Primary and secondary education in Germany

In all federal states of Germany, pupils from the age of 6 attend primary school, the Grundschule.

Primary education

  • : 4 years in most federal states, 6 years in Berlin and Brandenburg.
  • Content: primary education (Primarstufe).

Secondary education

Secondary education consists of 2 stages:

  • lower secondary education
  • upper secondary education

Lower secondary education

In Germany, lower secondary education is usually called: Sekundarstufe I. However, some federal states may have a different name. Students start lower secondary education when they are 10 or 12 years old. This depends on the duration of primary education in the federal state.

There are different types of schools at which students can follow lower secondary education, such as:

  • Gesamtschule
  • Gymnasium
  • Hauptschule
  • Realschule

Students from a Gymnasium do not conclude lower secondary education with a diploma. If they have good study results, they will continue on to upper secondary education at the Gymnasium. Students from other schools do conclude lower secondary education with a diploma. They usually take exams for the Mittlerer Schulabschluss, but the diploma may also have a different name. The diploma name depends on the federal state.

Upper secondary education

Upper secondary education is usually called: Sekundarstufe II. However, some federal states may use a different name. Students can obtain 1 of the following diplomas:

Mittlerer Schulabschluss (or a different diploma)

The Mittlerer Schulabschluss is the lower secondary education diploma. Some federal states may use a different name.

  • Duration: usually 6 years (Klasse 5 - Klasse 10), 4 years in Berlin and Brandenburg (Klasse 7 - Klasse 10).
  • Content: often general education subjects, sometimes a combination of general education and vocational subjects.
  • Function of the diploma: access to upper secondary education.
  • Diploma: Mittlerer Schulabschluss. The diploma may also have a different name, such as:
    • Abschlusszeugnis der Klasse 10 der Hauptschule
    • Mittlere Reife
    • Realschulabschluss
    • Sekundarabschluss I

We compare a Mittlerer Schulabschluss to a diploma.

We compare a Abschlusszeugnis der Klasse 10 der Hauptschule to a VMBO-T diploma.

We compare a Mittlere Reife to a VMBO-T diploma.

We compare a Realschulabschluss to a VMBO-T diploma.

We compare a Sekundarabschluss I to a VMBO-T diploma.

Fachhochschulreife

After having completed upper secondary education at a Fachoberschule, students can obtain the diploma Fachhochschulreife. Some federal states have a different name for Fachoberschule.

  • Duration: usually 2 years (Klasse 11 and 12).
  • Content: general education subjects and vocational subjects.
  • Admission requirements: a lower secondary education diploma, such as a Mittlerer Schulabschluss. Students with a vocational education diploma can start in the 2nd year (Klasse 12) of the Fachhochschulreife study programme.
  • Function of the diploma: access to higher professional education. The diploma does not give access to research-oriented higher education. For an explanation of these types of education, see Higher education in Germany.
  • Diploma: Fachhochschulreife.

We compare a Fachhochschulreife to a diploma.

Please note: students can also obtain a Fachhochschulreife by completing a vocational education programme after lower secondary education. The vocational study programme must have a minimum duration of 2 years and it must have sufficient general education subjects. This Fachhochschulreife has the level of a HAVO diploma as well.

Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife

Students obtain the diploma Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife if they pass the Gymnasium exam, the Abitur. Upper secondary education at a Gymnasium is often called Gymnasium or gymnasiale Oberstufe. However, some federal states may use a different name.

  • Duration: usually 2 years (Klasse 11 and 12), sometimes 3 years (Klasse 11, 12 and 13).
  • Content: general education subjects (allgemeinbildenden Fächer). Students usually take exams in 5 subjects, sometimes 4. They have to choose 1 subject from each of the following subject clusters (Aufgabenfelder):
    • Mathematisch/naturwissenschaftlich/Technologie (mathematics/natural sciences/technology);
    • Sozialwissenschaftlich (social science);
    • Sprache/Literatur/Kunst (language/literature/art.
      For the other 2 exam subjects, students have to choose from the subjects German, a foreign language and mathematics.
  • Admission requirements: students need to have completed lower secondary education at a Gymnasium. Or they need to have another lower secondary education diploma, such as the Mittlerer Schulabschluss, with good study results (Qualifikationsvermerk).
  • Function of the diploma: access to research-oriented higher education and higher professional education.
  • Diploma: Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife. This diploma is also called: Abitur.

We compare a Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife to a diploma.

Schulischen Teil der Fachhochschulreife

Students who have not completed the final year of upper secondary education of a Gymnasium, may apply for a Schulischen Teil der Fachhochschulreife. If they want to continue on to higher education, they first have to complete a vocational education programme or an internship. After that, they have access to higher profession education in Germany, but not to research-oriented higher education. Students then have the same rights as students with a Fachhochschulreife.

Zeugnis der Fachgebundenen Hochschulreife

After students have completed upper secondary education at a Berufsoberschule or a Berufliches Gymnasium, they take exams for a Zeugnis der Fachgebundenen Hochschulreife. Students can also take exams for this diploma if they completed Klasse 13 at a Fachoberschule.

  • Duration: 2 years (Klasse 11 and 12) or 3 years (Klasse 11, 12 and 13).
  • Content: mainly the same as the content of the Zeugnis der Allgemeinen Hochschulreife, but they do not take a 2nd foreign language as a subject. In addition, students often choose a subject cluster. This is usually called: Fachbereich. These are examples of subject clusters:
    • Sozialwesen (social sciences)
    • Technik (technology)
    • Wirtschaft (economics)
  • Admission requirements: these differ per school.
    • Admission requirement of the Berufsoberschule and Fachoberschule: a lower secondary education diploma, such as a Mittlerer Schulabschluss.
    • Admission requirement of the Berufliches Gymnasium: students need to have completed lower secondary education at a Gymnasium, or they need to have another lower secondary education diploma, such as the Mittlerer Schulabschluss, with good study results (Qualifikationsvermerk).
  • Function of the diploma: access to higher education.
    • Students can apply to higher professional education with any subject cluster.
    • Students can apply to research-oriented higher education with any subject cluster, but the subject cluster needs to be related to the study programme students want to follow.
  • Diploma: Zeugnis der fachgebundenen Hochschulreife. On the diploma, the subject cluster is also mentioned (if students have chosen one).

We compare a Zeugnis der fachgebundenen Hochschulreife to a VWO diploma.

Please note: for access to research-oriented higher education, German higher education institutions check the subject cluster students have chosen for this diploma. It needs to be related to the field of study, otherwise students will not be admitted.

Federal states

Germany consists of 16 federal states (Länder), each with its own Ministry of Education. The ministries of Education together form the Kultusminister Konferenz (KMK). You can find an overview of all the ministries of Education on the KMK website.

Each ministry largely determines the education policy of its federal state. As a result, the study programmes of federal states differ from one another, for example in terms of duration, content and diploma names.

For each federal state, you can look up the curriculum of primary and secondary education on the website lehrer-online (in German).

There is also a national (federal) Ministry of Education and Research, the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF). This ministry only draws up general guidelines for the ministries of the federal states.