Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
Germany has one of the world's best and most extensive school and university systems. Although shortcomings exist, on the whole the country's varied and multifaceted education system addresses well the needs of a population with widely differing characteristics and abilities. Some young people are best served by a traditional classroom-based education that prepares them for study at a wide choice of institutions of higher learning. Others profit more from vocational training and education consisting of on-the-job training combined with classroom instruction. At the end of this kind of education, graduates enter the workforce with a useful skill or profession. Other students may choose one of many combinations of elements of these two paths, or decide later in life to embark on one of them by means of adult education and night school. Because education in Germany costs little compared with that in the United States, for example, and because educational support of various kinds is widely available, Germans are likely to receive education and training suited to their abilities and desires.
But however well Germans have arranged their system of education, problems remain. The integration of two entirely different education systems within the country's highly federalized system had not been completed as of mid-1995. In addition, the country's vaunted system of higher education is beset by severe overcrowding despite its great expansion since the 1960s. Moreover, many who begin study at the university level are not adequately prepared to meet its demands. Many others who successfully complete their courses of study can find no suitable employment once they graduate. Solving these problems will engage the country's educators and public into the next century.
The origins of the German education system date back to church schools in the Middle Ages. The first university was founded in 1386 in Heidelberg; others were subsequently established in Cologne, Leipzig, Freiburg, and a number of other cities. These universities, which trained only a small intellectual elite of a few thousand, focused on the classics and religion. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation led to the founding of universities along sectarian lines. It was also in this century that cities promulgated the first regulations regarding elementary schools. By the eighteenth century, elementary schools had increasingly been separated from churches and had come under the direction of state authorities. Prussia, for example, made school attendance for all children between the ages of five and fourteen compulsory in 1763. A number of universities dedicated to science also came into being in the eighteenth century.
The defeat of Prussia by France led to a reform of education by the Berlin scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). His reforms in secondary schools have shaped the German education system to the present day. He required university-level training for high school teachers and modernized the structure and curriculum of the Gymnasium , the preparatory school. He also proposed an orientation phase after the Gymnasium and a qualifying examination known as the Abitur for university admission. In 1810 Humboldt founded the university in Berlin that now bears his name. Humboldt also introduced the three principles that guided German universities until the 1960s: academic freedom, the unity of teaching and research, and self-government by the professors. Also of much influence in education, both within Germany and abroad, was Friedrich Froebel's development of the kindergarten in 1837.
For much of the nineteenth century, Germany had two distinctive educational tracks: the Gymnasium , which provided a classical education for elites; and the Volksschule , which was attended for eight years by about 90 percent of children. The two schools were administered and supervised separately. Later in the century, two additional types of school emerged: the Realgymnasium , which substituted modern languages for the classics, and the Oberrealschule , which emphasized mathematics and science. Most children, however, could not attend the schools that prepared students for the professions or university entrance because of the schools' high standards and long duration. Hence, around the turn of the century, the Mittelschule , or middle school, was introduced to meet parental demand for expanded educational and economic opportunities. Children entered the Mittelschule after three years of elementary school, and they attended that school for six years.
In the nineteenth century, new universities were established in a number of major German cities, including Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt am Main. The older universities had been located mainly in smaller cities, such as Heidelberg. Many of the new universities were technical universities, and Germany soon attained a leadership in science that it lost only with World War II. Universities were state supported but largely independent in matters of curriculum and administration. A university degree brought much social status and was the prerequisite for entering the professions and the higher levels of the civil service.
A serious problem of German education before World War I was the rigid differentiation between primary education, received by all, and secondary education, received mainly by the children of the more prosperous classes. This division meant that most children of the poor had no access to secondary schooling and subsequent study at the university level. After the war, the Weimar constitution outlined a democratic vision of education that would address the problem: supervision by the state, with broad legislative powers over education; uniform teacher training; a minimum of eight years of primary school attendance; continuing education until the age of eighteen years; and free education and teaching materials. Many of these reform proposals never came to fruition, however.
During the Hitler era (1933-45), the national government reversed the tradition of provincial and local control of education and sought centralized control as part of the regime's aim to impose its political and racist ideology on society. Despite an agreement with the Vatican that theoretically guaranteed the independence of Roman Catholic schools, during the 1930s the regime considerably reduced church control of the parochial school system. Universities also lost their independence. By 1936 approximately 14 percent of all professors had been dismissed because of their political views or ethnic background. The introduction of two years of military service and six months of required labor led to a rapid decline in university enrollment. By 1939 all but six universities had closed.
After the defeat of the Hitler regime in 1945, the rebuilding of the education system in the occupied zones was influenced by the political interests and educational philosophy of the occupying powers: the United States, Britain, and France in what became West Germany; and the Soviet Union in East Germany. As a result, two different education systems developed. Their political, ideological, and cultural objectives and their core curricula reflected the socioeconomic and political-ideological environments that prevailed in the two parts of Germany from 1945 to 1989.
The Western Allies had differing views on education, but the insistence of the United States on the "reeducation" of German youth, meaning an education in and for democracy, proved the most persuasive. Thus, the West German education system was shaped by the democratic values of federalism, individualism, and the provision of a range of educational choices and opportunities by a variety of public and private institutions. Students began to express themselves more freely than before and to exercise a greater degree of influence on education. In West Germany, religious institutions regained their footing and reputation. By contrast, the East German education system was centralized. The communist-controlled Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED) retained a monopoly over education and subjected it to rigid control.
Both Germanys faced the task of "denazifying" teachers and reeducating students, but they moved in different directions. The authorities in the East sought teachers who had opposed fascism and who were committed to a Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the West, authorities dismissed several thousand teachers and replaced them with educators holding democratic values. The ensuing Western reform program included reconstructing facilities and reinvigorating the system. In 1953 reforms were introduced that aimed at standardizing education throughout the Länder . In the 1960s, reforms were undertaken that introduced apprentice shops and new instruction techniques for vocational training.
The 1970s saw further major educational reform, detailed in the document Structural Plans for the Educational System . The plan was approved in 1970 by the Council of Education, which was established in 1957 to serve as an advisory committee for the entire education system, and by each Land minister of education and cultural affairs. The main components of the reform program were the reorganization of the upper level of the Gymnasium , the recruitment of more students into colleges and universities, and the establishment of the comprehensive school (Gesamtschule ). The Gesamtschule brings together the three kinds of secondary schools--the Hauptschule , the Realschule , and the Gymnasium --in an attempt to diminish what some perceived as the elitist bias of the traditional secondary education system. The program also proposed expanding adult education and vocational training programs.
The reform program achieved some but not all of its goals. The university entrance examination was made easier, and the number of students attending institutions of higher education rose from just over 200,000 in 1960 to about 1.9 million in the 1992-93 academic year (see table 11, Appendix). Between 1959 and 1979, twenty new universities were built, and university academic staff increased from 19,000 to 78,000. However, some Germans opposed the lowering of university entrance standards, and some also resisted the introduction of the Ge-samtschule . In addition, the worldwide recession brought on by the oil crisis of 1973 caused serious financial problems for the government at all levels and made reforms difficult to realize.
Despite the different educational policies implemented by the two Germanys between 1945 and 1990, both systems regarded education as a constitutional right and a public responsibility, emphasized the importance of a broad general education (Allgemeinbildung ), taught vocational education through the so-called dual system that combined classroom instruction with on-the-job training, required students to pass the Abitur examination before beginning university studies, and were committed to Humboldt's concept of university students' becoming educated by doing research. Despite these similarities, the systems differed in many important details, and the structural divergence was considerable.
Data as of August 1995
NOTE: The information regarding Germany on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Germany Education information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Germany Education should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.