Should you consider the German public schools, here are some observations based on our experience. Note these are primarily for the Grundschule — Grades 1 through 4.
Shorter school day:
The school day is much shorter than in North America, especially in Grades 1-4. In Grade 1, the school days is 8-11:15 some days, and 8-12:15 others. Also, the school schedule shifts with little notice: You will find out a day or two in advance that school is ending early on a particular day. This occurs about once a week.1
Multiple options for after-school care:
After-school care is available, but may or may not be easy to get into. At our school, the options were
- Mittagsbetreuung in the school until 2:30
- Mittagsbetreuung in the school until 4:00
- Hort off-site until later in the day.
The cost is quite reasonable: We paid about €50 a month for 2:30 Mittagsbetreuung. Hot lunch was available for a fee, though I gather this isn’t always the case.
We did not have a problem getting a place when we applied at the beginning of the school year, though I think our school works harder to make places available for immigrant children, so that they’re in an immersive German environment a bit longer each day. I gather Hort spots can be more difficult to get.
Vacations are shorter, and spread throughout the year:
German public schools do not have the long summer break that North American schools do, but they spread shorter vacations throughout the year. The states vary their dates, and some of the states celebrate different religious holidays, but in general, you’ll have a 1-week break in November, a break between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, a 1-week break in February around Fasching, a 2-week break around Easter, a 2-week break in May, and a month or six weeks in August-September.
Transitional classes for German as a Foreign Language kids:
Transitional classes are available in many cities’ school systems, especially with the influx of refugees. They are called Übergangsklassen, and our daughter attended the transitional version of Grade 1 for her full year here. (If children pick up German quickly, they may move into their neighbourhood schools mid-year.)
- These classes can ease the transition into a German immersion environment.
- They can also help keep your child on track to go back into their proper grade level at home, instead of holding them back a year to learn fluent German.
- You may have a long commute, as not every school in the city offers these programs. Our city had two elementary schools with Übergangsklassen, both of which were far from our house. We had a 45-minute, two-bus commute each way, so one parent always had to take her in and pick her up. German kids her age at the neighbourhood school walk to and from school without parents each day. Not so for us.
- Our child didn’t get to know the neighbours’ kids as well, since she didn’t go to school with them.
- The program slowed our daughter’s language acquisition, I believe. She was not in a fully immersive environment: Although the language of instruction was German, the lingua franca of her peers was pidgin German and pantomime. After a year in the program, she still has trouble with German syntax and conjugation.
Different cultural norms in the classroom and around bullying:
In the classroom, young children are not allowed to get up and move around. They have multiple recesses during the three or four hours they’re in school, but they do not move between learning centres, etc. in the classroom, as often happens in Grades K & 1 at home. Some parents I’ve met here who have particularly active children have received repeated requests from their children’s teachers to visit an occupational therapist because the child is too active in the classroom — even though the child is accomplishing all of the work.
Technology is also less prevalent in German classrooms, at least in my daughter’s Grade 1 class. At home she worked occasionally with iPads and computers even in Kindergarten; here her class here has a puppet theatre in the back of the room and lots of tactile and visual aids for learning, but no iPads or computers. Not a bad thing, just something that may seem strange to a North American parent.
Germans also have a different approach to bullying and swearing (particularly in English). Both are more tolerated, even among young kids, than at home. This was our experience, at least, and other expat parents corroborated it. My Grade 1 child heard English swear words from her peers frequently. As for bullying, unless it is very physical the approach among teachers and parents seems to be that the kids need to learn to work it out on their own. In general, I believe the German cultural norm is that kids need to stand up for themselves. (This post, by another expat mom, mentions the difference.) That’s easier said than done, though, when your kid is a 20kg Grade 1 child being bullied by a Grade 4 kid twice her size.
More freedom for kids:
There’s more focus on cultivating independence in children here, and less worry that they’ll be kidnapped a block from your house. German children as young as Grade 1 walk to and from school by themselves. We could also let our daughter walk to the ice cream parlour two blocks away by herself. The neighbourhood kids all play together across the backyards and in the cul-de-sacs after school. At home, someone would likely call Child Protective Services. Here, we’re the weird ones for going to school every day with our child.
A lot more supplies, especially in elementary school:
- The Schulranzen. German kids in Grades 1-4 carry a special kind of backpack called a Schulranzen. Traditionally they are much bigger than a regular backpack, heavy, and very structured/rigid for carrying and storing all their school books, homework and supplies. Over time, they’ve started making them lighter and a bit smaller, adding hip belts to help. The classic — and most expensive — brand is Scout. A Scout will run you €130-180 (though I found ours on sale). There are other brands around, and I did see them pretty regularly, so it’s not like it’s Scout or nothing. Also, especially beyond the first few grades, the kids move on to normal North American backpacks (like Herschel, Eastpak, etc.).
- The Federmäppchen and Schlampermäppchen. These are different kinds of pencil cases. The Federmäppchen is book-sized — it folds over and zips. It holds 15-20 pencil crayons2 and regular pencils (yes, your child will use all these at school), as well as a ruler, pencil sharpener, eraser, and a small change purse. The Schlampermäppchen looks more like what you think of (or at least what I do) when you think of a pencil case: It’s a long, thin pouch with a zipper at the top. My child’s holds an extra pencil sharpener, glue and scissors. Schulranzen manufacturers often sell matching sets with a Schulranzen, Federmäppchen and gym bag. They seem expensive, but if you don’t already have any of the three it’s not a bad deal, as your child will be expected to have all three (at my daughter’s school, they have gym twice a week and are expected to bring their gym clothes from home in a gym bag).
- School supplies. School supplies are an art in this country. Your child’s teacher or school should give you the list for her class before school begins, and you need to go buy everything before school starts. At home, for elementary, this was usually things like crayons and pencils and scissors and glue. Here, that looks like child’s play. For Grade 1, my daughter had to have 12 different notebooks in different sizes, all with separate plastic notebook covers in particular colours determined by the teacher. She had to have seven or eight folders & binders, all in different sizes and types (“Schnellhefter”, “Jurismappen”, A4, A3, etc.). She had to have a full set of pencil crayons, two pencils, a full set of paints with a separate water cup, a rag to mop up the paint, a plastic mat to put under her art when she’s working on it, and on and on. Your best option is to get the list, then go to the office supply section of the largest Müller in town, and flag down one of the associates on hand specifically for this purpose. This associate will take your list and throw everything on it into a basket for you to buy.3
- Snack box (for Brotzeit at school). Elementary school children aren’t in school long enough to need to bring lunch, but they are expected to bring a snack and a water bottle to school. My daughter’s teacher preferred that the kids not bring chocolate for snacks. Otherwise, there were no rules — no “nut-free” policy, etc. (One child in my daughter’s class did have allergies and the teacher was aware of it, but the classroom wasn’t declared nut-free. I think the approach to allergies is different here, though as the mother of a (so far) allergy-free child, I didn’t have to go in depth on this point.)
- Shoes. I gather some schools require your child to have a pair of slippers / indoor shoes at school, although this was not the case at our school. Also, this may or may not be typical, but my daughter’s teacher has told her she prefers the girls to be in low boots, so that they don’t get dirt or sand or wood chips in their shoes. At home, the preference was for Mary Janes or lace-up low tops to go with their uniforms. I couldn’t figure out why I was struggling to find Mary Janes here when we were prepping for school, but could find boots everywhere. Now I know: My daughter wears her boots to school with everything here — dresses, jeans, etc.
My daughter very much enjoyed her time in her public school class here, and we were comfortable that the instruction was of a high calibre. The differences we found were mainly cultural — those little things that you just know at home. One thing that we did like was the more staggered vacation timing, as it allowed us to take week- or two-week-long trips around Europe throughout the year.
If you’re interested in placing your child in the German public schools, but don’t have a lot of experience with them, I’d recommend as a start the English Wikipedia entry on education in Germany, as it is fairly comprehensive. I also read through the Education Ministry’s website for our state (in German) before coming over, and we worked closely with the Welcome Centre at our German sponsor university, as well.
1 The consensus among many of the expat parents here is that the German system continues to assume one stay-at-home parent.
2 Colored pencils, for those from the United States.
3 I promise you that you should do this. I tried to get all macho, thinking I knew German, and I was reduced to a quivering mass of uselessness in the store. For example: Her list had a “Mitteilungsheft” on it. I know “Mitteilung” means “message” and “Heft” means “notebook”, but of the 45 or so different types of notebooks I had no idea which one would be considered to be a “Mitteilungsheft”, and none of them are actually called a “Mitteilungsheft.” Also, the notebooks all have different kinds and sizes of ruling. There’s graph paper in different sizes, there’s ruled paper in different sizes. I was told to get a graph paper notebook, A5, in Grade 1 ruling, and a ruled notebook, A5, in Grade 1 ruling. There are ruled notebooks that say “Grade 1”. There are no graph paper notebooks that say “Grade 1” — apparently the appropriate one for Grade 1 is No. 7, go figure.
Photo credit: Grundschule Dörzbach, http://www.doerzbach.de/index.php?id=59.