Free schools, free meals but high schools harnessing two different student pools – how good is the German school system?

- Anna-Sophie Romahn , Pokhara

     Anna-Sophie Romahn     
     Monday August 16, 2021

The German school system is different in several aspects from the ones in other parts of the world. The school system is dominated by the public schools. There are different school systems for the students who have different performances in their elementary (i.e. primary) school education and have shown their potentials of their learning efficiency in the elementary schools. This is one of the special features of German school system. I would like to take you through a short guided tour about the Germany school system hereafter.

Figure: Location of Germany (Left) and Hamburg (right)

Different school systems in Germany

In Germany, children start going to the kindergarten when they are between 1 and 3 years old.
Starting by the age 6 or 7, they go to elementary school. Here they learn German, Math, English, physical education, and factual lessons. However, the school system in Germany differs depending on the federal state. I live in Hamburg, which is in northern Germany.

After 4 years of elementary school (grade 1-4), the children are sent to one of the two different schools for their further study. The school options are: The Gymnasium or the District schools (Hauptschle/Realschule). Gymnasium is a secondary school for grades five through twelve/thirteen. The district schools are more practical (secondary) schools for grade five to grade nine or ten. The schools are resided in different buildings located in different parts of the city/town. But in some federal state, a combined school system of all the three options also offered.

The two systems have their different teaching/learning environments and opportunities. The Gymnasium provides higher education opportunities and opens the door for universities. In the district school the children have different options. With the lower and middle graduation, they learn more practical skills. After achieving their graduation at a district school, it is mostly common to visit the Vocational schools (Berufsschule). The students learn about one special job. After finishing this school, they can call themselves, for example, a professional wood carpenter and are allowed to perform the job.

How the school system is decided for a child?

The decision on the school systems for a child is taken mainly based on the grades and potentials of the children to learn. A rigorous discussion is held among the child, his/her parents and school teachers while making the decision on the school for further study. For example, if the child has achieved a high grade, and proven he/she as a quick learner or has the potential to do such, the child is recommended for Gymnasium. Otherwise, the next option is district schools.

Peoples’ opinion differs about the schools systems

Some Germans prefer a single and same school system for everyone. They argue that a child develops in different pace, so it is unfair to have this separation at this early age. The separation may set the development path of the children back. Furthermore, one school system may improve social skills of the children. The quick learning children could help the slower learning ones, which improves the empathy.

Dividing children into “smarter” and “not so smart” pools would affect the psychology of the child who is decided to be in “not so smart” pool. This might lead a humiliation in those who must go to the district schools. Especially in year 4 of elementary school, the decision to change the school based on so called grades and ‘potential’ (which is very subjective to define) may be a great shock for a child.

There are also people who support for the system of two schools. According to them, the ‘slower’ children would prevent the ‘quicker’ ones from developing their potential. According to them, difference in school system would provide the best learning environment and opportunities to everyone.

Talking for myself, I can say how much I enjoyed going to the Gymnasium. The lessons in the elementary school were too easy and the Gymnasium finally boosts up my interests. I was the only one from my elementary class who went to the Gymnasium. In contrast, I must admit that it must have been hard for some of my classmates. The biggest problem I see in “one school for everyone”, that the teacher should have to address different needs at once. This needs highly qualified, trained, and competent teachers.  The teachers should be highly passionate and motivated too. There might be a problem to have such a large pool of teachers to serve the schools throughout Germany.

Moreover, I would prefer if the students can chose their schools according to their interests, rather based on his or her grades in the elementary schools.  From my point of view, there is nothing wrong with “only” graduating from a district school and being a carpenter or a painter. As long as the person is happy with what he or she is doing for his or her living, that meets his or her interests, and providing the services to the rest of the world and nature in his/her the best possible way, the so called ‘recognition’ (a cleaning person, a craftsman or a professor) is not relevant to me.

Learning system and environment

Often children work together in small groups with up to 4 pupils. They work out on tasks together and present their results by the end of the lesson. School starts between 8 AM and 9 AM and finishes at 4 PM. The students eat lunch at school. After the lunch the children do their homework, which is often followed by playing in groups or join other extracurricular activities.  

Besides the classrooms, most of the schools have a big canteen (Mensa) for lunch, a gym for physical fitness and several specialized sections (rooms) for laboratories, arts, music and so on. There are occasionally 25- 30 students in a classroom.

One lesson normally lasts for 90 minutes. There is sometimes a 5-minute break during a lesson. Between the lessons, a break of 15- 30 minutes is mostly common.

Lower costs and subsidies for have not

The costs for the kindergarten are very low. They are calculated individually based on the family’s income. For school, only books and other materials need to be purchased. For families with a lower income, it is possible to gain special financial support with school supplies. Free lunch is available for the children from lower- income families.

Germany has the extensive public school system

Majority of the German students attend public schools. However, there are some private schools as well. Still 90% of the German children go to the public schools. So far I am aware; this is contradictory to the school systems in the most of the countries in the global south, where student attendance in the private schools has been increasing over the years.

However, public schools are being criticized increasingly about their educational level compared to private ones. Parents are afraid that their children wouldn’t get the best possible education in public schools.

I am graduated from a public school in Hamburg. I am happy with my secondary school education which helped to enter University of Hamburg with no difficulties. Currently, I am pursuing my degree in bio-resources at the University of Hamburg. Many thanks to Germany Government who have been investing a lot to maintain a high quality in public schools which continuously encouraging parents to send their children to public schools.

(Anna-Sophie Romahn is a former school teacher and is studying bio-resources at University of Hamburg. Currently, she is working as a Research Assistant at Institute for World Forestry, Hamburg. Travelling, hiking, and walking with Anton (her dog) are her hobbies.)

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