If you have a school-aged child, this is likely one of the first things you want to work out, especially as it may be a significant factor in determining the city you live in. If you already know a lot about the German school system and your child speaks German, you’ll be in good shape to start (you likely know more than I do). However, during our pre-child years spent in Germany at university and doing research, my partner and I had never had to think much the lower schools in Germany (nor did we think much about kid vocabulary, like Lutscher or Schulranzen), so it was a new area for us to tackle this time.
Schooling in Germany starts at age 6, with Grade 1. “Kindergarten” in Germany is preschool, not the first year of school. The Länder differ on date cutoffs for entering Grade 1; in Bavaria, where we live, a child must be six by September 30 to be guaranteed a place in Grade 1. You can find a quick overview of the cutoffs on German Wikipedia, but it’s best to check the exact requirements for your Land on the government website.
To start with, there are two main school options for expat parents to consider:
- International schools. These are private schools that often teach an International Baccalaureate curriculum in English. Except in the largest cities (Berlin, Munich) there is usually only one international school for an entire region, and it may not be located in a city centre.1 As private schools, the international schools do charge tuition, which can be quite high.2
- German public schools. German public schools are generally of a high calibre,3 with well-educated teachers. Their structure is different than in North America, though, especially after Grade 4, so the transition into the German system and back out in the higher grades may be more difficult.
There are also private Montessori and Waldorf schools, if that is your preference. Homeschooling, on the other hand, is illegal in Germany, so unless you have a 6-year-old too young to make the cutoff (the subject of another post), you will have to find a place for your child in a school.
In my experience, the choice of school type is generally driven by your answers to a number of questions:
- How old is your child?
- Does your child know German? If not, do you want your child to learn German?
- How long will you be in Germany?
- Does your sabbatical income / grant support paying private school tuition?
If your child is older, does not know German, and/or will only be in Germany for a part of the school year, international school is likely to be a strong contender. My impression from others has been that it’s easier to dip in and out of the international schools, and the transition is much simpler as there is no language barrier. If money is an issue, knowing that you want your child to be in international school may drive where you live; the very large cities like Berlin and Munich have more options and some more reasonably priced options.4 Even in a smaller city like Nürnberg, you may want to limit your housing search to Erlangen, where the international school is located, to avoid a long daily commute.
If your child is younger (hence, before the curricula diverge significantly), you don’t mind your child learning German, and/or money is an issue, the public schools might make more sense. If you’re living over here for a full year, as well, you and your child will integrate better into the local community if your child attends the neighbourhood public school and learns the language.
Overall, your affiliated university’s Welcome Centre should be able to help you with either type of school. With an international school, you will probably want to get in touch in advance of your arrival in Germany to try to secure a spot. With the public schools, there is very little you can do before your arrival and Anmeldung, but the Welcome Centre was able to call the Schulamt and give us all the details of the requirements and likely school placements in advance, which helped put our minds at ease.
1 For example, we were in Franconia. The Nürnberg metro area has only the Franconian International School, which is located in Erlangen, not Nürnberg. The relatively new international school for Würzburg is well outside the city.
2 My sense is that these schools are in demand among German parents who want their children educated in an international, English-immersion environment. Also, many companies pay the tuition for their expat employees’ children as a part of the employment contract. Annual tuition for the Franconian International School for 2016/17 in Grade 1/2 is €11,345 + a €4100 capital development fee in the first year of admission. Tuition goes up for older children.
3 The quality varies overall by state (and of course by teacher, etc.), with Bavaria generally the best regarded, at least historically. But the wide variations you see in, for example, the United States are not generally seen in Germany, to my knowledge.
4 A colleague of ours at home was able to find an international school in Berlin that he said was much more reasonable, for example. Their child also only attended for part of the year.
Photo credit: Wikipedia, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grundschule.