The German Education Model

Secondary school in Germany

Based on a student's academic performance, teachers' recommendations and parents' preferences, a student will enter one of the different types of secondary schools in Germany:

  • Gymnasium – for academic students;

  • Realschule – for intermediary students;

  • Hauptschule – for less academic students;

  • Gesamtschule – a comprehensive school combining all education types;

  • Schools where the Hauptschule and Realschule curricula are amalgamated

In theory it is possible to change from one type of school to another, depending on the student’s grades.

> Gymnasium

Gymnasium education is required for anyone planning on tertiary education. Most academic students will go on to study at a Gymnasium between the ages of 10 and 18 (years 5 to 13). There are 32–40 hours of lessons a week and lots of homework. They will study a broad range of subjects at a high standard, including two compulsory foreign languages (often English, French, Spanish, or Latin) plus sports, music and art lessons. Students can also choose to take more advanced 'honours' courses (Leistungskurse).

In general, a student who fails more than two subjects will have to repeat the whole school year.

In year 11, students enter the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, a two-year course in preparation for the final examination. Some subjects, such as mathematics and German, are compulsory; students can choose others. The Abitur, or 'Abi', is the final exam and the qualification needed to enter a German university.


Realschule is a school for intermediary students who attend between the ages of 10 and 15/16 for five years (years 5 to 10). This is the most common form of secondary education, and while it is below Gymnasiumeducation, it can still offer a high academic standard. They study a range of subjects, including a compulsory foreign language; students can opt for a second language (usually French).

Studies culminate in a Realschulabschuss diploma which allows students to take training courses leading to vocational qualifications, an apprenticeship in a commercial trade or the medical profession, or further courses leading to higher education. Upon graduation, academic achievers can transfer to a Gymnasium to continue their studies if they wish to enter university.

Realschule covers the basic subjects to prepare students for mid-level jobs in businesses. After attending a vocational school, students learn skills that put them in the middle strata of business and industry. Salesmen, nurses, mid-level civil servants, secretaries, and so forth generally have been to Realschule.

> Hauptschule

Hauptschule is a vocational school for less academic students aged between 10 and 15 or 16. There are five compulsory years (5–9) but students can choose to stay on for year 10 if they wish. It is generally considered the least demanding of the secondary school types but is highly appropriate for those wishing to enter a trade or an apprenticeship in certain industrial sectors.

Students receive a basic general education with a focus on mathematics, computer science, German and one compulsory foreign language (usually English), plus vocational skills. It essentially covers the same subjects as the other secondary schools, but at a slower pace and with some vocational orientation. At the end of year 9 they receive a Hauptschulabschluss leaving certificate or diplomaIf students stay on for year 10 they are given an extended Realschulabschluss.

After graduation, students can enter an apprenticeship (Lehre) in a manual trade and continue with part-time studies at a vocational school or Berufsschule until they are 18. Academic achievers may be able to transfer to a Gymnasium if they want to obtain the necessary level required to enter university.

> Vocational schools (Berufsschule)

After the Hauptschule and Realschule, the Berufsschule combines part-time academic study with an apprenticeship. At the end of years 9 and 10 pupils who want to work in certain professional or vocational jobs can combine part-time education and on-the-job training for two to three years at these schools:

  • Berufsfachschule – full time vocational school;

  • Berufsaufachschule – extension vocational school;

  • Fachoberschule – technical school;

  • Berufliches Gymnasium/Fachgymnasium – vocational upper level of gymnasium;

  • Fachschule – advanced technical school. 

Students can undertake a range of work-directed studies, such as economics and specific business studies, usually related to an apprenticeship. The successful completion of an apprenticeship program can lead to certification in a particular trade or field of work.

After full-time vocational schooling, students in years 10 to 12/13 receive the Zeugnis der Fachgebundenen Hochschulreife, which also gives them access to higher education.

> Gesamtschule and integrated schools

Past efforts to create a more inclusive education system saw the creation of additional school types that offer more than one secondary education stream. There were mixed reactions to the success of this, and not all states offer this.

In some parts of Germany, there are schools amalgamating the Hauptschule and Realschule curricula (they have different names in each region, for example Mittelschule, Regelschule and Regionalschule) where students can take either qualification. There are also comprehensive schools called Gesamtschule open to all students. Students are streamed according to their ability within the school. At the end of year 10 they can leave with a Hauptschulabschlus diploma and go on to take an apprenticeship (Lehre), go to a vocational school, or stay on for a further three years to take the Abitur for university entrance.

After completing compulsory secondary schooling, students can consider their options for higher education in Germany.