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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

‘It works’: Your verdict on the German health insurance system

Getting to grips with German health insurance can be tricky for foreigners. We asked readers what they think about it, and what improvements they'd like to see.

'It works': Your verdict on the German health insurance system

Along with registering as a resident, another task you have to check off when you move to Germany is setting up health insurance. 

In fact since 2009, getting health insurance has been a legal requirement for every person with a permanent place of residence in Germany.

Most people in Germany – around 86 percent of the population – are part of the statutory public healthcare system (Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung, GKV). It means that contributions are split between the employer and employee, and are deducted from employees’ salaries automatically.

People with private healthcare insurance (Private Krankenversicherung, PKV) usually pay contributions to the health insurance firm directly. 

In our recent survey on attitudes to German health insurance, almost 87 percent of around 40 respondents said they were insured via the statutory system. 

But just how does the whole system stack up in the eyes of foreigners?

READ ALSO: The three new services covered by health insurance in Germany

‘As good as the best’

Our readers painted a mixed picture. But most of the respondents to our survey – 65.8 percent – said they were largely satisfied with their German health insurance provider, while 23.7 percent said they were not happy. Just over 10 percent said they weren’t sure. 

David, 74, in Hechingen said the German health insurance system works well. “I have lived in the UK, the US, NZ and various other EU states,” he said. “The German system is as good as the best. Much better than the US system, less creaking than the UK NHS.”

Another reader Rebecca, 49, who is based in Berlin, praised the system. 

“I recently had to be referred to see a consultant and it was quick and easy,” she said. “I can also get doctor’s appointments relatively quickly.”

A doctor's waiting room.

A doctor’s waiting room. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

Others took a slightly less enthusiastic view.

Eric Cloutier, 40, in Berlin said: “Like everything in Germany, (health insurance) is needlessly involved, comically bureaucratic, and involves a mountain of paperwork in the year 2022, but… it works.”

Some respondents said the system was a lot better for people in employment, but was stressful and expensive for the self-employed. 

Rosemary Hardy, 72, in Hamburg, said: “It’s fine as long as you’re employed, but the minute you turn freelance it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Another reader said they wished Germany had a system more like the NHS in the UK, which is free to access at the point of contact. 

Thumbs up for English-language services

One theme that came up a lot was services in foreign languages. Some of the larger Krankenkassen , such as Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) and AOK, offer advice in English. 

Andrew Walker, 53, who lives in the Karlsruhe district, said: “TK has English speakers accessible by phone. They helped me navigate the system when I needed an urgent specialist appointment.”

He gave the health insurance system the thumbs up but said: “It is more expensive than many think, especially if you are a freelancer”.

For a 29-year-old reader in Berlin, the struggle to find an English speaker has been difficult. 

“Being an international guy, I need an English-speaking partner, but AOK always says their special English-speaking staff are busy,” he said.

On its website, AOK says it offers 24/7 “expert English-language support”.

Several readers urged health organisations to expand their English advice service.

Jaton’ West, in Berlin, who is with private insurer DKV, said: “As a foreigner, it would be helpful if they offered support in English. They were perfectly happy to converse with me in English when selling me the policy, but not in giving me service. Since it is a private insurance, that means there’s a greater likelihood that they will have foreign customers and many speak English, so it would be useful.”

A 42-year-old in Frankfurt also said he’d like to see all health insurance apps enabled so that they can switch to English as well as German. 

Wlademir, 32, in Offenbach said he would like to see “more services and more English providers”.

What doesn’t work about the health insurance system in Germany?

Several respondents said they were unhappy about the access to services through insurance.

One reader flagged up how hard it has been to get mental health support with their insurance. 

READ ALSO:

Others mentioned gender issues – for instance contraception is generally not covered by insurance in Germany because it is viewed as a lifestyle choice. 

“I paid hundreds of euros for my IUD, and am just about to pay 50 for an internal ultrasound due to pain, additionally I have to pay for a pap smear screening,” said one reader.

A health insurance card.

A German health insurance card. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/BKK Mobil Oil | gettyimages/Lothar Drechsel

Luna, 41, in Berlin who has private health insurance, said women’s healthcare in Germany was “shockingly conservative”.

“I am required to use a plan with maternity cover (I’m child-free by choice), yet birth control is not covered and I have to pay out of pocket for that because it is considered a lifestyle choice,” she said.

“It has a more expensive monthly premium than the plan without maternity cover. Isn’t having a child in today’s world just also a lifestyle choice? I’m a non-EU citizen on a visa, and was told I was required to have the maternity cover included in order to qualify for a visa renewal. So I am paying a little extra each month and also for my contraception.”

READ ALSO: Do Germany’s planned changes to abortion laws go far enough?

Albina, 29, in Hamburg said the queues for getting appointments with specialists were too long and “doctors don’t prescribe medicine very willingly”.

A few other readers said they couldn’t work out why some services were not covered by health insurance.

“I don’t understand how they decide what should and shouldn’t be covered by insurance. You pay so much health insurance that you expect basic things like treatment for skin infections to be covered,” said a 33-year-old reader in Frankfurt. 

One reader said he wished basic health insurance included dental cover. 

What else could be improved?

Along with the points already mentioned, a few readers said they would like to see more holistic services.

Eric Cloutier, 40, in Berlin said: “Evolve a little to include some of the more holistic things, but also expand in to acupuncture and osteopathy a bit more.”

Andrew in Karlsruhe also wants to see improvements: “It is still lagging behind in its accessibility online and non-traditional means. It’s very hard to get access to health records using the TK system and I’ve heard its no better with other providers.

READ ALSO: Why more than 20 million people in Germany face higher health insurance costs

According to readers, public insurance works better than private, particularly because private insurance can end up being super pricey in the event of illness or as you get older. 

And once more, the issue of paperwork cropped up being a problem.

A 35-year-old in Berlin said: “Private insurers do not have the level of integration that the public ones have. If you have a private health insurer, you have to do a lot of invoices back and forth.”

Dell, 30, in Nuremberg said public health insurance works well because it doesn’t “break your bank”.

“Also private health insurance will be very costly,” he said. “So it is very wise to stick with public health insurance if you want to live Germany for long term.”

Judy, 73, Rheinland-Palatinate said there are positives to being private but in the end it is very expensive. 

“If you are not privately insured, waiting times to see specialists are incredibly long,” she said, adding that it is “almost impossible” to change over to the public system if you are private. 

“This possibility (to change) is urgently needed as the rates for private insurance rise every year,” she said. 

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Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with us. Although we weren’t able to include all the submissions, we read each of them and are sincerely grateful to everybody who took the time to fill in the survey.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please get in touch.
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