School Organization

A few organizational central points are listed below. It should however be noted that due to the decentralized nature of the education system there are many more additional differences across the 16 states of Germany.
Every state has its own school system.

Each age group of students (born roughly in the same year) forms one or more grades or classes ("Klassen") per school which remain the same for elementary school (years 1 to 4 or 6), orientation school (if there are orientation schools in the state), orientation phase (at Gymnasium years 5 to 6), and secondary school (years 5 or 7 to 10 in "Realschulen" and "Hauptschulen"; years 5 or 7 to 10 (differences between states) in "Gymnasien") respectively. Changes are possible, though, when there is a choice of subjects, e.g. additional languages; Then classes will be split (and newly merged) either temporarily or permanently for this particular subject.

Students usually sit at tables, not desks (usually two at one table), sometimes arranged in a semicircle or another geometric or functional shape. During exams in classrooms, the tables are sometimes arranged in columns with one pupil per table (if permitted by the room's capacities) in order to prevent cheating; at many schools, this is only the case for some exams in the two final years of school, i.e. some of the exams counting for the final grade on the high school diploma.

There is usually no school uniform or dress code existing. Many private schools have a simplified dress code, for instance, such as "no shorts, no sandals, no clothes with holes". Some schools are testing school uniforms, but those are not as formal as seen in the UK. They mostly consist of a normal sweater/shirt and jeans of a certain color, sometimes with the school's symbol on it. It is however a common custom to design graduation class shirts in Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule.

School usually starts between 7.30 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. and can finish as early as 12; instruction in lower classes almost always ends before lunch. In higher grades, however, afternoon lessons are very common and periods may have longer gaps without teacher supervision between them. Usually, afternoon classes are not offered every day and/or continuously until early evening, leaving students with large parts of their afternoons free of school; some schools (Ganztagsschulen), however, offer classes or mainly supervised activities throughout the afternoons in order to offer supervision for the students rather than increasing the hours of teaching. Afternoon lessons can continue until 6 o'clock.

Depending on school, there are breaks of 5 to 20 minutes after each period. There is no lunch break as school usually finishes before 1:30 for junior school. However, at schools that have "Nachmittagsunterricht" (= afternoon classes) ending after 1:30 there's sometimes a lunch break of 45 to 90 minutes, though many schools lack any special break in general. Some schools that have regular breaks of 5 minutes between every lesson and have additional 10 or 15 minute breaks after the second and fourth lesson.

In German state schools lessons have a length of exactly 45 minutes. Each subject is usually taught for two to three periods every week (main subjects like mathematics, German or foreign languages are taught for four to six periods) and usually no more than two periods consecutively. The beginning of every period and, usually, break is announced with an audible signal such as a bell.

Exams (which are always supervised) are usually essay based, rather than multiple choice. As of 11th grade, exams usually consist of no more than three separate exercises. While most exams in the first grades of secondary schools usually span no more than 90 minutes, exams in 10th to 12th grade may span four periods or more (without breaks).

At every type of school, pupils study one foreign language (in most cases English) for at least five years. The study of languages is, however, far more rigorous and literature oriented in Gymnasium. In Gymnasium, students can choose from a wider range of languages (mostly English, French, Russian - mostly in east German Bundesländer - or Latin) as the first language in 5th grade, and a second mandatory language in 7th grade. Some types of Gymnasium also require an additional third language (such as Spanish, Italian, Russian, Latin or Ancient Greek) or an alternative subject (usually based on one or two other subjects, e.g. British politics (English & politics), dietetics (biology) or media studies (arts & German) in 9th or 11th grade. Gymnasiums normally offer further subjects starting at 11th grade, with some schools offering a fourth foreign language.

A number of schools once had a Raucherecke (smokers' corner), a small area of the schoolyard where students over the age of eighteen are permitted to smoke in their breaks. Those special areas were banned in the states of Berlin, Hessen and Hamburg, Brandenburg at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. (Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony 2006-07)). Schools in these states prohibit smoking for students and teachers and offences at school will be punished. Other states in Germany are planning to introduce similar laws.

As state schools are public, smoking is universally prohibited inside the buildings. Smoking teachers are generally asked not to smoke while at or near school.

Students over 14 years are permitted to leave the school compound during breaks at some schools. Teachers or school personnel tend to prevent younger students from leaving early and strangers from entering the compound without permission.

Tidying up the classroom and schoolyard is often the task of the students themselves. Unless a group of volunteering students, individuals are being picked sequentially.

Many schools have AGs or Arbeitsgemeinschaften (clubs) for afternoon activities such as sports, music or acting, but participation is not necessarily common. Some schools also have special mediators who are student volunteers trained to resolve conflicts between their classmates or younger students.

Only few schools have actual sports teams that compete with other schools'. Even if the school has a sports team, students are not necessarily very aware of it.

While student newspapers used to be very common until the late 20th century, with new issues often produced after a couple of months, many of them are now very short-lived, usually vanishing when the team graduates. Student newspapers are often financed mostly by advertisements.

Usually schools don't have their own radio stations or TV channels. Therefore, larger universities often have a local student-run radio station.

Although most German schools and state universities do not have classrooms equipped with a computer for each student, schools usually have at least one or two computer rooms and most universities offer a limited number of rooms with computers on every desk. State school computers are usually maintained by the same exclusive contractor in the entire city and updated slowly. Internet access is often provided by phone companies free of charge. Especially in schools the teachers' computer skills are often very low.

At the end of their schooling, students usually undergo a cumulative written and oral examination (Abitur in Gymnasien or Abschlussprüfung in Realschulen and Hauptschulen). Students leaving Gymnasium after 9th grade do have the leaving examination of the Hauptschule and after 10th grade do have the Mittlere Reife (leaving examination of the Realschule, also called Mittlerer Schulanschluss).

After 10th grade Gymnasium students may quit school for at least one year of job education if they do not wish to continue. Realschule and Hauptschule students who have passed their Abschlussprüfung may decide to continue schooling at a Gymnasium, but are sometimes required to take additional courses in order to catch up.
Corporal punishment was banned in 1949 in East Germany and in 1973 in West Germany.

Fourth grade (or sixth, depending on the state) is often quite stressful for students of lower performance and their families. Many feel tremendous pressure when trying to achieve placement in Gymnasium, or at least when attempting to avoid placement in Hauptschule. Germany is unique compared to other western countries in its early segregation of students based on academic achievement.