What is a “German-style” education?

What does Germany's "world class" education system look like and can we copy it? Matt Grogan goes over the basics.

Matt Grogan is public affairs and policy projects officer at the Royal Academy of Engineering

Everybody wants to be Germany.

It’s certainly not the first time that a foreign government has pointed at the country’s education system (and productivity) and said “something like that, please”. But how does Germany’s system work, and is it possible to copy it?

Secondary Education

The Federal Republic of Germany designates responsibility for education to the 16 federal states (Bundesländer), who decide the specifics of the school system. Skipping over Kindergarten and Grundschule, secondary education in Germany is usually delivered by three separate kinds of school. The Gymnasium is most comparable with the English grammar school. Pupils study a range of purely academic subjects towards a qualification called the Abitur. At a Realschule, pupils can choose from a range of academic and vocational subjects. Thereafter they can progress to either a Gymnasium to take the Abitur, attend a Fachoberschule (technical upper school) or they can begin an apprenticeship. The Hauptschule (general school) is the most vocational level of the secondary system, focusing on practical subjects, though academic subjects are still taught.

Pupils are permitted to transfer between the three main levels of schooling if they show sufficient academic aptitude, and there also exists the Gesamtschule (comprehensive school), which combines aspects of all three levels. After any level, students can then progress to either a Hochschule (general term for university), a Berufschule (vocational school), or simply enter the labour market. However, it should be noted that it is extremely rare for students from a Hauptschule to progress to higher education.


Apprenticeships form part of what is called Germany’s dual education system (Duales Ausbildungssystem). Students, usually drawn from either Hauptschulen or Realschulen, are enrolled in a Berufschule and train for one of the 356 official Ausbildungsberufe (apprenticeship occupations). Their time is split between study and training with a designated company, which covers their wages. The curricula in Berufschulen is developed in partnership between the local state authorities, the firms who take on trainees, and trade unions with relevant expertise. Apprentices usually take around three years to complete their training, and around a third stay with the same employer afterwards.

Higher education

Like secondary education, tertiary education in German is split. There are two types of university, Universitäten and Fachhochschulen. The term Universität is reserved only for those institutions able to confer doctorate degrees, with these institutions often also emphasising their research output. Fachhochschulen, often referred to as Universities of Applied Sciences, are more practical, with their lecturers often being drawn from the private sector and lacking a doctoral degree of their own. Due to the Bologna process, both types of institutions now award equivalent degrees, but previously Fachhochschulen awarded graduates Diplomas, not Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees.

Within the sciences, Universitäten focus on fundamental research whereas Fachhochschulen focus on applied methods. Admission to Universitäten is usually permitted to those who achieved the Abitur, whereas students can enrol in Fachhochschulen with either the Abitur or the Fachhochschulreife, the qualification achieved in Fachoberschulen.

Copy cats?

There are in reality 16 German systems, one for each state, with a great deal of complexity between states. But could something like the general system be applied to the UK?

Perhaps, but it would take a lot of work and a large shift in the culture. The German system took hundreds of years to reach its current form; to build up the German system in the UK would require all of that–the designation of new schools; the collaboration between industry, unions, and government in designing curricula; and the development of hundreds of recognised professional qualifications. A lot of work for an uncertain gain, not to mention expense, with Germany spending more money on education than any other country in the European Union, almost 5 per cent of its GDP. It’s easy to see a country spending the money and time needed to implement these changes, only to see middling uptake. Policy toward apprenticeships and technical education in the UK is hindered by a prejudice against these routes, something that is far rarer in Germany, and so even with the shiny new schools and routes into work, there’s no guarantee that places would be filled.

It’s important to note that there is a lot of criticism within Germany as to the rigidity of the traditional system and the ways it is said to hold back social mobility. Several states have moved away from it, replacing many Hauptschulen with Gesamtschulen in a move that mirrors the end of the English tripartite system. There has also been a steady rise in the number of students attending Gymnasien, from around 5 per cent in the 50s to around 30 per cent now, which has been matched by a slight drop in those opting for apprenticeships. The German system is often seen as the solution to the UK’s sluggish productivity. But picking and choosing the actionable parts of such a complex web isn’t going to solve the UK’s ills on its own.

While education plays a role, Germany’s high productivity also depends on the general structure of its economy, the greater presence of manufacturing, its position within the Eurozone, the strength and embeddedness of its trade unions, all of which would be even harder to emulate. These bring their own challenges; like any country, Germany has its own issues to address. But if there’s anything to learn from its approach to education (and much else), it’s that slow, institutionalised change is what lays the foundation for later success.

3 responses to “What is a “German-style” education?

  1. I really can’t see the Tories asking the Trade Unions for their input into anything as the 2 are diametrically opposed.

  2. It is difficult to forsee emulation of such a system in the UK, without the social mobility issues being heightened significantly by the deep-seated class prejudices that exist in our society. Anything meaningful instituted at the level of secondary education particularly would need to be done extremely carefully

  3. Nice overview. But some specification is needed.

    You say: ” Due to the Bologna process, both types of institutions now award equivalent degrees, but previously Fachhochschulen awarded graduates Diplomas, not Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees.”

    This makes it sound as if Universities previously already awarded Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees but not Fachhochulen (FH). This is not correct.

    Prior to Bologna, which was and still is contentious for many*, universities would award the “Diplom” or a “Magister” while FHs only the “Diplom (FH)” (this is not comparable to anything knows as a “diploma” in the UK). For a Diplom (FH) you needed to study for a minimum of four years (including a 6 month placement) and for the university Diplom/Magister often even five years.

    *some institutions and faculties still award or have reintroduced “proper” four or five year Diplomstudiengaenge (Diplom awarding programmes) to replace the three year BA.

    Before Bologna, a three year degree, such as a BA or BSc for a UK university, was not perceived or recognised as a full (“proper”) and relevant first degree in Germany; irrespective of whether the institution was a FH or a university. Most universities and FHs treated a three year Bachelor degree as a slightly better “Vordiplom”.

    The “Vordiplom” (a kind of pre-diploma) was a compulsory often certified examination after the “Grundstudium” or basic/foundational studies – roughly halfway through your studies – allowing you to pass to the second and final stage, the “Hauptstudium” or advaced/main studies incorporating parts of what is today covered by a Master’s degree).

    While the general dividing lines between universities and FHs have been the more applied orientation of the FHs and their lack of a (foundational/basis) research focus as well as the lack of research degree awarding powers, these lines are increasingly blurring as a result of Bologna. The German states of Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt, for example, now allow FHs to award the doctorate. Not everyone in Germany, especially the universities for obvious reasons, believes this development to be a good thing.

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