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Second stage of Secondary Education

Besides the first stage of secondary education Grammar schools/High schools and the Comprehensive schools have a three-year upper secondary stage (gymnasiale Oberstufe), concluding with the Abitur examination. Upon completing 12 or 13 years of schooling and passing the Abitur examination, the pupil is awarded the ”certificate of general higher education entrance qualification” (Zeugnis der Allgemeinen Hochschulreife - Abitur). This certificate entitles the recipient to enter any institution of higher education. The Abitur certificate also opens the way to vocational training.

In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) this pathway can be completed at

  • a) an eight-year Gymnasium (G8) or a nine year Gymnasium (G9) (Grammar school - general educational school),
  • b) a nine-year Gesamtschule (Comprehensive school - general educational school) or
  • c) a Berufliches Gymnasium (3 – 4 years) (Vocational Grammar school/High school). 

Organisation of General Upper Secondary Education

Although the first stage of secondary education between Gymnasium (Grammar school) and Gesamtschule (Comprehensive school) differs in structure, the gymnasiale Oberstufe (second stage of secondary education) of these two types of school is identical. It lasts 3 years (and a maximum of 4 years).

At the latest upon entrance into the gymnasiale Oberstufe, the pupils are no longer taught in annual classes. The class unit is replaced by a system of compulsory and elective subjects, with the possibility of individual specialisation.

The gymnasiale Oberstufe is divided up into a one-year introductory phase and a two-year qualification phase. Grade 10 may have a dual function as the final year of schooling in lower secondary education (Hauptschule – Typ B, Realschule, Sekundarschule, Gesamtschule) and the first year of schooling in the gymnasiale Oberstufe (Gymnasium – G8). The entitlement to attend the introductory phase of the gymnasiale Oberstufe may be obtained, if certain standards of achievement are met, at the end of grade 9 (at Gymnasium – G8) or grade 10 (at the other types of school).

The classes in the qualification phase are usually structured in relation to half-year terms. Whilst still required to take certain subjects or subject combinations during the qualification phase, they now have scope for individual specialisation. Related subjects are grouped together under main areas. The three main areas with examples of subjects they include are listed below:

  • languages, literature and the arts (e.g. German, foreign languages, fine art, music)
  • social sciences (e.g. history, geography, philosophy, social studies/politics, economics)
  • mathematics, natural sciences and technology (e.g. mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, information technology)

Every single pupil is required to study subjects from each of these three areas right up to the completion of the upper secondary level, including Abitur examinations. Religious education and sport are also compulsory. German, a foreign language, mathematics and physical education as well as, as a rule, history and one of the natural sciences must be taken throughout the qualification phase of the upper secondary level and results must be taken into account in the certificate of the Zeugnis der Allgemeinen Hochschulreife (general higher education entrance qualification).

The subjects at the gymnasiale Oberstufe are divided in courses at a basic level of academic standards (Grundkurs) and courses at an increased level of academic standards (Leistungskurs). The courses at a basic level of academic standards teach the propaedeutics of scientific work, and the courses at an increased level of academic standards provide in-depth teaching of the propaedeutics of scientific work by way of specific examples. The courses at a basic level of academic standards in the subjects German, mathematics and foreign language comprise at least three weekly periods. The pupils are required to choose two subjects at an increased level of academic standards, comprising at least five weekly periods, one of which being either German, a foreign language, mathematics or a natural science.

Pupils who have not or not continuously been taught a second foreign language before entering the gymnasiale Oberstufe are required to take a second foreign language course throughout the gymnasiale Oberstufe.

Foreign language lessons in the upper secondary level build on the competences acquired in lower secondary level. The focuses of teaching and learning are in-depth intercultural understanding, written language in terms of competences involving different text types, corresponding oral discourse abilities and language awareness. These competences are based on the educational standards for the Allgemeine Hochschulreife and aim to achieve at least reference level B2 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for languages that have been studied since lower secondary level, and reference level B1 for new foreign languages started at the end of the upper level of the Gymnasium. Languages lessons attended throughout the upper secondary level may be replaced by bilingual teaching and learning in other subjects.

Pupils assessment

At the gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary  level), performance is assessed on a scale of 15  to 0, which correlates with the usual scale of 1 to  6 as follows: 

six-mark system points
very good 1+ 15
1 14
1- 13
good 2+ 12
2 11
2- 10
satisfactory 3+ 9
3 8
3- 7
adequate 4+ 6
4 5
4- 4
poor 5+ 3
5 2
5- 1
very poor 6 0

Progression of pupils

In the gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary level) the last two grades are known as the qualification phase. Marks obtained in this phase are used to calculate a pupil's total marks, composed of marks received in courses taken in these two years and the marks achieved in the Abitur examination.* There is no procedure for promotion during the qualification phase, however, it is possible to repeat a year if the marks required for entrance to the Abitur examination have not been attained.

* School credits earned by young people abroad cannot be used to calculate a pupil´s total marks. Pupils who previously have attend the second stage of secondary level abroad, have thererfore always to attend both years of the qualification phase, if they change to a German school of upper secondary level.

The gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary level) concludes with the Abitur examination. The questions are set on a uniform basis by the Ministry of Education. In order to be admitted to the examination, certain requirements have to be met in the qualification phase.

The four subjects of the Abitur examination must include: 

  • two subjects at an increased level of academic standards
  • two of the following three subjects: German, foreign language or mathematics
  • at least one subject from every main area of compulsory subjects (religious education can represent the social sciences area).

As a rule, written and possibly oral examinations are taken in three subjects, whilst in the fourth subject, only an oral examination is taken. The Allgemeine Hochschulreife is awarded if the total marks attained are at least adequate (average mark 4 or a minimum of 300 points).

Admission Requirements and Choice of School

Admission to courses of general education at  upper secondary level is based on leaving certificates and qualifications acquired at the end  of lower secondary level. In addition, there are  other conditions: 

  1. Entitlement to proceed to the gymnasiale Oberstufe
    The entitlement to attend the gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary level) is obtained, as a rule, if certain standards of achievement are met, at the end of grade 9 at the eight-year Gymnasium or at the end of grade 10 at the nine-year Gymnasium, Gesamtschule, Sekundarschule, Realschule or Hauptschule (Grade 10 type B).
  2. Sufficient German language skills, spoken and written

  3. Maximum age for entry into the introductory phase of the gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary level): 18 years

Explanatory notes

Pupils who previously attended a school abroad and would like to continue schooling in the gymnasiale Oberstufe (upper secondary level) of a German school need their current foreign school certificate (usually a school leaving certificate of the first stage of secondary level). Foreign school certificates can be considered equivalent to a German school-leaving certificate under certain conditions.

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