Education : Learning Lessons

Berlin-bound families with children should factor in schools when looking for a home. The closest schools are not always the best, and the best are often highly competitive and much in demand.

335.000 Students attend schools in Berlin. 1/3 of the students don't speak german as their mother-tongue.
335.000 Students attend schools in Berlin. 1/3 of the students don't speak german as their mother-tongue.Foto: Kitty Kleist-Heinrich, Kai-Uwe Heinrich

Tina Grosse can't help but pull a face when remembering her family's move from Frankfurt to Berlin. „When we came to Berlin, I didn't know anything about the Berlin school system. It was terrible! There were 1.000 schools to choose from and it was so disorienting! In the end, we chose a private school.“ Ms. Grosse's family was looking for a suitable school for their two children. Not having to worry about money made their search less challenging. In the end, the family decided to send their kids to a private international school.

Those who don't have Euro 500-1.000 per month to spare are in for a wild adventure. And the adventure that is Berlin's educational rabbit hole is not only overwhelming and complicated, but also very instructive. An in-depth understanding of the Berlin school system will reveal that it's worth it to give the city's public, denominational, and semi-private institutions a fair chance.

Berlin schools are better than their over­all reputation suggests. Even the most high-maintenance parents will be able to find a school that meets their needs. But searching here is probably more difficult than it is in most other cities. Berlin has a relatively high unemployment rate and a disproportionately high percentage of uneducated immigrants with German language deficiencies. As a result, close to one third of the city's public schools have an overwhelming majority of children from underprivileged background, which makes it hard for Berlin to raise its educational bar. For years now, the German capital has scored below average on education rankings in Germany. And although the Social Democrats initiated a series of reforms, Berlin's education standards are resistant to change.

Risk-averse parents look for schools where the social mix is in their favor. Some argue that they want to save their offspring from being an outsider simply for having parents who work. The more socially unstable the district, the harder it is to find a „good“ school. In other words, more bourgeois or suburban areas such as Zehlendorf or Köpenick attract parents for their balanced mix of students. On the other hand, more urban and exciting areas are more prone to social problems. Kreuzberg and northern Neukölln, for example, only have a small selection of good schools. Those looking to live here, must either be extremely lucky or willing and able to commute to school everyday.

Online catalogue of Berlin schools

When searching for the right school, the Internet is an indispensable tool. Every year, the Bildungsverwaltung, Berlin's Education Admin­istration, updates its online catalogue of all the schools in Berlin. The online catalogue show a school's average grades and may also include official school inspection reports. It wasn't until recent years, however, that schools were required to disclose their results. And so, if a school's last inspection took place a few years back, it is up to the school to disclose the information or not.

Knowing the number of applicants is an additional indicator of a school's overall quality. But since these numbers are not published in full, interested parents must inquire at each school directly. As a basic rule, families should make sure to visit the schools they are interested in before applying. Some­times a school's reception says more than any brochure. Also make sure to pay ­attention to the overall atmosphere in the schoolyard and among current students. If a school seems particularly dirty, reconsider. Then again, a school's level of cleanliness says less about a school's „inner values.“ Rather it's an indicator of Berlin's overall problem with a lack of educational funding.

In Berlin, school is compulsory for children whose sixth birthday is before September 30. In most other federal states it's June 30. Berlin also has an additional exception called „Jahrgangsübergreifende Lernen,“ or JüL. This rule makes it possible for students from various grades to be taught together in the same classroom. Another peculiarity of Berlin education is that primary school lasts six years, rather than the usual four. The first foreign language is usually English, starting in third grade. Some primary schools also start off with French.

Bilingual children have a wide selection of schools to choose from in Berlin. On the one hand, there are plenty of pricey Anglo-German international schools. On the other hand, there's also a wide selection of state-run European Schools that offer completely bilingual schooling in nine different languages, ranging from English to Greek. These schools are a particularly good fit for bilingual families. For children looking to graduate with both the French Baccalaureat and the German Abitur, there's the Französisches Gymnasium, the Romain-Rolland-Gymnasium and the private Moser-Schule.

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