I have translated "high school" into German. There are four translations there: "Oberschule, Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium".

I am studying the difference betwenen them.

hypothesis one:it is either Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium (ordered from the easiest one to the most diffucult one)

hypothesis two: it depends on the location in Germany, there are different educational systems

Am I right? Is there a difference between them?

  • 3
    Note, that most of the names for different school types that you found are also used in other countries, not only in Germany. I live in Austria, and we also have Hauptschule and Gymnasium (but not Oberschule and not Realschule). We have additional other names: Mittelschule, Neue Mittelschule, Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schule (AHS), Realgymnasium, ... I bet that Switzerland again has different Names. The simple reason is: Each country has it's own school system. (And there are more countries where German is the official language) – Hubert Schölnast Oct 30 '16 at 14:15

In Germany there originally was what's called a "dreigliedriges Schulsystem" or "three-parted school system". The first four years of Grundschule or "elementary school" are obligatory for everybody. After that, a child can basically go one of three ways:

The Hauptschule was originally meant to give the bulk of the population a basic education (a "grundlegende allgemeine Bildung"). Hence the name that literally translates as "main school". The Hauptschule encompasses grades 5 to 9 and focuses more on practice than theory. After finishing the Hauptschule, a young person was expected to start a vocational training.

The Realschule is some kind of middle ground. It focuses larger on theory than the Hauptschule, but not as much as the Gymnasium. It encompasses grades 5 to 10. After that, a young person was also expected to start a vocational training.

The Gymnasium is the third part of the "dreigliedriges Schulsystem". It encompasses grades 5 to 13 (or 5 to 12) and focuses relatively heavily on theory. At the end of the Gymnasium, there's a final examination called "Abitur". If you pass that, you have the "Hochschulreife", which means you can study at an university.

So, the original idea was something like, the soon-to-be brick layer visits the Hauptschule, the soon-to-be office clerk visits the Realschule and the soon-to-be academic visits the Gymnasium.

But of course such a strict division is far from adequate. Therefore, a whole lot of experiments and reforms have taken place. Because of this, the situation is way more convoluted nowadays.

There a things like the Gesamtschule, which combines the three forms explained above, so it's easier for students to "ascend" or "descend" without changing schools. There is (or was) the experiment to prolong the Grundschule to six years. There was the Förderstufe, which was a bit like a Gesamtschule for grades 5 and 6 only. There is "G8", which means shortening the Gymnasium to 8 years (grades 5 to 12). The idea was to get young people into the work force at a younger age, after they've visited the Gymnasium plus the university. But that mostly crashed and burned, so it's rolled back at many places.

In Germany, the educational system is in the responsibilty of the states (the Bundesländer). So there are a lot of variations, depending of which region we're talking about. In some cases, the variations go down to the municipal level. For example, there may be a Gymnasium that offers G8 (see above), one that offers G9 (the "original" grades 5 to 13) and one that offers both in the same city.

Long story short, how to translate "high school"? As I tried to explain, it really depends. But the term "high school" is relatively well known in Germany, so I'd at least consider to just leave it as is. This might especially be a good solution if you're talking about an educational system that actually has a "high school", like the American or Japanese systems.

  • Please note that the Gesamtschule is not (!) a special form in the "dreigliedrige Schulsystem". Gesamtschule simply means that all three (Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium) are under one roof, however, there's still a distinction between them. And while it is possible to change between them more easily in theory, in most cases this is only possible until grade 7 or 8. Förderstufe is still present today and is a sort of "special needs"-school with teachers being assisted by social workers. While is answer is in general comprehensive, these two parts are not correct! – Thorsten Dittmar Oct 30 '16 at 14:50
  • @ThorstenDittmar Maybe you're mixing up Förderschule and Förderstufe or Orientierungsstufe. – Henning Kockerbeck Oct 30 '16 at 15:32
  • Ah, you're right about the Förderschule/Förderstufe part. My wife works at a Gesamtschule with Förderschule - easy to mix things up. – Thorsten Dittmar Oct 30 '16 at 15:38

According to Wikipedia, after children complete their primary education (at 10 years of age, 12 in Berlin and Brandenburg), there are five options for secondary schooling:

Gymnasium (grammar school) until grade 12 or 13 (with Abitur as exit exam, qualifying for university); and Fachoberschule admission after grade ten until grade twelve (with Fachhochschulreife (between Abitur and Realschulabschluss) as exit exam) it is also possible to leave after grade thirteen and get either the ″fachgebundene Abitur″ (if you haven′t learned a language besides English) or get the ″Abitur″ (with a second language on European level B1) ;[12] Realschule until grade ten (with Mittlere Reife (Realschulabschluss) as exit exam); Mittelschule (the least academic, much like a modernized Volksschule [elementary school]) until grade nine (with Hauptschulabschluss and in some cases Mittlere Reife = Realschulabschuss as exit exam); in some federal states the Hauptschule does not exist and pupils are mainstreamed into a Mittelschule or Regionale Schule instead. Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) quality and relevance of the exit exam. The comprehensive schools stands apart as it offers each of the mentioned exit exams.

So, It's rational based on which state in Germany, If the pupils wanna learn a Secondary language or not, Attending in Extended-Highschool, etc. But, "Hauptschule" is not right because based on the description of Duden Distionary (auf der Grundschule aufbauende, im Allgemeinen das 5. bis 9. Schuljahr umfassende Schule) as a secondary education level which start since 5 years after elementary school, and "Oberschule" according Wikipedia the system was abolished in the early 1990s after reunification, it continues to influence school life in the eastern German states. And of course, you should note that in the primary language you want to tranlste it to German, the "Highschool" education level what difination has!


In fact I don't think that there is a direct translation for these words because the German schoolar system differs from the one used in other countries in many ways.

The words you are asking for describe the "traditional" school system which was used all over Germany 50 years ago and is only found in 5 or 10 of the 16 parts of Germany ("Bundesländer") today.

After the first four years of school the pupils (in the age of about 10 years) were separated and sent to three different kinds of schools:

The good ones were (*) sent to a Gymnasium which is a school which is more difficult, where more subjects are tought (at least two foreign languages for example - often three). This school lasts 8 or 9 additional years. It was originally inteded that a student finishing the Gymnasium will go to a university later.

(*) I write "were" instead of "are" because today reality is a bit different from the theory...

The bad ones were sent to a Hauptschule which is an easier school. The school lasts 5 additional years only. There was even the possibility to pass the Hauptschule without learning a foreign language.

After the Hauptschule you search a so-called Ausbildung or Lehre where you are trained for a job. You have to pass that to be allowed to work in a certain profession (e.g. cook, gardener, electrician ...). (You can do this with a Gymnasium degree, too, if you don't want to go to university.)

The pupils in the middle (neither good nor bad) were sent to a Realschule which is easier than a Gymnasium but more difficult than a Hauptschule. It typically lasts 6 additional years.

After the Realschule you also go to an Ausbildung but for some professions (like nursery nurse or hospital nurse) having passed the Hauptschule is not enough so you need at least having passed the Realschule to begin the Ausbildung for such professions.

The word Oberschule has different meanings in the 16 parts of Germany.

In the part of Germany I come from it is a description for different kinds of schools where people having passed Hauptschule or Realschule can upgrade to a Realschule or Gymnasium degree.

This is for example done by people that want to go to a university in spite of only having passed the Realschule.

  • After you started with the good and the bad, I was really afraid you'd be going to send all the ugly to Realschule. Quite some people might really disagree with your classification. – tofro Oct 30 '16 at 14:04
  • @tofro Today this is correct: Nearly everyone from the cities is going to the Gymnasium today while in some smaller villages they sent everyone to the Hauptschule - regardless if they are good or bad. I know a "Doctor of Computer Sciences" who had gone to the Hauptschule before. – Martin Rosenau Oct 30 '16 at 14:06
  • How is the school system different today? We still have "Hauptschule", "Realschule" and "Gymnasium". In some parts (for example Hesse) the "Hauptschule" and "Realschule" have been officially combined into the "Mittelschule". In practice, there are different course-levels, so you still have a dinstinction between "better middle-school students" (= Realschul-level) and not so good ones (Hauptschul-level). Please refer to the term "Augenwischerei" for details. "Mittelschule" was only introduced because "Hauptschüler" sort of became an insult. – Thorsten Dittmar Oct 30 '16 at 15:09
  • @ThorstenDittmar First of all you should be aware that you'll not find this system in all parts of Germany any more. In fact I think that in most parts they at least think of introducing the Gesamtschule instead. Next major difference is that here in BaWü some years ago the teachers decided in which school the pupil will go and today only the parents decide. Because Hauptschule and sometimes Realschule have a bad reputation most parents send children which are bad pupils to the Gymnasium anyway - which is then too dificult for them, of course. – Martin Rosenau Oct 30 '16 at 17:36
  • Yes, having the parents decide alone was the worst idea ever. Here in Hesse the teachers give recommendations but the parents have the last word. I feel sorry for the poor kids who could be very good in one of the other school forms but are forced to go to Gymnasium. And Gesamtschule doesn't change that at all. My wife works at a Gesamtschule, so I know what I'm taking about. Meanwhile it's very rare students change from the "lower" school form to the "higher" one. It's most of the time the other way. – Thorsten Dittmar Oct 30 '16 at 20:37

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