Given our particular circumstances, we got to explore a very particular part of the German education system: The move from Kindergarten to Grade One. It’s only going to apply to a small subset of families going on sabbatical, but I wanted to share our experience, because we learned a lot.
First things first: As I mentioned in another post, Kindergarten in Germany and Kindergarten in North America are not the same thing. Kindergarten in Germany is the last few years of daycare before school starts (equivalent to a preschool, but less academic than many preschools, especially in the United States). It is not the first year of school, as it is in North America.
Thus, German children are in daycare (or at home) until the year they turn six, as long as they turn six before the cutoff (generally sometime in late summer/fall). The Germans I’ve met steadfastly believe that children should not be in school or learning to read until they are six. This can make the move for a North American child entering Grade One a bit trickier. Some things to know:
The year before German children start Grade 1, they are required to take a test with a doctor/civil servant that evaluates whether they are schulreif (ready for school). The tests vary by city, I gather, but tend to cover physical condition, coordination, language skills and intellectual ability (can your child hop on on leg around the room; tie knots; fasten clothing; speak proper, unaccented German; use scissors; draw an appropriate picture following instructions; etc.). If your child is entering Grade 1, you will likely need to have this test done before the Schulamt will place your child in school. (Side note: Würzburg was going to require this test for our daughter, but Nürnberg did not, since she’d been in school for a year already. It all depends on the local school authorities.)
First day of school / the Schultüte.
A child’s first day of school in Grade 1 is a big deal here, and there are particular rituals involved that are more involved than at home.
If your child is starting Grade 1 in Germany, it is customary for the child to arrive at school with a giant decorated cone full of school supplies, candy and gifts. Some Schultüten are made at Kindergarten / at home, but many are bought at a store, with the latest popular cartoon characters on them, or horses / cars / unicorns / butterflies, etc. Kids start getting their backpacks and supplies and making their Schultüten months before they start school. (Our neighbour’s daughter, who starts school this coming September, got her backpack and pencil case from her aunt for Easter.)
The first day of school, too, is very short. The older kids may sing or have a special program for the Grade 1 kids, and often there’s a coffee / meet up for the parents while their children meet their teachers. Afterward, the children often go out to lunch with their families.
Children that turn six in a calendar year, but after the state’s cutoff (which is usually late summer/early fall), are known as Kannkinder – i.e., the authorities “could” agree to let your child start school early, but they do not “have” to (as they do for “Musskinder“). In this case, for children who don’t know German, the authorities’ preference will be to put your child in daycare (Kindergarten) for another year to learn German before starting school.
This can be a problem for children that have already been in school for a year in North America, but are too young to meet the cutoff. Going back to preschool after being in full-day school can seem like a step back. Also, another year of preschool doesn’t work if you want your child to rejoin her/his peers in Grade 2 when moving home after the sabbatical.
If you are staying for multiple years or don’t mind your child being held back for a year when you return home, the Kindergarten route might make more sense for you. Your child will learn German more quickly in an immersive, all-day preschool environment than in 3-4 hours of transitional Grade 1 a day.
We chose to push for Grade 1, since the Welcome Centre had inquired at the Schulamt and they seemed open to it. We argued that our daughter had already been in school from 8:30-15:00 every day for a year, and going back to daycare would be a step backward. The Schulamt agreed and put her in the transitional program. However, I gather that policies/flexibility on this vary from city to city and civil servant to civil servant. And her teacher pointed out at every parent conference throughout the year that our daughter was “very young” — even though she was learning the material and doing the academic work as well as the other kids.
A hybrid you might consider is Kindergarten with homeschooling in the North American Grade 1 curriculum. Our public school district at home had a special “distributed learning” program for children who had to be away from home for a period; they provide all the curriculum materials, the parent delivers them, and a teacher at home evaluates assignments and tests. We considered this and signed up for the program, just in case we couldn’t get her into school in German as a Kannkind but ended up withdrawing since she got into school here.