2. The German school system

A good education right from the start

The most important thing for a successful career launch is a good education. The foundations for this are already laid at school. A school leaving diploma will open up various possibilities for your future career.

Compulsory education and the right to education

In Germany, education is compulsory. This usually applies from the age of six, for nine or ten years of schooling. Every child has the right to a free education. The qualifications may be completely different depending on which school you attend. To achieve the highest qualification, the “Abitur” (high school graduation), you even have to go to school for 12 or 13 years.

In general, compulsory education applies in Germany for refugee children and adolescents. Whether they actually go to school or have to wait for months, however, strongly depends on the state and the local situation: In some states (Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein), compulsory schooling starts with the application for asylum. In others, it starts after the three months (as in Bavaria and Thuringia) or six months (as in Baden-Württemberg).

Information on the school system in your state

The school system varies in Germany from state to state, as each state decides independently about its school system. For this reason you should inquire about the possibilities available to you for a school leaving diploma on the websites of your local Ministry of Education. The schools themselves also offer advice. Once a year, many schools hold an “open day”.

What qualification do you need?

“Hauptschulabschluss”, School Leaving Certificate
Schooling: 9 or 10 years
School: general secondary school, comprehensive school

The school leaving certificate is the first general education qualification in Germany. It entitles you to start an apprenticeship, e.g. in a craft, a trade or a technical profession. However, with the school leaving certificate you also have the opportunity to acquire a further secondary school qualification, the “Realschulabschluss”, or secondary school certificate.

Secondary school qualification
Schooling: 10 years
School: Technical college, comprehensive school

The secondary school certificate (Realschulabschluss) is also called Mittlere Reife [and is equivalent to a high school diploma]. With this certificate you can start an apprenticeship. Compared to the general school leaving certificate (“Hauptschulabschluss”), you improve your chances of finding a training place, because for some professions the general school leaving certificate is not enough. You can, however, also take the high school graduation (Abitur) at a technical high school or secondary school (Gymnasium) in order to be able to study later.

“Abitur/Fachabitur”; High School Graduation Certificate/Technical Diploma
Schooling: 12 or 13 years
School: high school, comprehensive school / technical college

With the “Abitur” high school graduation certificate [i.e. baccalaureate], you gain general university entrance. You can then continue your education at a university or start an apprenticeship. The technical diploma, or vocational baccalaureate diploma (“Fachabitur”) gives you entrance to a technical college with a specific professional focus – e.g. economics, engineering or pedagogy. It entitles you to study at a technical college. You do not have to stick to the same subject major later.

Which school leaving certificate opens up which opportunities?


3. Forms of vocational training