School education begins at the primary/elementary school (Grundschule) for grades 1-4. After grade 4, children may attend one of the following secondary schools, according to their academic ability:
- Hauptschule (secondary level, providing basic general education) - grades 5-10
- Realschule (secondary modern school, providing a more extensive general and technical education) - grades 5-10
- Gymnasium (secondary or grammar school access to higher education) - grades 5-12/13
- Gesamtschule or Sekundarschule (comprehensive schools - access to higher education) - grades 5-12/13
- Fachoberschule/Berufskolleg (technical and vocational training colleges - access to Universities of Applied Sciences) - grades 11-12/13
At the Gymnasium, pupils may take the Abitur leaving examination, a prerequisite for admission to university. The Gesamtschule combines the three traditional secondary school types in one location, whereas the Sekundarschule combines Realschule and Gymnasium only. As a rule, German state schools used to be half-day schools. They are open to all and do not charge fees. However, full-day schooling is increasing, including open all-day primary schools. The number of pupils' day home places (fees charged) has decreased accordingly.
There are two types of private schools in Germany: Alternative schools and Additional schools.
An Alternative School (Ersatzschule) is a school whose curriculum is compatible with the educational system in Germany; school leaving certificates are acknowledged; parents may enrol their children without special permission. Alternative schools receive subsidies from the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia; as a rule they do not charge tuition fees.
An Additional school (Ergänzungsschule) is a school whose curriculum differs in varied ways from the educational system in Germany. Leaving certificates may not be acknowledged for German academic careers. Mainly they are open to children residing only temporarily in Germany and who need either their national or an international type of school education. Parents have to notify the enrolment (in the case of an acknowledged additional school) or apply for a special permission. Additional schools always charge school fees; they operate on these fees.