In the Federal Republic of Germany, responsibility for the education system is divided between the Federation and the sixteen Länder (federal states). The Basic Law, constituted in 1949, defines the scope of the federal government's responsibilities at the national level and awards legislative powers to the individual Länder.
On matters of education, culture, and science, the Basic Law contains only a few fundamental provisions. For the school sector, it states that the entire school system is under the supervision of the state (Art. 7, Paragraph 1) (KMK 2014). Thus, according to the Basic Law, the predominant responsibility in the areas of education, science, and culture – the so-called cultural sovereignty – rests with the Länder (ibid.).
The principle of federalism evolved through German history and reflects Germany’s geographical structure. It is built on the federalism of the German Empire (1871-1918) and the Weimar Republic (1919-33) in constitutional terms (ibid.). Concerning legislation on education, it was the constitution of the Weimar Republic, set in 1919, that first defined educational guidelines at a central level rather than only by the individual states (Handschell, 2012). It specified a prevailing school legislation (Art. 143 to 149) with education policies defining the main characteristics of the education system (Mors 1986). The countrywide legal stipulation of general compulsory education (Art. 145, Paragraph 1 and 2) recommended free compulsory education for eight years, following vocational school and training until the age of 18. However, not all states and families complied with the school act and various forms of deviation occurred (Handschell 2012).
Principal ideas of the guidelines on compulsory education were adopted by the compulsory schooling act of the German Reich, set in July 1938 (ibid.). Additionally, it defined the entitlement to compulsory education to all children with German citizenship (Paragraph 1) and explicitly stated the obligation of school attendance (Paragraph 12). For the first time, sanctions for non-compliance with the guidelines on compulsory education were stipulated (Paragraph 14). The beginning of compulsory education was also standardised, namely starting for all children who reach the age of six before 30 June (Paragraph 2).
After the Second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany was created in May 1949, with the promulgation of the mentioned Basic Law, whilst the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was established in October 1949. Under the Basic Law, Western Germany handed legislation and administration of educational matters to the Länder, which according to Art. 123, Art. 128, and Art. 70 were entitled to either adopt the compulsory school act of the German Reich or establish their own school legislation (Mors, 1986). In contrast, the GDR established a generalised compulsory schooling act at a central level (1950; 1959; 1965; 1968), defining, among others aspects, ten years of compulsory education (1968, Art. 2, Paragraph 2).
The turning point towards a unified German state came with the GDR's accession to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990 (KMK 2014). On 3 October 1990, the Basic Law of 1949 became binding for the entire Federal Republic of Germany, which since then has been composed of sixteen Länder.
In order to coordinate cooperation in matters of education and training between the Länder, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs was founded in 1948. With the unification in 1990, the five eastern Länder set up their own Ministries of Education, Cultural Affairs, and Science, which also joined the Standing Conference (ibid.).
Organisation of the educational system
Over the course of time, the Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs in each of the Länder established independent legislations on the organisation of their educational systems. In addition to the legislations of the Länder, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs established mutual agreements on the standardisation of the education system in Germany (KMK 1964). Ever since, these mutual agreements ensure a common and more comparable basic structure in matters of education (KMK 2014).
Early childhood education and care “is not part of the state-organised school system in Germany, but almost exclusively assigned to the child and youth welfare sector” (KMK 2014: 100). Care is provided by institutions for children until the age of six. Institutions either offer separate care for children under three years of age and for those aged three to six, or occur as age-integrated institutions offering care for children up to age six. Alternatives such as child-minding services are considered equivalent options by law (OECD, European Union & UNESCO Institute of Statistics 2015). In general, attending early childhood education and care programmes is usually not mandatory.
Primary education commonly begins at the age of six and consists of four grades of schooling (in Berlin and Brandenburg, six grades). After primary school, children continue with lower secondary education. At the secondary level, there are various educational paths with respective leaving certificates and qualifications for which different school types are responsible (KMK 2014). In most Länder, children may continue grades five to ten at the Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, or Gymnasium (in Berlin and Brandenburg, grades seven to ten). Usually children are assigned to a lower secondary programme based on their academic achievement and school district (OECD 2011). Teachers give recommendations for the transition to a certain school type. However, the final school choice rests at the discretion of parents (ibid.). The German education system has been criticised for early tracking causing a high level of stratification and inequality (Bos et al. 2004; 2007), although “the ability to transfer between school types and the recognition of school-leaving qualifications is basically guaranteed if the preconditions agreed between the Länder are fulfilled” (KMK 2014: 31).
After lower secondary education, students proceed with upper secondary education. On the one hand, upper secondary programmes cover full-time general education schools, which usually comprise grades ten to twelve (OECD, European Union & UNESCO Institute of Statistics 2015). Such programmes are attended by students holding a lower secondary certificate with access to upper secondary education. Successful graduates of general upper secondary programmes receive the university entrance qualification, which entitles them to enter all forms of tertiary programmes, including university. On the other hand, upper secondary programmes cover vocational schools as well as vocational training within the dual system (ibid.). These are two to three-and-a-half-year forms of apprenticeships, which comprise education and training within schools and enterprises. After the vocational training, students receive the qualification of the dual system and either enter universities of applied sciences or the labour market.
The tertiary sector encompasses higher education institutions such as universities, universities of applied sciences, teachers’ colleges, and art academies that offer study courses qualifying for the entry into a profession (KMK 2014). Continuing education as part of lifelong learning constitutes an independent field of education and is offered by various types of public and private as well as religious and social institutions (ibid.).
All the school acts of the Länder specify compulsory schooling guidelines relating to the general structure, age ranges, duration, objectives, curricula, and modalities of formal requirements. Additionally, the previously mentioned mutual agreement of 1964 contains basic regulations on compulsory education defining nine years of full-time general compulsory education, with an optional extension to ten years.
The mutual agreement of 1964 furthermore standardised the beginning of compulsory schooling, starting on 1 August for all children who reach the age of six before the qualifying date of 30 June. This agreement on the beginning of compulsory schooling, however, changed in 1997 (KMK 1997; KMK 2001), permitting the Länder a more flexible organisation of the school year and a qualifying date which now may be set between 30 June and 30 September. The changes occurred aim to “reduce […] high deferment rates and to encourage parents to send their children to school as early as possible” (KMK 2014: 104).
In most of the Länder, the total duration of full-time compulsory general education is nine years. Only in five Länder does it amount to ten years. The federal school legislations of the Länder distinguish further between full-time compulsory general education and part-time compulsory vocational education.
Full-time compulsory general education covers primary education and lower secondary education. All children attend primary school between the ages of six to ten (in Berlin and Brandenburg, between the ages of six to twelve). The primary school’s role is to lead its students from more play-oriented forms of learning at the pre-school level to the more systematic forms of school learning. Lessons at primary school focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and one foreign language (OECD 2014), and subjects are usually the same for all. Full-time compulsory general education continues with the transition to lower secondary education, which is marked by the beginning of a more subject-oriented curriculum with an extended range of subjects (OECD 2014).
As a next step, students either proceed with full-time general education in upper secondary programmes or follow the subsequent period of part-time compulsory vocational education and training, which usually has to be attended for another three years (KMK 2014).
In some Länder, students who are not able to enter general education or vocational training at the upper secondary level are required to attend alternative forms of education (KMK 2014).
Children and adolescents with disabilities are also required to complete their compulsory education. Depending on the stage of their development and needs, they are either enrolled in inclusive mainstream schools or in separate special needs schools (ibid.). Regulations on compulsory schooling for refugee children without legal residency status differ across the Länder. However, in the majority of Länder, compulsory schooling for refugee children is explicitly mentioned in the federal law. Home schooling is rarely permitted in Germany; it is however the subject of controversial debates.
Compulsory schooling involves regular attendance and participation in lessons and other compulsory school events. Students, parents, schools, and training companies are all responsible for ensuring compliance with the obligations on compulsory schooling and training. If necessary, attendance may be enforced through various measures, including sanctions like penalty fees for parents (ibid.). The Federal Constitutional Court considered any obligation to school attendances as constitutional and classified potential sanctions in accordance to the constitution (BVerfG, 2 BvR 1693/04 from 31.05.2006).
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- Bos, W., Lankes, E-M., Prenzel, M., Schwippert, K., Valtin, R., & Walther, G. “Erste Ergebnisse aus IGLU: Schülerleistungen am Ende der vierten Jahrgangsstufe im internationalen Vergleich”. In Sozialwissenschaftlicher Informationsdienst (Hrsg.), “Bildungsforschung”. Informationszentrum Sozialwissenschaften, Bonn (2007): 9-46.
- BVerfG, Beschluss der 1. Kammer des Zweiten Senats vom 31. Mai 2006 - 2 BvR 1693/04 - Rn. (1-33). Available at: http://www.bverfg.de/e/rk20060531_2bvr169304.html.
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- Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1964.
- Kultusministerkonferenz. “Empfehlungen zum Schulanfang. Beschluss der Kultusministerkonferenz vom 24.10.1997”. Sekretariat der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1997.
- Kultusministerkonferenz. “Weiterentwicklung des Schulwesens in Deutschland seit Abschluss des Abkommens zwischen den Ländern der Bundesrepublik zur Vereinheitlichung auf dem Gebiete des Schulwesens vom 28.10.1964 i. d. F. vom 14.10.1971. Beschluss der Kultusministerkonferenz vom 10.5.2001”. Sekretariat der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 2001.
- Mors, A. “Die Entwicklung der Schulpflicht in Deutschland”. Dissertation: Universität Tübingen (1986).
- OECD. “Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators”. OECD Publishing, 2011.
- OECD. “Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators”. OECD Publishing, 2014.
- OECD, European Union & UNESCO Institute of Statistics. “ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications”. OECD Publishing, 2015.