It is mandatory for every child between the ages of 6 and 15 to attend school in Germany. This means that you can't homeschool, this is a contentious issue in Germany, and in a recent case a family won asylum in the USA because they weren't allowed to homeschool their five children. I kid you not, you can read more about this in the Life in Germany group.
Education in a state school is free, although you must pay for books and other kinds of materials, including laptops. You will notice kids in Germany lug a lot of stuff around with them, I've even seen the little mites with a granny style shopping trolley - hopefully modern technology will rescue them from this - roll on the e-reader!
In Germany the normal school day is from 8.00am to around 2.00pm (often earlier on certain days), this means there is a lot of homework. The exceptions to this are private schools and international schools where children usually have to study the whole day.
One thing they all have in common: the school year starts sometime between July and September, after the summer holidays. The exact dates differ among the different federal states.
To my knowledge German schools do not have school uniforms.
In Germany, a children's formal education begins from the age of six at primary school (Grundschule). In the first four years, all students learn together. After that the child, its parents and teachers decide on the future education path. In other words children are streamed here.
On the first day of primary school, parents or friends give the child a a big colorful cardboard cone (Schultüte) filled with sweets and school stuff such as pens, pencils and a pencil case.
Three Types of Schools
Hauptschule - ends after the 9th or 10th year of schooling with secondary general education (Hauptschule) certificate. These schools give students a basic general education with a vocational orientation and usually the pupils will go straight into a job or apprenticeship in the many trades and industries in Germany, for which formal training is required.
Realschule - sits between the Hauptschule and the Gymnasium. As a rule, it extends to the 10th year of schooling, and offers business subjects in addition to the regular curriculum. A diploma from the Realschule (Mittlere Reife) qualifies students to continue their education at upper-level schools or vocationally oriented upper secondary schools.
Gymnasium - ends after the 12th or 13th year of schooling and prepares students for higher education and a lot of Gymnasium students go to a foreign country as exchange students in their 11th year. A diploma from a Gymnasium is known as the Abitur (hence Abi 200? on many cars).
There are also so-called Gesamtschulen a bit like our comprehensive schools, which integrate the different kinds of schools; even so students are still split up according to their abilities and performance. But all three diploma types are possible in these schools.
At all-day schools (Alltagsschule) students spend the entire day at school. They eat lunch there and leave the building at about 5 p.m. But these types of schools are rare. Day-homes for school children (Kinderhorte) are another way for parents to make sure their kids are attended to during the day. Such institutions are attached to some schools and there as well, children are watched and cared for until 5 p.m. The cost: around €100. Places here can be hard to come by, so look into the possibilities early on. Information is usually available at the school administration offices or in area schools. The city and municipal administration also has information.
All children study math, science, literature, music and arts, history and geography. They also have gym classes usually at the end of the day. All students learn English as a foreign language, but in the 5th and 7th year they can take up additional languages such as French, Latin, Spanish or Russian.
Summer holidays are about the same as in the UK - six weeks. However German school breaks and holidays vary from state to state, all holidays are staggered through the different states and change every year. This is to try and prevent mass exoduses at the same time of year and it helps to stop the massive increase in the cost too. Something the UK could think about maybe?
You can view the school holidays for different areas of Germany here.
There is a two-week break in December and January, and another two-week break at Easter and a further week off in autumn. In addition, children do not go to school on many religious and national holidays, these can often fall in the middle of the week, they are not like our bank holidays.
For more about the school system see the Deutsche Bildungs Server (in English).
For advice on choosing a school abroad see the Cobisec web site. (in English)
Learning German and International Schools
Many primary schools offer children from other countries the opportunity to learn German. In international schools the teaching is often done in English, French or Spanish. These types of schools are generally found only in larger cities. In the Gesamtschulen, Realschulen and Hauptschulen, language courses are usually offered. However, its harder to find a Gymnasium that offers German as a foreign language.