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Gymnasium (Germany)


Gymnasium (Germany)

The Kolleg St. Blasien in a former Benedictine monastery
These Gymnasiasts enjoy rowing on the Unterelbe in 1959

Gymnasium (German pronunciation: ; German plural: Gymnasien), in the German education system, is the most advanced of the three types of German secondary schools, the others being Realschule and Hauptschule. Gymnasium strongly emphasizes academic learning, comparable to the British grammar school system or with prep schools in the United States. A student attending gymnasium is called a "gymnasiast" (German plural: "Gymnasiasten"). In 2009/10 there were 3,094 gymnasien in Germany, with c. 2,475,000 students (about 28 percent of all precollegiate students during that period), resulting in an average student number of 800 students per school.[1] Gymnasien are generally public, state-funded schools, but a number of parochial and private gymnasien also exists. In 2009/10, 11.1 percent of gymnasium students attended a private gymnasium.[1] These often charge tuition fees, though many also offer scholarships. Tuition fees are lower than in comparable European countries.

Some gymnasien are boarding schools, while others run as day schools; they are now predominantly co-educational, and few single-sex schools remain. Students are admitted at 10 or 13 years of age and are required to have completed four to six years of Grundschule (primary education). In some States of Germany, permission to apply for Gymnasium is nominally dependent on a letter of recommendation written by a teacher or a certain GPA, although when parents petition, an examination can be used to decide the outcome.

Traditionally, a pupil attended gymnasium for nine years in western Germany, or eight in eastern Germany. However, since 2004, there has been a strong political movement to reduce the time spent at the gymnasium to eight years throughout Germany, dispensing with the traditional ninth year or Oberprima, which is roughly equivalent to the first year of higher education. Final year students take the Abitur final exam. The Abitur is not comparable to the SAT in the United States; it tests material learned in high school across a wider spectrum than the SAT. Most gymnasien hold an alumni meeting at least once a year.

People unfamiliar with the German system sometimes wrongly assume that only those graduating from a gymnasium are admitted to university in Germany. Although this is normally the case, it is not always true. There are several other ways to earn the Abitur, and there are 50 ways to enter higher education in Germany.[2] In 2008 in some states, less than half of university freshmen had graduated from a gymnasium. Even in Bavaria (a state that has a policy of strengthening the gymnasium) only 56 percent of freshmen had graduated from a gymnasium.[3] However, in many cases, it is easier to be accepted by an institution of higher education if one has graduated from a gymnasium. For example, many universities require students who want to study certain subjects, such as medicine, to hold the Latinum, a certificate of Latin comprehension. Gymnasium students can be awarded the Latinum by their school. Students attending other schools often don't have that chance; however, they can take a Latin exam, which if passed, allows the student to be awarded a Latinum. This requires extra initiative, however, because many non-gymnasium schools do not offer Latin.

The gymnasium is backed by a strong lobby in western Germany, and conservative politicians, particularly in the southern regions of Germany, claim that the gymnasium is the best school form in the world.[4] Indeed, it is by far the number one in the PISA league table.[5] However some hold the opinion that "this success comes at the cost of a catastrophe in the Hauptschulen"[5]


  • History 1
  • Other methods 2
  • Gymnasien for girls 3
  • Historical names given to yeargroups in the German gymnasium 4
  • Modern languages 5
  • Languages of instruction 6
  • Subjects taught 7
  • A school for the gifted? 8
  • Common types of gymnasium 9
    • Humanistisches Gymnasium (humanities-oriented) 9.1
    • Neusprachliches Gymnasium (focus on modern languages) 9.2
    • Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium (focus on math and science) 9.3
    • Previous names 9.4
  • Special types of gymnasium 10
    • The Sportgymnasium and the Skigymnasium 10.1
    • Musikgymnasium 10.2
    • Europäisches Gymnasium 10.3
  • Gymnasium for mature students 11
  • Culture of Teaching and Testing 12
  • Gymnasium and academic grading 13
  • A "gymnasium in the south" 14
  • Athletics 15
  • Social clubs 16
  • Exchange visits 17
  • Dress code 18
  • Mentoring 19
  • Booster clubs 20
  • Teacher education 21
  • Admission to a gymnasium 22
  • Tuition 23
  • On cultural and ethnic diversity 24
  • "Great Equaliser" or "Breeding Ground of Privilege"? 25
    • Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 25.1
    • PISA study 25.2
    • ELEMENT-study 25.3
    • Study by the University of Mainz 25.4
    • The big-fish-little-pond effect 25.5
    • Are children with immigration backgrounds discriminated against? 25.6
    • Do gymnasien help working-class students catch up with their middle-class peers? 25.7
    • Does gymnasium matter after all? 25.8
  • Performance of Gymnasiasten on various tests 26
    • Gymnasium and IQ 26.1
    • Gymnasium and performance on standardised tests 26.2
    • Gymnasium and selflessness 26.3
    • Gymnasium and performance on the TOEFL 26.4
    • Defending comprehensive schools 26.5
  • Quotas 27
  • The Berlin Gymnasium lottery 28
  • Opinions about gymnasium 29
  • See also 30
  • References 31
  • Further reading 32


The gymnasium arose out of the humanistic movement of the sixteenth century. The first general school system to incorporate the gymnasium emerged in Saxony in 1528, with the study of Greek and Latin added to the curriculum later; these languages became the foundation of teaching and study in the gymnasium, which then offered a nine-year course. Hebrew was also taught in some gymnasien.

Other methods

In Prussia, the Realgymnasium offered instead a nine-year course including Latin, but not Greek. Prussian Progymnasien and Realprogymnasien provided six- or seven-year courses, and the Oberschulen later offered nine-year courses with neither Greek nor Latin.

Gymnasien for girls

Students of the Gymnasium Nonnenwerth, an all-girls school in 1960

The early twentieth century saw an increase in the number of Lyzeum schools for girls, which offered a six-year course. The rising prominence of girls' gymnasien was mainly due to the ascendancy of the German feminist movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, corresponding to the rising demand for women's university education.

Co-educational gymnasien have become widespread since the 1970s, and today, single-sex gymnasien are rare in Germany.

Historical names given to yeargroups in the German gymnasium

When primary school ended with the fourth grade and pupils left German basic secondary schools (Volksschule/Hauptschule or Realschule) at the end of the ninth or tenth grade, the gymnasium used special terms for its grade levels:

School year Year in gymnasium
Fifth Sexta
Sixth Quinta
Seventh Quarta
Eighth Untertertia (lower Tertia)
Ninth Obertertia (upper Tertia)
Tenth Untersekunda (lower Secunda)
Eleventh Obersekunda (upper Secunda)
Twelfth Unterprima (lower Prima)
Thirteenth Oberprima (upper Prima)

Modern languages

The introduction of French and English as elective languages in the early twentieth century brought about the greatest change to German secondary education since the introduction of the Realschulen in the eighteenth century. Today, German gymnasien teach English, French, or Latin as a compulsory primary foreign language, while the compulsory second foreign language may be English, French, Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish or Russian. The German State of Berlin, where secondary education normally begins in the seventh year of schooling, has some specialised gymnasien beginning with the fifth year which teach Latin or French as a primary foreign language.

Languages of instruction

Although some specialist gymnasien have English or French as the language of instruction, most lessons in a typical gymnasium (apart from foreign language courses) are conducted in High (Standard) German. This is true even in regions where High German is not the prevailing dialect.

Subjects taught

Gymnasium student in crafts class, Bonn, 1988
This vignette of the Arndt-Gymnasium Dahlem shows a young man studying at the left and a young man doing sports at the right; it was printed on the 2008 school programme

Curricula differ from school to school, but generally include German, mathematics, informatics/computer science, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, art (as well as crafts and design), music, history, philosophy, civics / citizenship,[6] social sciences, and several foreign languages.

For younger students nearly the entire curriculum of a gymnasium is compulsory; in upper years more elective subjects are available, but the choice is not as wide as in a U.S. high school. Generally academic standards are high as the gymnasium typically caters for the upper 25-35% of the ability range.

Schools concentrate not only on academic subjects, but on producing well-rounded individuals, so physical education and religion or ethics are compulsory, even in non-denominational schools which are prevalent. The German constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, so although religion or ethics classes are compulsory, students may choose to study a specific religion or none at all.

A school for the gifted?

Gynmasien are often conceived as schools for the gifted. This, however, depends on many factors; some states (such as Bavaria) accept only specifically chosen students (by elementary grades or by entrance examination), and so do certain specialist schools, like the Federal School of Saxony - Saint Afra, in other states. However, even "the gifted" are in this sense a fourth or fifth of the population. Most on the other hand have no specific such provision. Though gymnasien traditionally impose strict grading that causes students of average academic ability to struggle, many schools share the motto of the Skigymnasium CJD Christophorusschule: "No child left behind" ("Keiner darf verloren gehen").[7]

Common types of gymnasium

Humanistisches Gymnasium (humanities-oriented)

Representation of Aristoteles at the Joachimsthalsches Gymnasium, a humanities-oriented gymnasium
Memorial for 128 students killed in action in the First World War. "To you the laurel in deep gratitude; for us, the shattered sword as a holy reminder."

Humanities-oriented gymnasien usually have a long tradition. They teach Latin and Ancient Greek (sometimes also Old Hebrew) and additionally teach English or French or both. The focus is on the classical antiquity and the civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

For certain subjects, such as History, many universities still require the Latinum, some also the Graecum, proof of study or comprehension of Latin or Ancient Greek, respectively.

Neusprachliches Gymnasium (focus on modern languages)

This type of school is less traditional. It teaches at least two modern languages. In most cases the students have the chance to learn Latin as well.[8]

Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium (focus on math and science)

Often combined with the Neusprachliches Gymnasium this type of schools have a greater focus on Maths and Science. Most schools offer Latin or French as second foreign language.

Previous names

The Gymnasium with focus on modern languages used to be called Realgymnasium, the Gymnasium with focus on math and sciences used to be called Oberrealschule. The Gymnasium was supposed to be the humanities-oriented variety; a common term for all of these schools put together was Oberschule (literally, "upper school"). In the 1960s, school reformers in an equalization effort discontinued these names.

Special types of gymnasium

The Sportgymnasium and the Skigymnasium

The Sportgymnasium is a school of the gymnasium-type, usually a boarding school, that has its main focus on sport. The Skigymnasium has a focus on skiing.[9]


The Musikgymnasium has its focus on music.[10] (In Bavaria) It requires to learn to play an instrument (mostly the piano or the violin) as one of their major subjects.

Europäisches Gymnasium

The Europäisches Gymnasium has its focus on languages. It exists in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. In Bavaria, students are required to learn three different foreign languages. They start learning their first foreign language in 5th grade, the second in 6th grade and the third by grade 10 or 11.[11] In Baden-Württemberg students attending the Europäisches gymnasium start learning Latin and English while in 5th grade. They pick up their third language by 7th or 8th grade and their fourth foreign language by 10th grade. By 10th grade, students also choose if they want to drop one of the languages they started in 5th grade. Later, they may drop another language. Students are required to take at least two foreign languages and fluency is a requirement for graduation. If they wish, students may also graduate with four foreign languages.[12]

Gymnasium for mature students

There are a number of gymnasien for mature students, people who graduated from school, but did not receive an Abitur. Most of these schools have only the top three or four year groups, rather than the traditional 5th to 13th years. Examples are the Abendgymnasium, the Aufbaugymnasium and the Wirtschaftsgymnasium.

Culture of Teaching and Testing

Students raising their hands to indicate they know the answer, Bonn, 1988
This 1961 picture shows a student standing up, to answer the teacher's question. On the wall is a Christian cross, then commonly found in a gymnasium classroom, but now less common. In 1995, a court ruled it violates the rights of non-Christian students and must be removed if any student objects.

German gymnasien follow different pedagogical philosophies and teaching methods may vary. In the most traditional schools, students rise when the teacher enters the classroom. The teacher says "Good morning, class" and the class answers "Good morning, Mr./Ms. ...". The teacher then asks them to sit down. Ex cathedra teaching is the norm in German gymnasien.[13] The teacher stands in front of the class and talks about a subject. The students write down what he says. Students are not to talk during that time, except when called on to answer a question. Students are not allowed to shout out the answers, but must raise their hands and wait until called upon. In the most traditional Gymnasia, students are supposed to rise and stand beside their chairs to answer. Senior students are sometimes allowed to hold debates. This manner of teaching is used in both German lessons and foreign language lessons.

Students used to be supposed to call their teachers by the appropriate title, e. g. Herr Studienrat (comparable to English "sir", as the German military uses a similar technique). This is generally outdated. A headmaster might also be addressed more laxly as Herr Direktor (the correct title being Herr Oberstudiendirektor), which can still be found. The general mode of address is these days Mr. + surname. Dr. is, as always in Germany, never part of the address the way it is in English (a doctor might only be called Herr Doktor, "Mr. Doctor".) Until 1970, students called their teachers "Professor" ("Klassprofessor"). Teachers might call their young students by their first name or their last name; using "Mr./Ms. ..." is possible, even sometimes officially required (a German court ordered that older students attending a gymnasium may not be called by their first name unless they give permission), but not quite usual.

Corporal punishment was banned in 1973. Teachers who want to punish students put them in detention or assign them boring tasks. Some have them write essays like "Why a student should not interrupt his teachers". Students may also be subjected to official disciplinary measures, such as a Verweis (reprimand), not unlike equally-called measures in the disciplining of civil-servants or soldiers; the hardest of these measures is expelling from school. Such pupils have to go to another school, or even be banned from attending state schools altogether. This is rare though. Some private schools are more easy with expulsions, along the line that the pupil in question does not fit into the community and should thus try his fortune with a school officially designated to take all pupils i.e. a state school.

While this sounds like discipline is strict in German Gymnasia, in many cases, the official rules are watered down and ignored, except when school officials are watching. For example, while teachers and upper-class students are not allowed to call one another by their first names, in some cases they do. Relationships can be very informal and notoriously some teachers have even become drunk with their students after school. A 'Klassenabend' or 'Kurstreffen' are features of German schools, whereby teachers meet their form in the evening for a social occasion.

There are written, as well as oral, exams. Written exams are essay-based and called Klausur and typically take one and a half hours. Many German students never take a multiple choice test.

Gymnasium and academic grading

Gymnasium is a school where most of the students are college-bound and stringent grading is traditional. Pupils of average ability find themselves at the bottom of their class and might have done better at another type of school.

A study revealed that upper-class gymnasium students of average mathematical ability[14] found themselves at the very bottom of their class and had an average grade of "5" (fail). Comprehensive school upper-class students of average ability in mathematics found themselves in the upper half of their class and had an average grade of "3+".[15]

Students who graduated from a gymnasium often do better in college than their grades or ranking in class would predict.

A "gymnasium in the south"

To many traditionally minded Germans, a "gymnasium in the south" is the epitome of a good education, while to other Germans, it is the epitome of outmoded traditions and elitism.

A study revealed that gymnasien in the south did have higher standards than those in other parts of Germany. On a standardised mathematics test provided by scientists, the study showed that students attending a southern gymnasium outperformed those attending one elsewhere in Germany.[16]

A 2007 study revealed that those attending a gymnasium in the north had similar IQs to those attending one in the south. Yet those attending a gymnasium in the north under-performed on standardised tests. The students who did worst came from Hamburg and the students who did best came from Baden-Württemberg. According to the study, the final year students in Hamburg lagged two years behind those attending a gymnasium in Baden-Württemberg. Because students had the same IQ, the difference in knowledge can only be explained by a difference in the teaching methods.[17] On the other hand, gymnasien in the south have the reputation of valuing knowledge over creativity, while those in the north have the reputation of valuing creativity over knowledge. Comparing students on a creativity test could produce different results.


Rowing has a long tradition for many German Gymnasia: Students participating in a Regatta in Neumünster, 1959
Students of the Arndt-Gymnasium, standing in front of their "rowing house", christening their new boat in 2007

Students from all grades are required to take physical education classes. Most gymnasien have sports teams. Sports often include soccer, badminton, table tennis, rowing and hockey.

Most gymnasien offer students the opportunity to participate in sport-related outings. In the summer months, they have the opportunity to enjoy rowing trips or sailing and in winter months, they may go skiing. Students are not required to participate, but teachers see the trips as good for building character and leadership skills and encourage students to participate. As a rule, most of these trips come with fees. A school "Förderverein" (booster club) pays for those wishing to attend, but unable to afford the fee.

Social clubs

Brass-band of the gymnasium in Gütersloh, 2006, the students are wearing traditional uniforms and caps

Most gymnasien offer social and academic clubs. Most traditional among these (sports excepted) are drama, journalism (i. e. producing a Schülerzeitung) and choir. However, chess, photography, debating, improv, environmentalism, additional math, experimental physics, IT classes, etc. can also be found.

Some gymnasien require students to participate in at least one club (of the student's choosing), but in most cases, participation is voluntary.

Exchange visits

It has become increasingly common for gymnasium students to spend some time attending school in another country. Very popular destinations are English-speaking countries such as the US, Great Britain, Canada and Ireland; however, as it is increasingly difficult to find partner schools in English-speaking countries (high demand, little supply, among other things because of the limited importance of German lessons) even countries whose language is not taught at all are visited. While this is not required, it is encouraged. Some pupils might go a year or half a year abroad (and are granted some time to catch up with their studies at home), while the more general thing is an organized stay of 2–4 weeks in either country in a group of 20+ students with two teachers (who are, naturally, dispensed from every-day duties during the time).

Dress code

Gymnasium students wearing traditional caps in 1904. Wearing them was seen not as a liability, but a privilege
Students at the Heinrich-Böll-Gymnasium (Ludwigshafen) have a shirt that says "Reading endangers stupidity" (it resembles the German warning label on cigarettes)

Generally, gymnasien have no school uniforms or official dress codes. However, students may be expected to dress modestly and tastefully. Some gymnasien offer branded shirts, but students are allowed to choose whether or not to wear them. For specific school events (like the Abitur ball) students may be expected to wear formal dress, usually consisting of dresses for women and blazer and tie for men, but even this is no longer the case for every gymnasium.

In the past, Gymnasiasten wore a traditional cap, marking them as a gymnasium student. The colour of the cap differed by gymnasium and grade. In case of the Ludwig Meyn Gymnasium in Uetersen, for example, in 1920:

  • Untertertia-students wore green cap with a blue, red and white cord
  • Obertertia-students wore a green cap, with a black-and-white cord
  • Untersekunda-students wore a violet cap with a blue, white and red cord
  • Obersekunda-students wore a violet cap with a black-and-white cord
  • Unterprima-students wore a red cap with, a blue white and red cord
  • Oberprima-students wore a red cap with a black and white cord

After the Machtergreifung of the Nazis, the gymnasium cap was banned for political reasons. Literature describing student caps was burned.Students received new clothing from the League of German Girls and the Hitler Youth. gymnasium students were forbidden to wear clothing that identified them as members of their school. Now, it is no longer illegal and these caps are again being sold[18] however, few ever wear one.

At some schools, when graduating, students receive an Abitur T-shirt, which is printed with the name of the school, the year of graduation and a slogan.


Mecklenburg, that leads to prestigious Abitur exams.

As the new crop of students arrive at gymnasium, there is often a period of adjustment. Some gymnasien have mentors that help the new, younger students get settled in. They show them around the school and introduce them to older students. In the case of boarding schools, they also show them the city. The mentoring does not mean a student is seen as being "at risk". On the contrary, if there is a mentoring programme, all new students are likely to have a mentor.

Some schools have mentors (mostly alumni or parents) who help graduates choose a college and who arrange practical training for them.

In 2008, a mentoring programme called "Arbeiterkind" ("working-class child") was founded to assist students from working-class families make the transition. A year later, this organization had 1000 mentors and 70 local chapters.[19]

Booster clubs

Gymnasiasten on a skiing-trip. In many cases, the booster club covers the costs of poorer students

The Schulverein or Förderverein is an organization formed for financial support of the school. Members may be parents and alumni, or philanthropists. They pay for books for the school library and offer a hand to students from less affluent families, affording them the opportunity to participate in field trips and school outings.

Teacher education

In general, to obtain a teaching degree for Gymnasia, prospective teachers have to study at least two subjects which are part of the curriculum of the gymnasien. Some decide to study three subjects or more. In addition, the university programmes for teachers always include lectures on educational sciences and didactics. After nine semesters (4.5 years) or more, students have to pass the Erstes Staatsexamen (first state examination), roughly equivalent to a Master's degree, which marks the end of their academic training. However, having passed this test does not qualify someone at once to become a gymnasium teacher. This test is followed by the Referendariat (internship), which normally lasts two years. During this time, the student teacher gains practical teaching experience under the supervision of experienced colleagues. This phase is completed by a second state examination, which assesses the trainees' practical teaching ability. Those having successfully completed both the first and second state examinations may then apply for employment at a gymnasium.

However, the systems of teacher education differ among the Bundesländer, include exceptions and are often modified. One trend is the abolishing of the first state examination in favour of Master of Education programmes. The second state examination is not affected by this development.[20]

Admission to a gymnasium

The first class of students admitted at the Gymnasium Kirchseeon (founded in 2008) gather in the assembly hall to celebrate their first day of school

Admission procedures vary by state and gymnasium. Most gymnasien do not have written entrance exams. In some cases, students need a certain grade point average in order to apply to gymnasium. In most cases, students applying to a gymnasium nominally need a letter of recommendation written by the primary school teacher. The letter covers the child's academic performance, classroom behaviour, personal attributes, leadership abilities and extracurricular activities.

Based on that letter, the gymnasium determines the applicant's suitability for the school. Some gymnasien have informal interviews during which they present their school to the applicant and in turn, learn about him as the school representative works with the applicant and his parents to find out if that gymnasium is a good fit for the child.

The state of Berlin allows its gymnasien to pick 70% to 65% of their students, the rest being selected by lottery. Any qualified child can enter the lottery, regardless of previous school performance (see: Education in Berlin).

Some gymnasien are inundated with applications and some children have to resort to second or third choices.


State-funded schools (a big majority) are tuition-free, as foreseen by the respective laws, even often on constitutional level. Segregation of students by parent wealth or income is looked down upon, to the point of being an exception to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to have private schools (Article 7 section 4 of the German constitution, Sondierungsverbot). Of the private gymnasien, the vast majority is run by the Catholic Church on very low tuition fees (which is more easy as by Concordat, the Church receives a high percentage of the amount of money the State need not spend for a pupil in a Church-school); fees for schools who need to earn money by teaching are higher. Schools with fees generally offer scholarships.

In 2005, the German government spent €5,400 per student for those attending public gymnasium. This is less than what was spent on a student attending Hauptschule, but more than was spent on those attending Realschule.[21] It should be noted that some Hauptschule and Gesamtschule students have special needs requiring extra help, so those schools cannot operate as cost-effectively as gymnasien.

On cultural and ethnic diversity

While one third of all German youngsters have at least one foreign-born parent[22] and other German schools are becoming more multicultural, gymnasien have remained more or less socially and ethnically exclusive. However, that is only half the truth. Children belonging to Russian-Jewish, Chinese, Greek, Korean or Vietnamese minorities[23][24][25] are more likely to attend a gymnasium than ethnic Germans. Yet, most minorities are less likely to attend a gymnasium than ethnic Germans. A study done in Baden-Württemberg revealed that 85.9% of students attending a gymnasium were ethnic Germans.[26] Thus the gymnasium is the German school with the most homogenous student body. According to Der Spiegel magazine, some minority students were denied a letter of recommendation for entrance to a gymnasium by their teachers simply because they were immigrants. According to Der Spiegel, teachers think minority students would not feel at home at a school having such a homogenous student body.[27]

Opponents of gymnasium complain that lessons do not deal enough with issues related to diversity or "white privileges". Most gymnasium teachers are ethnic Germans, making it hard for minority students to find role models amongst their teachers. However, this is also true of other schools. A study revealed that only 1 percent of German teachers come from immigrant families.[28] Nowadays, the boards of many German secondary schools feel pressured to diversify their student body. Some have started campaigns designed to encourage students of ethnic minorities to apply for enrollment. Many schools now offer a support system for students from non-German ethnic groups, addressing diversity in their teachings and/or scheduling "Celebrate Diversity Weeks".

"Great Equaliser" or "Breeding Ground of Privilege"?

Stella Matutina in Feldkirch
The Georg-Cantor-Gymnasium is an all-day school founded in 1989

A study revealed that 50% of the students visiting a gymnasium come from families of the top levels of German society.[29] Some people have voiced concerns that gymnasien are designed to accommodate a minority of privileged children and that talented working-class children are impeded in gaining access to gymnasium. There have been calls for the abolition of the gymnasium and a switch-over to comprehensive schools.[30] Others want the gymnasien to target more children from poor backgrounds.[31]

Some believe that gymnasien are "the great equaliser" and have pointed out that state-funded and parochial gymnasien have helped many students rise above humble backgrounds. Some also point to the fact that gymnasien are the only schools where working-class students nearly catch up with their middle-class peers, while in the case of comprehensive schools, the effects of social class on student academic performance are more pronounced than in any other type of school.[32]

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study revealed that working-class children needed to achieve higher reading scores than middle-class children in order to get letters of recommendation for entrance into the gymnasium. After testing their reading abilities, the odds for upper-middle-class children to be nominated for a gymnasium were 2.63 times higher than for working-class children.

Points needed to be nominated for gymnasium[33]
Teachers nominating
child for gymnasium
Parents wanting child
to attend gymnasium
Children from upper-middle-class backgrounds 537 498
Children from lower-middle-class backgrounds 569 559
Children of parents holding pink-collar jobs 582 578
Children of self-employed parents 580 556
Children from upper-working-class backgrounds 592 583
Children from lower-working-class backgrounds 614 606

According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, students from ethnic German families were 4.96 times more likely than children from immigrant families to have their teacher write a letter of recommendation. Even when comparing children with the same reading scores, ethnic Germans were still 2.11 times as likely to receive the letter.[34]

PISA study

According to the PISA study, competency was linked to social class. After allowing for cognitive competency, middle-class children were still attending gymnasium at three times the rate of working-class children. After allowing for reading competency and cognitive competency, children from the highest social class still attended gymnasium at four to six times the rate of working-class children. According to the study, immigrant children were not discriminated against. The reason so few immigrant children attended gymnasium was poor reading skills. After allowing for reading competency, children from immigrant families were as likely as children from native German families to attend gymnasium.[35]


The German scientist Lehmann did a longitudinal study on the performance of pupils in Berlin in standardised tests. Such pupils used to be admitted to a gymnasium after the fourth grade and after the sixth grade. Pupils in German schools do not undergo standardised testing, but rather write essays. However, Lehmann wanted to know if those test results would predict the likelihood of admission to a gymnasium after the sixth grade and if admission to a gymnasium after the fourth grade would boost their performance in standardised tests.

Lehmann's findings were as follows:

  • Performance in standardised tests was a key indicator of admission to a gymnasium; after evaluating the performance in those tests, it was clear that social class did not play a major role in determining whether or not a pupil would be admitted to a gymnasium.
  • Working-class children were not discriminated against; in fact, there seemed to be some evidence that after evaluating performances in standardised tests, gymnasium admission after the sixth grade seemed to be slightly biased against middle-class children and favoured working-class children as well as those from the higher social classes.
  • After evaluating the test scores, it was shown that girls were somewhat more likely to be admitted to the gymnasium than boys.
  • Very few pupils who did poorly in standardised tests in the fourth grade were admitted to gymnasium. However, those who were, were able to improve their performance in those tests in subsequent years.
  • Even after testing performance in grade four, those who were admitted to gymnasium outperformed their peers who were not at grade six[36]

Study by the University of Mainz

A study by the University of Mainz revealed that of all children living in the city of Wiesebaden, 81% of children from the upper social classes and only 14% percent of working-class children received a letter of recommendation from their teachers. It also showed that only 76% of working-class children whose grades placed them at the top of the class, as well as 91% of children from the upper social classes in the same situation received a recommendation.[37]

The big-fish-little-pond effect

According to scientists Joachim Tiedemann and Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha, there was a big-fish-little-pond effect. Children were more likely to have their teacher write a letter of recommendation if the remainder of their primary school class was not too bright. They stated,

A high share of students with above-average academic achievement, cognitive abilities and achievement-oriented parents actually decreases students’ chances of getting into higher educational tracks (Realschule and gymnasium instead of Hauptschule).[38]

Are children with immigration backgrounds discriminated against?

According to the same study, they are not. The researchers stated,

After controlling for individual students’ competencies, e.g. their cognitive abilities, the common assumption that children with immigration backgrounds are disadvantaged could not be confirmed. Even a high proportion of children in a class who do not speak German as a family language does not induce adverse results in recommendations.[38]

Do gymnasien help working-class students catch up with their middle-class peers?

In 2003, a study revealed that lower-class and working-class children attending a comprehensive school lagged behind their less disadvantaged peers in terms of mathematical abilities. The same study revealed that working- and lower-class children attending gymnasium nearly caught up to their peers attending the same school.[39] However, special care must be taken in interpreting the data, since lower- and working-class children admitted to gymnasium may be different from other pupils in their class ab initio.

Does gymnasium matter after all?

A study done by Helmut Fend revealed that gymnasium may not matter as much as is generally perceived. According to the study, parents' social class, not schooling, determined children's life trajectories. The study revealed that upper-middle-class children graduating from gymnasium (and upper-middle-class children graduating from comprehensive schools) later graduated from college and followed the footsteps of their parents into higher professional jobs. It also revealed that for every working-class child who graduated from college, there were 12 upper-middle-class children who did.[40][41]

Performance of Gymnasiasten on various tests

Gymnasium and IQ

Only a few specialised gymnasien admit their students on the basis of IQ tests. A 1999 study revealed 10th graders attending a normal gymnasium and 10th graders attending a Realschule had higher IQs than 10th graders attending a comprehensive. It also revealed that the difference was greater in 10th grade than it had been in 7th grade.[42][43] The media reacted to the charge that comprehensive schools are "the place where intelligence atrophies".[43] The Max Planck Institute for Human Development stated that nobody was "dumbed down" at the comprehensive school and that those attending a comprehensive in 10th grade did no worse on IQ tests than in 7th grade. The institute also stated that the IQ difference between comprehensives on the one hand and gymnasien and Realschulen on the other was greater by 10th grade than in 7th grade because the mean IQ of those at gymnasium and Realschule had risen. The institute did not believe, however, that attending Realschule or gymnasium boosts students' IQ. Instead, they stated that students with lower IQs who attend gymnasium or Realschule might find themselves increasingly unable to keep up and thus may drop out by 10th grade.[44]

Gymnasium and performance on standardised tests

As has been mentioned before, gymnasien and Gesamtschulen in Germany do not administer standardised tests to their students and few students are familiar with those kinds of tests. Yet, scientists sometimes use standardised tests to evaluate schools. 10th graders attending a gymnasium have been shown to outperform 10th graders attending a comprehensive school by one standard deviation on a standardised mathematics test. That equals 2 to 3 years of schooling.[45] Proponents of comprehensive schools have criticised such studies, stating they believe standardised tests to be biased against those attending comprehensive school. They have said comprehensives taught their students "Independence, capacity for team work, creativity, conflict management and broad mindedness" and that those qualities cannot be measured on standardised tests.[46]

Gymnasium and selflessness

According to a disputed study evaluating students' character, based on a standardised test, those attending a Realschule or gymnasium were more likely to be respectful and considerate of other peoples' feelings than those attending a comprehensive school.[47] According to this study, gymnasium students were more likely to be classified as "selfless" than students attending any other kind of school and those attending a comprehensive were more likely to be classified "self-serving" than those attending any other type of school. This study has been widely criticised. It has been claimed that character cannot be measured on standardised tests and that students' answers might not reflect their real behaviour. Charges were raised that questions were worded in academic language[48] thus, students attending a comprehensive may not have understood them properly. It has also been suggested that the answers the students gave may have been influenced by social class, that gymnasium students may have been brought up to think they were selfless, while really they were not. Proponents of comprehensive schools stated gymnasium students were phony and elitist while pretending to be selfless.[46]

Gymnasium and performance on the TOEFL

A study revealed that college-bound students attending a traditional gymnasium did better on the TOEFL than college-bound students attending a comprehensive, but those did better than college-bound students attending an "Aufbaugymnasium", "Technisches Gymnasium" or "Wirtschaftsgymnasium" (the last three schools serve students, who graduated from another school receiving no Abitur and give them the opportunity to earn the Abitur).

Type of school Percentage of students earning at least 500 points Percentage of students earning at least 550 points Percentage of students earning at least 600 points[49]
Traditional gymnasium 64.7 % 32.0 % 8.1 %
Comprehensive school 30.5 % 11.3 % 2.2 %
Aufbaugymnasium 18.9% 5.2 % .9 %
Wirtschaftsgymnasium 19.7 % 5.7 % .4 %
Technical gymnasium 22.3 % 12.6 % 1.0%

Defending comprehensive schools

Proponents of comprehensive schools often hold the opinion that it is unfair to compare gymnasien and Realschulen with comprehensive schools. While gymnasien and Realschulen often handpick their students, comprehensives are open to all.

Proponents of comprehensives also think they lack the most academically promising young people, who have been skimmed off by other schools. They also point out that some comprehensives (such as the "Laborschule Bielefeld" and the "Helene Lange School" in Wiesbaden) ranked among Germany's best schools.


Germany's Left Party introduced a discussion concerning affirmative action. According to Stefan Zillich, quotas should be "a possibility" to help working-class children who do not do well in school gain access to gymnasium.[31] Headmasters have objected, saying this type of policy would be "a disservice" to poor children, that they would not be able to keep up academically. The headmasters have also expressed concerns that children of working-class families would not feel welcome at gymnasien. Wolfgang Harnischfeger, headmaster of a well-known Berlin gymnasium, has stated,

It can be noticed in children as young as kindergarten students, that children take after their parents. They emulate their language, their way of dressing, their way of spending their free time. Kids from Neukölln [a poor neighbourhood] would not feel good about themselves if they had to attend a type of school that mainly serves students from social classes different from their own. They will not be able to integrate. Every field day, every school party will show that".[50]

He also said "this kind of policy would weaken the gymnasium" and that this would be dangerous because "German society could not afford to do without the excellence the gymnasium produces".[50] Stefan Zillich answered this, saying that "German society [cannot] afford to have so few adults with a world-class education".[50]

The Berlin Gymnasium lottery

In 2009, the Senate of Berlin decided that Berlin's gymnasium should no longer be allowed to handpick all of their students. It was ruled that while gymnasien should be able to pick 70% to 65% of their students, the other places are to be allocated by lottery. Every child will be able to enter the lottery, no matter how he or she performed in primary school. It is hoped that this policy will increase the number of working-class students attending gymnasium.[51] The Left Party proposed that Berlin gymnasien should no longer be allowed to expel students who perform poorly, so that the students who won a gymnasium place in the lottery have a fair chance of graduating from that school.[51] It is not clear yet whether the Berlin Senate will decide in favour of The Left Party's proposal.

Opinions about gymnasium

The Schule Schloss Salem is considered one of the elite schools in Europe and is attended by German and European nobility
  • The Education and Science Workers’ Union advocates the abolition of gymnasium schools in favour of comprehensive schools, arguing that, while gymnasium schools admit middle-class students of average ability, working-class students are admitted only if they are unusually academically able. The Union believes that gymnasium schools select not only for academic merit, but for manners, background and social class.[52]
  • The Deutscher Lehrerverband (German Teachers' Union) supports Gymnasia; their chairman, Josef Kraus, has claimed that German gymnasien "ranked among the finest institutions in the world" and should not be abolished. Kraus also rejected claims that the German system was biased against working-class children, arguing that the German system should not be seen as inferior simply because its qualification system is structured differently from that of other countries: "in Finland or the USA nurses are college educated, yet in Germany they do not have to attend a gymnasium or a college. The Finnish worker's daughter who becomes a nurse is seen as upwardly mobile. The German nurse is just as qualified, but yet she is not seen as upwardly mobile".[4]
  • The Left Party called the gymnasien "an outdated institution"[53] and wants them to be abolished. According to "The Left Party", working-class children are as talented as middle-class children, yet not admitted for gymnasium. The party furthermore holds the opinion that the majority of Germans is opposed to gymnasien and wants them to be abolished.[54] If gymnasien will not be abolished "The Left Party" is in favour of affirmative action.[31]
  • The Social Democratic Party of Germany wants to abolish gymnasien in favour of comprehensive schools, but they have been criticised by the media after it turned out that SPD politicians such as Andrea Ypsilanti send their children to a fancy private gymnasium.[55]
  • The Alliance '90/The Greens Party is in favour of abolishing gymnasien. Renate Künast has said that every child should have the possibility to realise his or her potential, but that the German class system was keeping them from doing so. "Students from poor backgrounds attend the Hauptschule, students from middle-class backgrounds the Realschule and students who come from a background of privilege the gymnasium. That's a caste-system"[56]
  • According to The Christian Democratic Union parents should be able to choose from a variety of schools and gymnasien should be one of those. Ronald Pofalla said wanting to abolish gymnasien smacks of "egalitarism" and that those who want to do this overlook the fact that children have different talents and thus different needs.[57] According to Annette Schavan a majority of Germans did not want gymnasien to be abolished.[58]
  • The Free Democratic Party is in favour of the gymnasium. They said that parents should be able to choose from a number of schools and decide which one was right for their individual child. They also said it should be made easier for students from poor families to attend a private school, the state should pay for that.[59][60]

See also


  1. ^ a b Federal Statistical office of Germany, Fachserie 11, Reihe 1: Allgemeinbildende Schulen - Schuljahr 2009/2010, Wiesbaden 2010
  2. ^ Josef Kraus, Präsident des Deutschen Lehrerverbandes (DL) beim "Tag des Gymnasiums": "Das Gymnasium - Zugpferd des Bildungswesens"
  3. ^ Josef Kraus: "Bildungsgerechtigkeit als ideologische Krücke für Gleichmacherei". Die Tagespost 26th June 2008
  4. ^ a b Wetzlar Kurier. 6 January 2006. "Einheitsschulen - das falsche Rezept für PISA"
  5. ^ a b Jan-Martin Wiarda: "A new class of education". Guardian. 21 September 2009 [2]
  6. ^ this subject has different names in the different states of Germany. See Gemeinschaftskunde
  7. ^ "Homepage of the CJD Christopherursschule" (in Deutsch). 2010-06-14. Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  8. ^ For more information (in German), see: Neusprachliches Gymnasium.
  9. ^ For more information (in German), see: Sportgymnasium
  10. ^ For more information (in German), see: Musikgymnasium
  11. ^ "Informationen zum Europäischen Gymnasium Typ II". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  12. ^ ""Europäisches Gymnasium" im Aufwind".
  13. ^ Die Zeit, Hamburg, Germany. "Das fliegende Klassenzimmer fliegt noch" (in Deutsch). Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  14. ^ who scored 100 on a mathematics test provided by the scientists conducting the study
  15. ^ Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag; p. 127. The study was conducted in North Rhine-Westphalia with students in an advanced course.
  16. ^ Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag; p. 126-127
  17. ^ Ulrich Sprenger: "Schulleistungen von Abiturienten"
  18. ^ "". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  19. ^ "". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  20. ^ "main source". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  21. ^ Klaus Klemm. "Bildungsausgaben im föderalen System - Zur Umsetzung der Beschlüsse des ‚Bildungsgipfels’" Friedrich Ebert Stiftung p.41
  22. ^ Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland: "Leichter Anstieg der Bevölkerung mit Migrationshintergrund". Pressemitteilung Nr.105 vom 11.03.2008
  23. ^ Marina Mai. 07.10.2008. "Schlaue Zuwanderer: Ostdeutsche Vietnamesen überflügeln ihre Mitschüler". Der Spiegel
  24. ^ Choi, Sun-Ju; Lee, You-Jae (January 2006) (German) (PDF), Umgekehrte Entwicklungshilfe - Die koreanische Arbeitsmigration in Deutschland (Reverse Development Assistance - Korean labour migration in Germany), Seoul: Goethe Institute
  25. ^ Panagiotis Kouparanis: Migrantenkinder mit Bildungserfolg retrieved 20 January 2008
  26. ^ Landesinstitut für Schulentwicklung: "Untersuchung zum Abschneiden von Schülerinnen und Schülern mit Migrationshintergrund im Rahmen der DVA 2007"
  27. ^ Mark Terkessidis. "Pisa-Zwischenruf: Normschüler aufs Gymnasium, Migranten ab in die Hauptschule". Der Spiegel, Dec. 5, 2007.
  28. ^ Anna Münchhausen. "Lehrer mit Migrationshintergrund: Die Schüler warten auf euch". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (April 12, 2009) (German)
  29. ^ Ehmke et al., 2004, In: PISA-Konsortium Deutschland (Hrsg.): PISA 2003 – Der Bildungsstand der Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Ergebnisse des 2. internationalen Vergleiches, Waxmann Verlag, Münster/NewYork, p. 244
  30. ^ "Aktuell: Eine Schule für alle". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  31. ^ a b c Susanne Vieth-Entus. "Sozialquote: Berliner Gymnasien sollen mehr Schüler aus armen Familien aufnehmen". Der Tagesspiegel (Dezember 29, 2008) (German)
  32. ^ Press release. "JU Lüneburg sieht Gesamtschule weiterhin kritisch" Junge Union Lüneburg, Handorf. (September 3, 2008)
  33. ^ "IGLU 2006 Press conference, retrieved May 27, 2008". Retrieved 2010-06-23. 
  34. ^ Dietlind fischer, Volker Elsenbast: "Zur Gerechtigkeit im Bildungssystem". 2007. Münster: Waxmann, p.18
  35. ^ P. Stanat, R. Watermann, J. Baumert, E. Klieme, C. Artelt, M. Neubrand, M. Prenzel, U. Schiefele, W. Schneider, G. Schümer, K.-J. Tillmann, M. Weiß: "Rückmeldung der PISA 2000 Ergebnisse an die beteiligten Schulen". 2002. Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsfoschung German Version; p. 17 + p. 24 retrieved 11 January 2010
  36. ^ Deutscher Philologenverband. "Erkenntnisse der ELEMENT-Studie vorurteilsfrei zur Kenntnis nehmen!" Press release. April 22, 2008
  37. ^ "Schulwechsel: Reiche Eltern - Freibrief fürs Gymnasium". (September 12, 2008) Eltern
  38. ^ a b Joachim Tiedemann and Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha. "Zum Einfluss von Migration und Schulklassenzugehörigkeit auf die Übergangsempfehlung für die Sekundarstufe I", Retrieved January 11, 2010. In German and English
  39. ^ Ehmke et al., 2004, In: PISA-Konsortium Deutschland (Hrsg.): PISA 2003 – Der Bildungsstand der Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Ergebnisse des 2. internationalen Vergleiches, Münster/NewYork: Waxmann, p. 244
  40. ^ Helmut Fend. "Schwerer Weg nach oben: Das Elternhaus entscheidet über den Bildungserfolg – unabhängig von der Schulform". Die Zeit (January 4, 2008) (German)
  41. ^ Jochen Leffers. "Gesamtschule folgenlos, Bildung wird vererbt". Der Spiegel (January 3, 2008) (German)
  42. ^ Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag; p. 126
  43. ^ a b Kathrin Spoerr. "Die Gesamtschule: Ein Ort, an dem Intelligenz verkümmert". Welt (February 8, 2000)
  44. ^ Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung. Letter to the Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft Gesamtschule e.V. (February 9, 2000) (German)
  45. ^ Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag, p. 126-127
  46. ^ a b Anne Ratzki. "BiJu und die Gesamtschule oder: Über die Subjektivität von Noten"
  47. ^ Jürgen Baumert and Olaf Köller. "Nationale und internationale Schulleistungsstudien: was können sie leisten, wo sind ihre Grenzen?" Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung
  48. ^ The questions used double subjunctives
  49. ^ Josef Keuffer, Maria Kublitz-Kramer: "Was braucht die Oberstufe?". 2008. Weinheim and Basel: Beltz-Verlag; p.112
  50. ^ a b c Martin Klesmann. "'Kinder aus Neukölln würden sich nicht integrieren lassen' - Ein Politiker und ein Schulleiter streiten über Sozialquoten an Gymnasien". Berliner Zeitung (February 23, 2009).
  51. ^ a b Heinz-Peter Meidinger. "Berliner Schullotterie". Profil 07-08/2009 (August 24, 2009)
  52. ^ Marianne Demmer (05.01.2009): "Arbeiterkinder müssen Superschüler sein ... um nach der Grundschule aufs Gymnasium zu gehen". GEW
  53. ^ Die Linke: "Bessere Bildung für alle. Bildung ist ein Menschenrecht, keine Ware!"
  54. ^ Die Linke: "Themen A-Z: Schule"
  55. ^ Thomas Zorn (23 January 2008): "Ypsilantis Problem bei der Glaubwürdigkeit: Die hessische SPD-Spitzenkandidatin Ypsilanti schwärmt von finnischen Schulverhältnissen und vom gemeinsamen Lernen der Starken und Schwachen. Doch Theorie und Praxis sind bei ihr zwei Paar Schuhe. Focus
  56. ^ Grüne: "Alle Chancen für den Nachwuchs"
  57. ^ Ronald Pofalla (24 September 2009). "SPD-Bildungspolitik geht am Willen der Bevölkerung vorbei". Berlin. 084/09
  58. ^ Annette Schavan (24. September 2009). "SPD-Bildungspolitik hat auf ganzer Linie versagt". Berlin. 085/09.
  59. ^ Patrick Meinhardt (24. September 2009) : "Glasklares Bürgervotum gegen linkes Einheitsschulmodell". Presseinformation Nr. 974. FDP
  60. ^ "Schulen in staatlicher und freier Trägerschaft". Liberales ABC. FDP

Further reading

  • Matthew Arnold, Higher Schools and Universities in Germany, (second edition, London, 1882)
  • Schrader, Erziehungs- und Unterrichtslehre für Gymnasien und Realschulen, (5th edition, Berlin, 1893)
  • Paulsen, German Education, Past and Present, (translated by Lorenz, New York, 1908)
  • A. Beier, Die höheren Schulen in Preußen und ihre Lehrer, (Halle, 1909)
  • J. F. Brown, The Training of Teachers for Secondary Schools in Germany and the United States, (New York, 1911)
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