Compulsory school attendance and costs
In Germany it is compulsory to attend school: children must attend school for 9 years. In some federal states, compulsory school attendance also applies to children whose residence status is unclear. A school year begins in August or September and continues until June or July, depending on state. Children usually attend state-funded schools. Nobody pays school fees. There are small charges for copies, materials or outings. In private schools you have to pay school fees.
There are different types of school. All children attend elementary/primary school from the age of 6 or 7. After 4 years the children go to a secondary school. There is quite a variety of secondary schools. The primary school will often advise as to which school your child could attend when he/she is ready to transfer. There is the Hauptschule (vocational secondary school; 5-9th grade), at this school you can do a Hauptschulabschluss final school certificate, or one which qualifies you to continue your education. In the Hauptschule there are also practical subjects such as wood/metalwork or technical drawing. A higher level of school than this is the Realschule (intermediate secondary, 5-10th grade), at this school you do the Realschulabschluss (secondary school diploma). After the Hauptschule or Realschule you can learn a profession. Then there is the Gymnasium (grammar school; up to 12th grade). Here you can do the Abitur, which then qualifies you to study at university. At a Gymnasium you often learn 2 or 3 foreign languages, such as English and French.
In some states they have the Gesamtschule (comprehensive school). This combines the Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium in a single building. If a child wants to move schools, for instance from the Hauptschule to the Realschule, it is easier. It is possible to change if the schools are separate as well, but it isn’t as straightforward. Every state also has bilingual schools, special schools, specialist academies and vocational colleges.
In most schools, lessons finish at midday or in the early afternoon (2 or 3pm). After that children can go to the after-school childcare centre. They can stay there for the afternoon. They will be fed and helped with their homework. But you have to pay for the after-school daycare centre. All-day schools are also on the increase. Children spend the whole day in these schools, usually until 4 or 5pm.
The children learn many subjects in school. This includes PE lessons. At primary school they often are not taught in gender groups. So boys and girls do PE together. There are often swimming lessons as well. Most schools have Christian religion lessons. But you can opt out of religious studies, and attending the lessons is not mandatory. Ethics is offered as an alternative, and in some schools there is tuition in other religions (for instance Islam or Judaism).
School students usually go on a class trip once a year. It is usually 3-5 days. The class travels to a different city or location together. There are also field days. The children go on an excursion together. Doing this enables them to learn about history, culture and nature. The schools also stage school festivals. These feature play performances or concerts by pupils for instance.
Every school has parent representatives – i.e. parents who work together with the school. There are parents’ evenings several times a year. The parents are given important information by the teachers at these evenings, and have an opportunity to get to know each other. They can also make an appointment with a specific teacher for a private meeting. This is a parent consultation. This can be done if there are problems in school. Or maybe the parents want to find out how the child is doing at school.
Education is compulsory in Germany. This means that children have to go to school for 9 years. Refugee children also have to attend school but they have to wait several weeks before they can do so. The exact length of the waiting period is determined by the respective federal state. Sometimes it may take just a few weeks, but occasionally it may take up to six months. The prerequisite is that you are no longer staying at the initial reception centre. Once you are living in your allocated centre, your children can go to school.
You can get help at the Residents’ Registration Office [Einwohnermeldeamt]. Your contact person will contact a suitable school. After that you will be able to visit the school and meet the teachers.
Children and teenagers who don’t speak German will initially be in a separate class where they will study German and learn about the German culture. These are so-called welcome classes or transition classes designed to make the start at a German school easier. The teachers will be happy to provide support and gladly answer questions.
Attending school is free for refugee children. If your children have to take the bus to get to school, for example, they don’t have to pay for it. School lunches, field trips, books, pencils and notepads are also free. The school will pay for it. To get this type of financial support you will have to fill out several documents. You can get more information at your town hall.
Frequently asked questions
Do I have to register my child at a school?
Children in Germany have to go to school. In some federal states even children whose residential status is unresolved have to attend school. Normally you have to register your child several months before school starts. It’s a good thing for your child to have a German school-leaving qualification. In Germany children have to attend school until 9th grade (age 15-16) or 10th grade (16-17) in some federal states.
When does my child have to go to school?
Children go to school from the age of 6 or 7. Young children do not usually have any problems with the new language. If children do not yet speak good German, there is often special courses available for them to learn German in school.
Can I teach my children at home?
How long is a school day?
Lessons start between 7:30 and 8 am. At primary school they finish at 11 or 12. In the other schools, classes mostly continue until 1 pm, sometimes longer. There are also all-day schools, where they have lessons until about 4 pm. Children can often do their homework at school and are given something to eat. That’s good if you work. All-day schools are available for all school types.
My child would like to go to university. Which school should he/she attend?
Ideally a Gymnasium. They can take their Abitur examinations here without transferring school. But your child can also do the Abitur later, after a different school-leaving qualification, or switch to a Gymnasium at a later point.
Additional information for asylum seekersPlease contact your local resident registration office (Einwohnermeldeamt). Your contact person will contact a suitable school.
Children and teenagers that do not yet speak German will at first be grouped together in their own so-called transitional classes. Not every grammar school offers such transitional classes. In this case, children may have to go to another school.
Anyone who is 16+ years old is usually assigned to a vocational school.
More information about the German school system can be found at the BAMF:
Federal Office for Migration and Refugees: School system
We are new to Germany and my child does not speak German. Can he/she attend a German school?
Yes. Small children learn the language quickly. There are transition classes or special courses in school for learning German.
Can I choose a school?
Not always. There are primary schools even in smaller communities. So your child has to attend school there. That means he or she will also make friends who live locally. Not everywhere has a secondary school. In that case it is important to find a suitable school nearby.
Additional information for asylum seekersWhen looking for a suitable school, the local resident registration office (Einwohnermeldeamt) is responsible for meeting your needs. Your contact person will contact a suitable school. Afterwards you can get to know the school and the teachers.
Can my child travel to school on the school bus?
There is usually only a school bus if the school is in a different town. Within a town, children will have to travel to school on public transport, for instance on the bus or underground. The school is frequently nearby, and your child can walk.
Will my child be given anything to eat?
Not every kindergarten provides meals for the children. In that case your child will have to take a packed lunch. Kita daycare centres usually offer a hot meal though. The best thing is to ask when you register your child at the kindergarten.