contract wouldn’t be enough to fulfil this requirement, while just 30km away in Heinsberg, it would.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

‘Bring everything you can think of’

Jaton’ West, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Berlin, found the criteria for accepting applications similarly inscrutable.

“We applied twice,” She told The Local. “The first time they only renewed our visa – no explanation as to why. We reapplied when it expired and were granted it. Seems like it’s a crapshoot and just depends on the whim of the person processing your application.”

For Jonathan in Nuremberg, the whole process was marked by a “lack of transparency” – starting with the fact that there was no available information, in English or German, about what documents would be needed during the process.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners' Office.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners’ Office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Six weeks after sending in his application for permanent residency, his local Foreigner’s Office emailed him to inform him that he would need 10 additional documents – including a German language test and integration test that he didn’t know he’d have to take.

With his residence permit due to expire in a matter of weeks, he was left with no time at all to find hard copies of all the other documents, let alone manage the 14-week turnaround for booking and receiving results for the tests. 

“The frustration is that I could have taken these tests anytime in the past year, if I had known that I needed them,” he said.

Düsseldorf resident Dmitry, 33, also received incomplete information about the documents he needed to provide – both on the website of his local Foreigner’s Office and in an email he was sent.

“As far as I recall, no list mentioned bringing the work contract, and the contract for the flat was also required. Finally, I had to provide them translations of my degrees, despite already having provided them for my Blue Card,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth bringing everything a person can think of.”

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is my British residency title the same as permanent residency in Germany?

‘Smoother than expected’ 

For the vast majority of respondents, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the application was the hardest thing about securing permanent residency.

Others said they had found it tricky to brush up their German skills to meet the B1 language requirement.

However, a number of people said they been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed their case workers had been and how simple the process was.

This was the case for 32 year-old Angela, who moved to Berlin from Colombia. 

“I prepared a lot of documents, but in the end all they checked was my salary and that I had contributed to the pension fund and Krankenkasse (health insurance),” she told us. “I don’t know why it was so easy for me – my intuition tells me higher income people have it easier.” 

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill.

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | arifoto UG

For 39 year-old Shila, who lives in Mainz, the experience of applying for permanent residency was similarly hassle-free. After emailing the Landesamt and her local case worker, she was given an appointment and a list of documents to bring with her. 

Despite the fact that she wasn’t able to supply a language certificate, the application was a success – and her case worker even offered to talk to her in English.

“It was in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but it was a very positive surprise to me after hearing all the bad experiences on Facebook groups,” Shila said.

The huge variation in experiences even extended to the amount of time it took for permanent residence to be granted.

While some lucky applicants managed to complete the whole thing within a month, others have waited as long as a year and a half – and in some cases are still waiting for an outcome. 

Easier with a Blue Card

Among those respondents who had an easier time, many told us they had originally come to Germany on a Blue Card – a special EU visa for skilled workers on high incomes.

Blue Card holders with basic German language skills are able to receive permanent residency after living in the country for just 33 months. Meanwhile, those with slightly more advanced skills (B1) can secure their permanent status after just 21 months.

Berlin resident Steven, 50, told us he was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’d only need an A1 language certificate, thanks to the fact that he’d been living in Germany on a Blue Card.

Others took advantage of the fast-tracked option and secured their B1 certificate in order to get a permanent residence permit after less than two years.

Adi Singh, 33, said getting a hold of permanent residence in Munich had been an incredibly smooth process – largely because he’d applied through his employer.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for citizenship or permanent residency?

With his B1 language skills, Adi was able to apply after just 21 months, and he received his card within just six months.

“I had one in-person appointment at the KVR close to the approval stage, but that was quick and short,” he said. “But they make it a point to speak to you in German, likely to establish that B1 level.”

Compared to the experience of applying for his Blue Card himself, Adi said applying via his employer had helped him avoid bureaucratic issues.

“I was fortunate to do it through my firm, and I would recommend that if your company does not apply for it for you, it is a good idea to hire an immigration firm that will do the process,” he advised. “It’s worth the time and energy saved.”

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