School attendance is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 to 18. Full-time schooling is mandated for either 9 or 10 years (depending on state) and may be followed by part-time attendance at a vocational school, complemented by an apprenticeship. Parents may need to contribute to the cost of textbooks and other materials, depending on the income level of the family.
The school day runs from eight or nine o'clock in the morning until noon or one o'clock in the afternoon and is divided into 45 minute class periods. The school day grows longer as children progress through elementary school, but its length may vary with the day of the week. Children bring a snack to eat at recess, but most return home for a hot noonday meal, a schedule that makes it difficult for mothers to work a full day outside the home. Furthermore, a teacher's absence may result in children being sent home early, since the use of substitute teachers is quite rare. Teachers relinquish their free periods to fill in for absent colleagues, or children are simply sent home early. Few schools have a school nurse on the premises or even a cafeteria. School busses transport children in the countryside, but the majority ride public transportation, such as streetcars, municipal busses, or trains.
The school year averages 188 days and includes a week of vacation at Christmas, at Easter, and at Pentecost. Schools close for a six-week summer vacation; however, to reduce overcrowding on trains and the Autobahn as families depart for vacations, summer vacation dates are staggered throughout the 16 federal states. Saturday classes are still held two or three times a month in many states. The school week averages 26 to 35 hours, with children attending the Realschule or Gymnasium spending more hours per week in classes than do children at the Hauptschule (general secondary school).
Recently private schools have been growing in importance and, in 1996 and 1997, have educated approximately 600,000 pupils. Private schools are subject to supervision by state agencies to ensure that their facilities, teacher qualifications, and teaching objectives are comparable to those of public schools. They are expressly prohibited from segregating the children from richer families. Generally private schools are viewed not as elite; rather they are seen as innovative and less rigid in structure than public schools. Private institutions must be recognized by the state to administer examinations or to award certifications comparable to those granted by public schools. Those receiving state approval may draw as much as 98 percent of their budgets from public funding, since they help carry the burden of educating for the public good. In times of tight budgets, however, subsidies for private schools may be reduced and remain a topic of highly-charged political debate.
The largest number of private schools, around 1,100, are supported by the Catholic Church, and located chiefly in Bavaria, the Rhineland, or Baden-Württemberg. Most (43.6 percent) operate at the level of the Gymnasium. Private schools sponsored by the Protestant Church are fewer in number; because of church involvement in public schools and mandatory religious instruction, parents who want their children to be educated in the Christian tradition need not turn to private schools.
About one-tenth of all German private schools are special schools for the mentally or physically disabled. While the German Democratic Republic prohibited private schools and religious instruction, the churches did play a significant role in caring for people with disabilities and in special education. About 30 elementary schools following the model created by the Italian physician Maria Montessori also exist.
Because the German Democratic Republic did not permit private schools, there are fewer Montessori or Waldorf schools in the east than in the west. Approximately 13 percent of all children attending a private school are in Waldorf schools. Begun by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in Stuttgart in 1919, the Waldorf movement presented an alternative to Germany's socially conservative, stratified school system. Germany's 100 Waldorf schools emphasize the arts and crafts and center around child development. The school day encompasses activities that alternate cognitive and rational exercises, imitative and practical activities, and creative or artistic functions. Eurhythmy, an essential component of the Waldorf curriculum, integrates physical development through movement, dance, recitation, and music. Little importance is attached to testing and formal grading, and children are not separated according to ability or future career path. In these schools, a single teacher usually accompanies the class for several years, creating lasting relationships with pupils.
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