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Thank goodness we did this before 5th grade


You may have heard about the German system of tracking students.

Here in Bäden-Württemberg there are five different types of secondary schools that your child can attend after the 4th grade. Throughout Germany a student may attend a Hauptschule, a Realschule, or a Gymnasium, and here in Heidelberg, the student may also attend a Werkrealschule or a Gesamtschule. The Werkrealschule is like the Hauptschule but you can take extra courses to get a Realschule degree. The Gesamtschule is a comprehensive school that combines the curriculums of the Hauptschule, the Realschule, and the Gymnasium. So where does your kid go after finishing primary school? Certainly not just to the middle school down the road.

A simplified explanation of the German secondary school system is as follows. After 4th grade students attend secondary school depending upon their academic abilities. Teachers assess a student’s academic abilities based on general observations and grades. If grades and teacher recommendations are good enough the student attends Gymnasium, a college preparatory curriculum, from 5th grade until 12th grade. Completing Gymnasium and passing final exams gives you the Arbitur, a diploma needed to attend University. If grades and recommendations are not sufficient for Gymnasium the student enters a Hauptschule (grades 5-9) or a Realschule (grades 5-10). Both these types of schools provide a curriculum geared toward eventual vocational training, with the Realschule leading to more advanced vocational training (more schooling for more technical fields). This general system can vary across the 16 German states, or Länder. In some states, like here in Bäden-Wertenburg, the basic model is shifting.

I spoke with the parents of a Gymnasium student the other day who told me it was only last year that the state gave parents more say in what type of school their children attended after 4th grade. I got the impression that teachers’ recommendations remain critical and parents need to firmly communicate a desire for their children to go to Gymnasium. As it is with our high school diploma, without the Arbitur a child’s future educational and employment opportunities are limited. I wonder what the potential differing opinions of a child’s academic abilities do to the relationship between a teacher and the child’s parents? As you can imagine, many parents here want their children to attend Gymnasium – just think about defining your child’s future prospects at the age of 9 or 10!

The result, according to one of my daughter’s teachers, is the phasing out and closing of the Hauptschule, to be replaced by the relatively new Gesamtschule. The teacher I spoke with said the Gesamtschule is such a new entity that even she is confused as to what this new hybrid will accomplish. I can’t be entirely sure, but from what I’ve read the Gesamtschule takes kids of all abilities and allows interested students to move into a Gymnasium curriculum and eventually take exams leading to the Arbitur. Having just read of the Lawrence School Board’s goal to add more career training to the high schools, it strikes me that both Heidelberg and Lawrence are attempting to create more comprehensive secondary education facilities; Heidelberg attempting to give more kids a shot at a college-prep curriculum and Lawrence attempting to give more kids a shot at careers starting right out of high school.

Given the larger separation between vocational and university education in Germany, there does not appear to be discussion of career training per se at the universities like one hears in the U.S. Germany’s response may be the increasing establishment of many specialty institutions of higher education, particularly business schools.


Brian Laird 5 years, 6 months ago

It used to be that a student attended Gymnasium in Germany for 9 years,which would be 5-13. Has this changed?

ashworth 5 years, 6 months ago

Whether you attend Gymnasium for 9 years or 8 years currently depends upon the Länder (State). According to The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education, most of the Länder are transitioning to an 8 year curriculum.

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