German Education: Gymnasium or Grammar School?

German Education: Gymnasium or Grammar School?

If you spend long enough talking to a German, at some point the questions of education will come up. Often this will be a discussion of their university background, perhaps a year spent in London or Edinburgh. Should the conversation continue, they may well mention that they went to “Grammar school”. It is at this point that I usually correct them, not because I am a pedant, but mostly a reflex from teaching; hear a mistake, correct the mistake. Of course, in this instance the German school Gymnasium can be directly translated as “Grammar School”, but I point out that this particular English term is loaded with political baggage and sometimes it might just be easier to simply say School. Germans could simply say Gymnasium, but Germans will often pronounce Gymnasium (hard G) as Gymnasium (soft G) out of deference to English listeners which may cause confusion. This act of politeness can lead English speakers to wonder why their German counterparts seemed to have had such a sport heavy education. Furthermore, saying Gymnasium may require our German speaker to explain the education system of Germany in totality, which is not always required or requested.


Explaining the German school system might include some complex vocabulary, but explaining the British education system to anyone requires a comprehensive overview of history, politics and a profound understanding of the concept of the British “fudge”. For the uninitiated, “Fudge” is not just a sweet treat, but it is also how Britain has been running its affairs for the better part of a millennium. The “Fudge” is simply to make a compromise that is vague and possibly inadequate, that is sometimes enacted in order to hide the truth. We fought wars, built empires, signed treaties and established political precedents all in the name of bizarre compromises that didn’t really deal with all the problems, but enough that we didn’t really need to worry too much about them until some undefined point in the future. There are further complications due to regional difference, with the devolved governments of the UK having their own Education systems that have numerous divergences.

For education in England, the fudge seems to roll around regularly enough that most teachers will experience at least two or three politically motivated reforms in education during their careers. At the most basic level, the UK has state funded and independent schools, or more clearly, schools that do not charge annual fees and schools that do. Within the state schools, we see the “Fudge” in action. Up until the 60s, England had a similar system to Germany, with children sitting a test to decide whether they attended a Grammar School (Gymnasium) or a Comprehensive School (Gesamtschule). After 1965, Grammar Schools were to be phased out and by 1997, the labour government placed a ban on establishing new Grammar schools. There still remains 163 Grammar Schools in England and they are joined in the system by Free schools, Academies, Community Schools, Foundation Schools, Voluntary Aided Schools, Voluntary Controlled Schools and State-Funded Boarding Schools. The watchword of the English system was choice, parents must be free to choose a variety of options. Education may vary, but a gross oversimplification for the sake of understanding would be that students leaving a state school and students leaving an independent school will have a different level of education and possibly a totally different qualification.


The German system has some parallels with England, there are regional differences from state to state. Although there is a multi-state agreement in place to recognise qualifications attained by all school leavers, in practice, the qualifications attained in a state such as Bavaria are regarded more highly than others. Depending on who you ask, a southern Gymnasium is either the sign of an excellent education or a sign of elitism. There a many reasons why, but in short it often comes down to the resources and training available to schools and teachers. Bavaria itself operates the traditional system of three tiered education. Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule make up the main branches of secondary education. Each tier affords the students a different qulaification; the Abitur (Abi) from Gymnasium, the Mittlere Reife from Realschule and the Hauptschulabschluss from the Haupschule. Only the Abitur gives access to university, while the other qualifications will allow access to apprenticeships and vocational schools. Outside of Bavaria, there are states that offer comprehensive systems similar to that of the UK that incorporate students from all tiers.

The German system has been in place since 1949, with some small reforms occurring in the 1990s and 2000s. In general it has remained fairly coherent. This is obviously a major difference from the UK and especially England. Although the German system has remained to some extent static in comparison, it has faced a number of questions over fairness and the impact that socio-economics have on the success of pupils, familiar questions that the UK has frequently pondered. These questions are at the heart of the reoccurring debate in England over the Conservative Governments support for new Grammar Schools. Listening to advocates of new Grammar schools, the argument is that they will offer parents more choice. Critics of the idea suggest that it is a cash grab on state resources, a zealous political manoeuvre motivated by vanity rather than desire for good education.

From my vantage point here in Germany, I can see both sides, although I am not sure I agree fully with either. There is of course differing emphasis on curriculum and funding, but if the question is ‘does the Gymnasiums offer a good education?’, than it would be an emphatic yes. The quality of student that you encounter or school leavers that I teach are very well educated. Of course Germany is not always a leader in global education statistics, but students that attain the Abitur can often speak two or three languages to a high level, they have a broad base of knowledge that undoubtedly prepares them for further academia or the numerous dual study and vocational positions offered by major companies. Admittedly, the use of rote learning does not always instil fantastic analytical skills or inspire creative thought, but the system is basically solid.


Yet, if the real question is actually ‘Is the Gymnasium system fair?’ then the answer is clearly no, despite what the numerous Gymnasium lobby groups will argue. The question of fairness has been the subject of many academic papers, so many that each side of the debate could call upon piles of data to prove or disprove the point, with many caveats included. The  Deutscher Lehrerverband (German teachers union) would tell you that Gymnasium is ranked among the finest institutions in the world, whereas Die Linke (The Left) party or the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (Education and Science Workers' Union) would argue the system is biased towards social class and should be abolished. Outside of Germany, criticism has come from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) who concluded a study that showed upper class children were four to six times more likely to attend the Gymnasium than children from lower class backgrounds. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was compelled to send a special envoy to publicly criticise the German educational model as unfair, pointing out that children were being filtered into the different tiers; children of academics were sent to Gymnasium, children from working class backgrounds were sent to the lower tier groups.

The children themselves face stigmatisation and stress on levels that most adults would find hard to comprehend. Yearly I hear stories from my teacher friends about panic attacks and involuntary vomiting prior to the Abitur exam, with children facing a test which they will only ever have a two chances to complete. Failure to pass the Abitur essentially bars students from higher achievement and the chance to study at university. Speaking to adults who went through the process or worse failed to achieve Gymnasium, there is a definite stigma. Some of my best students came from outside the Gymnasium, but they are often convinced they are underachievers, constantly seeing weaknesses and never valuing their obvious strengths. I suppose one positive that comes from all of this is that at least the system is honest, it tells you early on that you probably will not become the CEO of a major company or reach the upper echelons of a number of careers. This is preferable to the English system that holds every pretence of being a meritocracy, while slyly maintaining certain networks of privilege.


Frankly, I believe there is no perfect system. Singapore regularly tops the tables of academic achievement, but is also faced with accusations of elitism and rote learning. What the German system has in coherence, it lacks in fairness. What the English system offers in choice, it loses in quality. One important factor that makes the German system so impressive is the overall level of funding. Education and teaching are still highly valued and highly respected. If teachers suggest changes or new ideas, they are at least listened to as experts. Becoming a teacher in Germany is not an easy task, certainly in Bavaria to become a teacher could take up to seven years of education and training, with teachers studying two topics and gaining a Masters degree. Even at that point there is no guarantee of receiving a government job.

This is in stark contrast to the UK, where politicians habitually ignore the opinions of teachers in order to force through the kinds of educational measures that they think will work or will gain the most votes. Teachers are underfunded in order to cater to politicians pet projects and undermined by decisions that give unqualified persons the same status as fully qualified teachers. Education is vitally important, but it seems that in the UK successive governments feel that it is too important to be left to the experts. German education is not always fair, but it is coherent and to a certain extent honest. Currently English education is a mess, one which needs more than a fudge to fix. Simply bolting on another temporary fix is not only irresponsible, but dangerous.

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

German Home Comforts

German Home Comforts