Full-time school attendance in Germany is free and mandatory from age 6 to age 14, after which most children either continue in secondary schools or participate in vocational education until the age of 18. Kindergarten is not part of the public school system, although before unification East Germany had a nearly universal system of childcare facilities. Under the treaty of unification, the East German public education system was required to conform to the model in use in West Germany. Education in Germany is under the jurisdiction of the individual state governments, which results in a great deal of variation. Most states in the former West Germany have a three-track system that begins with four years of Grundschule (primary school), attended by all children between the ages of 6 and 9.
After this period, a child’s further educational program is determined during two “orientation grades” (ages 10 and 11). Those who are university-bound then enter a track of rigorous preparatory secondary education by attending a highly competitive, academic Gymnasium (junior and senior high school). Many Gymnasium students leave school at age 16 to pursue business careers. Others graduate at age 19 after passing a week-long examination called the Abitur. If they pass, they receive a certificate, which is a prerequisite for entering a university. The Gymnasium has three alternative focuses: Greek and Latin, modern languages, and mathematics and science. Only about one-tenth of German students graduate from the Gymnasium.
The overwhelming majority of German students attend either a six-year Realschule (postprimary school), which offers a mixture of business and academic training, or a five-year Hauptschule (general school) followed by further skills training and on-the-job experience in a three-year vocational program, or Berufsschule.
From age 14 nearly all Realschule and Hauptschule students, both male and female, enroll in trade apprenticeship programs, which combine training in workshops, factories, or businesses with vocational schooling. Apprentices are supervised by a trade master and must demonstrate their mastery of the trade in examinations.
Since the German three-track system has often been accused of conforming to class distinctions, some states have opted instead for a comprehensive high school system that combines all the tracks within the same institution. The result is somewhat similar to an American high school, but far more competitive. Before unification, East Germany’s polytechnic high schools also provided a comprehensive program. Since 1990, East German education has moved in the direction of West German models.
The Abitur is required for university entrance but there are alternative routes to it. Some students are permitted to change from one kind of school to another during the course of their education.
Such midcourse changes are easiest at comprehensive high schools. Those who opt for three years of vocational training after tenth grade can also go on to specialized trade colleges, or Fachhochschulen. Schools of continuing education for adults, such as the many Volkshochschulen (German for “people’s colleges”), offer a variety of adult education courses and have some programs leading to diplomas.
Enrollments at German universities have quadrupled since the 1960s, which has caused the expansion of many old universities and the building of a number of new ones. Germany has quite a few venerable old universities, such as those of Heidelberg, Freiburg, Munich, Tübingen, and Marburg. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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