German Schools

Equal Opportunity Education

Equal education for all? Source: DPA
Equal education for all?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Bertelsmann Foundation study on German schools found that the equal opportunities for children are improving, albeit slowly, as fewer students are dropping out without a diploma.

  • Facts


    • The study was based on data from the 2012-2013 school year.
    • Berlin scores high marks for integration, but has a high dropout level.
    • None of Germany’s 16 federal states is an overall standout.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

German society puts a premium on fairness, but a new study on the country’s schools found large differences between educational opportunities across state and municipal districts.

The study also shows that a young person’s success in education is still closely related to his or her socio-economic background. The study, released last Thursday by the Bertelsmann Foundation, looked at the school systems in the different German states based on criteria such as the freedom to choose the educational path, and the strength of the district’s integration of different groups. The study was primarily based on statistical data from the 2012-2013 school year.

Unlike similar comparisons, such as the “Education monitor” by the New Social Market Economy Initiative, Bertelsmann skips ranking the country’s 16 federal states.

Instead, the study is set up in four topic areas: strength of integration of the student body, freedom of choice, promotion of competencies, and the issuing of diplomas. The states are rated by top, middle and bottom. No state made it into the top group throughout, and no state was in the bottom in every category. “Each state has its relative strengths and weaknesses,” according to the study.

Berlin scored points on integration in its schools and was ranked in the top group. More than half of the students in the German capital go to so-called all-day schools (53.1 percent). Federally, the average number of students in those schools is 32.3 percent, and in states such as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt (the bottom group in this category) less than 20 percent of students are in all-day schools. Berlin is also further advanced than the others when it comes to inclusion. Only 3.2 percent of the students are placed in separate schools for special-needs children. In the states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony between 6 and 7 percent of the children are placed in such schools.

Many studies have found that school success in Germany depends strongly on the student’s socioeconomic background

The study found that the school systems in the eastern states and the northern city of Hamburg were especially good for students having the freedom to choose their educational path. They received positive grades for having a higher percentage of students attending a “Gymnasium,” which is Germany’s university-track secondary school. Nationwide 42.9 percent of students move on to the Gymnasium, whereas in Hamburg that figure is 52.9 percent. Berlin is also ahead in this area with 50.5 percent. Another set of criteria for the freedom to choose is how many graduates of the “Hauptschule,” or lower-level secondary school, make it into a vocational training program. Berlin ranked here at the national average (41.6 percent), but in Hamburg more than half of these young people received an apprenticeship.

Many studies have found that school success in Germany depends strongly on the student’s socio-economic background, even if the most recent so-called PISA study, which is carried out by the Organization for  Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, determined that there has been improvement in this area. The Bertelsmann study establishes that connection again. In doing so, it refers to the results of a school comparison among the states published in 2013, which examined how much ninth-graders fulfilled the educational standards in mathematics. At that time, the eastern German states produced above-average results, while Berlin and Bremen were especially weak. The Bertelsmann study backed this result in the area of “promoting competencies.”

Berlin ranked in the bottom group for graduation rates. That is primarily due to the high percentage of dropouts (9.3 percent), which is judged negatively. Nationwide the dropout rate is 6 percent, and in the top states in this category, Baden-Württemberg and Saarland, it is only 5 percent. In 2009, the national dropout rate in Germany was 6.9 percent. And conversely, more and more young people in Germany are passing the “Abitur,” the secondary qualification needed to attend university, or the “Fachabitur,” the entrance certificate for a technical college. Nationally, 54.9 percent of the age group now claim this achievement, whereas in 2009 that figure was 46.7 percent. In the top group (which includes Baden-Württemberg, Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland) more than 60 percent of the students do the “Abitur” or the “Fachabitur.”

The opportunity to study for the Abitur varies not just from state to state, but also from district to district. For example, in Saxony an average of 44.7 percent of students pass the Abitur. In some districts in Saxony only 32 percent of the students achieve this, while in other parts of the state that rate is 63 percent. Large regional disparities are also found in Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate. Researchers cannot properly explain this phenomenon. It possibly is due to the school offerings in individual districts. For example, if an area is lacking a Gymnasium, then it produces a strong wave of commuters to a neighboring district. The study indicates that is a quite “relevant finding.” According to the study, poorly educated families would tend to prefer the local educational offering, and would shy away from long commutes to school. Those who want a fair educational system must also think about the regional distribution of schools.

The study also compares city-states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen with other large German cities having populations larger than 350,000 on some criteria. The cities of Dresden, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart have especially high percentages of fifth-graders switching to the Gymnasium schools (each with more than 54.5 percent). Berlin, Bochum, Frankfurt and Hannover lie in the middle, with about half of their students making the move. Thanks to the introduction of the so-called “Sekundarschule” in Berlin (which combined the three lower-level secondary schools into one), almost all students in the capital go to an institution that at least offers the option of getting a higher education entrance requirement. Other cities with similarly high levels are Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover, while the large Bavarian cities drop off sharply

An exchange student explains the German school system.

This story originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!