Apparently, ages 15 and 12 are the hardest years to enter the German system
Because, of course they are!
With my kids headed back to school this week and last, it feels like a good time to write about navigating the German secondary school system as an immigrant family, particularly a family with older kids.
If you Google ‘moving to Berlin with kids,’ you will be inundated with information about finding a kita placement or how to enroll in primary school (Grundschule). And those are very important things. But you could wind up thinking that literally no one ever moves to Berlin with a kid between age 11 and 18. And that’s just not true.
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My daughter, 16, just started Grade 11 at a private international school. My son, 13, attends a Berlin integrated secondary school. Before we even decided to move, I did a lot of research into how we would continue the kids’ education, given that they had both spent their whole lives in the U.S. public schools. And, neither spoke German or had studied it in school.
That was our number one concern moving to a country where we did not speak the language. And I think that is probably true for most parents.
I read every article and blog post I could find by other international families. I became a frequent visitor to the website of the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Youth and Family (Senats Verwaltung für Bildung, Jugend, und Familie),. This is the department that oversees the public schools.
I looked up information on Berlin schools from the U.S. Department of State, etc. We researched all of the different international English-language schools, public and private, and the bilingual ones.
Our relocation agent said she had never had clients so well-prepared to move.
But as I touched on in this post, the school situation really threw us for a loop. So, in the hopes of giving others a better heads’ up, here are the things I wish I knew before we came: Schools edition.
Note: I am going to put the things I didn’t know in boldface – like this. But with the background context in regular type. If you already known a good deal about how the German school system works, you can skip to the highlights.
German secondary schools
Each German state is responsible for the education of children from the age of 6 until the age of 16 or until they have obtained a final “leaving” qualification, whether it is an initial vocational training qualification (the Berufsbildungsreife – BBR), the middle school leaving qualification (Mittlererschulabschluss – MSA) or the university entrance qualification, known as the Abitur.
In Berlin, children attend Grundschule until the sixth grade and then move up to secondary school. (Some may move up after the 5th grade.)
Secondary schools here are basically divided into university prepartory high schools known as Gymnasium, where students prepare to get the Abitur, or integrated secondary schools (integrierte segundarschule – ISS). An ISS prepares students to get their general education qualification or a vocational education qualification and many also having an optional extra year to get the Abitur after then end of Grade 12.* The ‘integrated’ refers to the school offering multiple qualifications.
Which type of secondary school children attend is mostly determined by their grades and the recommendation of their sixth-grade teachers. Ultimately, the decision rests with the parents. Parents could choose to enroll a child in a Gymnasium even contrary to the teacher’s recommendation. But, admission to Berlin gymnasiums is competitive, they usually don’t have enough spots, so would be unlikely to enroll a student that did not have a good recommendation.
If you are entering the school system at this point, from outside Germany, your child may essentially ‘lose’ a year to learn German and then have to do extra study to make up for any gaps between the subjects they have studied and the German curriculum.
Conversely, parents can choose to disregard a gymnasium recommendation and send their child to an ISS or other type of school. A number of Berlin parents do this due to the extra time allowed to obtain the Abitur and because there is less academic pressure there.
But, for even native German students, there is a shortage of places in Berlin public secondary schools. Students are sometimes assigned a place far from their home. They may also attend a reduced number of days a week if their school has teachers out sick or needs to put students on a rotating schedule to share classrooms.
Welcome classes for non-German speakers
Officially, all children age 8 and above who are not fluent in German are assigned to what is known as a “welcome class” (Wilkommensklasse. (The proper title is actually “Lerngruppen für Neuzugänge ohne Deutschkenntnisse” – learning groups for newcomers without knowledge of German – but everyone, including the schools call them Wilkommensklasse.)
Children under 8 (so third grade or below) are believed to still be able to easily learn German by immersion in a regular class.
Unfortunately, there is no set curriculum or requirements for how the welcome classes are taught. And students’ experience can differ widely depending on the district they live in (each bezirk has its own Shulamt), and the school they are assigned to.
The teacher shortage coupled with the influx of refugees from the war in Ukraine has put even more strain on the school system. I wrote before that my son spent months on a waiting list before even getting a school place.
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At my son's school, most of the students in the welcome classes were from Syria or Ukraine, and many of them were unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet. So the teachers must teach and integrate students with very different language and educational backgrounds.
A welcome class at a primary school in southwest Berlin may have a completely different student makeup from a secondary school in central or east Berlin.
The language barrier
There are bilingual schools, both public and private, that teach in both German and English. (There are bilingual schools that teach in German and other languages also, but, because English is our mother tongue – and the language I write this blog in – I am focusing on English.)
However, these schools often only accept students at the secondary level who have at least a B1 proficiency in both languages of instruction.
For example, the Freie Schule Anne-Sophie, a private German-English bilingual school in southwest Berlin, accepts students who are fluent in either language in the lower grades, those in secondary would need to have proficiency in both languages.
This, in addition to the already limited free spaces anywhere, significantly reduces the options for English-speaking kids.
IB vs. IGCSE vs. Abitur
A common misconception among parents from the States is that the Abitur is equivalent to a high school diploma from an accredited U.S. school.
In fact, the Abitur is more like a high school diploma plus several advanced placement (AP) or other college-level courses in specific areas, plus written and oral examinations in five subjects at the end of Grade 12 or Grade 13.
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To be eligible for the Abitur, students must also have two years of two different foreign languages, as well as two years of higher level math. Students transferring from abroad may not have all of the required courses in order to graduate ‘on time’ with a university-entrance qualification.
International students with a U.S. high school diploma and particular advanced placement (AP) credits may be considered for some university programs. Many international students choose to do a year at a German Studienkolleg to learn the language and complete any missing educational requirements before applying for a university’s degree program.
Germany considers a general U.S. diploma, provided certain subjects are covered, to be the equivalent of the German MSA or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). German usually students take the MSA examination at the end of Grade 10, though they can take it later. Some private Berlin secondary schools offer the IGCSE at the end of grade 10 instead of the MSA. The Berlin Senat recognizes this as the equivalent to the MSA.
However, we learned when applying to schools for Grade 10 that the IGCSE is a two-year track starting in Grade 9. Most schools offering this qualification will not accept new students directly into Grade 10. My daughter had already completed grade 9 and many schools either would not consider our application or wanted her to re-take grade 9 there.
It ended up working out for us. She was admitted to a school that followed the IB Middle Years Program (MYP), as did her school in the U.S. They offer the IB Diploma after Grade 12, as well as a general education diploma equivalent to the MSA.
Always an alternative
Despite the difficulties, hundreds of teens do manage to learn German and complete their education each year in Berlin. Some may need extra time in secondary school.
Some young adults who don’t have a secondary diploma can attend what are called “second chance” schools that offer classes for adults who want to get their MSA, BBR, or even work toward the Abitur.
A common misconception is that students who did not qualify for a Gymnasium in 5th grade are forever prohibited from pursuing higher education. That is not true. There are a number of different ways that students can get a university qualification, though it may take longer. It is never too late, or impossible.
Also, there are many careers in Germany that young people (and not-so-young people) can pursue by doing an apprenticeship or combination apprenticeship and professional training at a technical or vocational academy.
Your family’s specific situation and future plans will, obviously, heavily influence your approach to the education system here. If you are considering a permanent move, it might be best to take the long view and realize that your kids’ route to graduation may look different than you might have planned.
On the other hand, if you are pretty sure that you are here temporarily, then you may want to prioritize getting into an itnernational school or one of the public schools with an English-language track.
(Note: This last option is mostly only available to families who can document that they expect to reside in Germany no more than three years.)
Whatever path you choose, I hope that this long-winded post provides some information that helps you prepare for moving to Berlin with your older kids or teens. If it seems overwhelming, remember that other people have also been in your situation and help is out there.
*There are also private secondary schools that offer different curricula or learning frameworks like the Waldorf-based Freie Schulen, or parochial schools run by different religious institutions.