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Germany - General Information

This section aims to introduce you to the special needs education system in Germany by providing a brief picture of how things are organised and what the key issues are that effect special needs education.

Germany is a Federal Republic. Since the unification in 1990, it is comprised of 16 Länder. There is the Ministry of Education, Science, Research, and Technology (BMBF) at the Federal Government.  It has to steer the nation-wide policies for further and higher education - universities and vocational training - and it finances nation-wide projects and is responsible for foreign affairs within education. However, the Federal Ministry has no responsibility for schools. 

In the Federal Republic of Germany, responsibility for the education system is determined by the Federal structure of government. Under the Basic Law, the exercise of governmental powers and fulfilment of governmental responsibility is incumbent on the individual Länder, as far as the Basic Law does not provide for or allow for any other arrangement.

The education system of the Federal Republic of Germany

The development of the education system of the Federal Republic of Germany differs from other European Countries, because of the unification of East and West Germany.

In order to bring about German unity in the area of culture, education and science, the Unification Treaty (Einigungsvertrag) concluded between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR on 31 August 1990 contains fundamental provisions which aim to establish a common, comparable basic structure in education - particularly in the school system.  In relation to special education, this meant a big challenge, because two diverse systems have had to grow together. 

The unification of the two German states in October 1990 brought changes to the party political scene. According the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, known as the "Basic Law", Grundgesetz, the text of the constitution now reflects the fact that, with the accession of the GDR, the Germans have regained their unity. Since 3 October 1990, the Basic Law is binding upon the whole German nation.

The Responsibility for the Education System in the Federal Republic of Germany

The development in the different Länder of Germany is diverse. Each Land has its own responsibility, including individual legislation according to the basis of the Basic Law. There is cultural sovereignty between the 16 Länder. Educational legislation and administration of the education system are primarily the responsibility of the Länder. That means, here exist 16 school laws in Germany and 16 ministries of education and  all together 16 different school landscapes. The 16 ministers of education established a Standing Conference to co-ordinate education policies and give recommendations for the further developments. This Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (KMK) has established a framework agreement to preserve the independence of each Land (Sovereignty of Culture "Kulturhoheit").

The Basic Law (Grundgesetz) is the framework for the education system. The responsibilities are determined by the federal structure of government. The exercise of governmental powers and the fulfilment of governmental responsibility is incumbent upon the individual Länder as far as the Basic Law does not provide for or allow for any other arrangement. Educational legislation and administration of the education system are primarily the responsibility of the Länder. This particular applies to the school system, higher education and the continuing education sector. Under the Basic Law and the constitutions of the Länder the entire school system is under the supervision of the state. Schools are, as a rule, institutions of the local authorities or the Länder, and higher education institutions are institutions of the Länder. In addition, there are church-run or privately-run schools and institutions of higher education.

The right of disabled children to education and training appropriate to their needs is enshrined in the Länder constitutions and more detailed provisions are set out in the educational legislation of the Länder.

The Ministries of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science in the Länder are the highest authorities responsible for education, science and culture. Their scope of responsibilities generally includes schools, higher education, libraries, adult education, arts and culture in general, relations between the state and religious or ideological communities, local history and the preservation of monuments and sites and in some Länder also sport and youth welfare.

The Ministries of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science develop policy guidelines in the fields of education, science and the arts, adopt legal provisions and administrative regulations, co-operate with the highest authorities at national and Land level and supervise the work of authorities under their purview and of subordinated bodies, institutions and foundations. to assist the ministries in their work the Länder have established their own research institutes for school education, higher and continuous education.

The Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs are headed by a Minister (in Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg: Senator) who is answerable to parliament. The Minister is usually represented by a State Secretary (Staatssekretär/-sekretärin) or Director-General. In ten of sixteen Länder separate Ministries responsible for science and research have been established.

The instrument for co-operation among the Land governments in education is the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (KMK).  The KMK is based on an agreement between the Länder and deals with cultural policy matters of supra-regional importance, with the aim of forming a common viewpoint and a common will as well as representing common interests. Resolutions of the KMK have the status of recommendations. It is the political commitment of the competent Ministers to transform recommendations into law, however - until they are enacted as binding legislation by the parliaments in the 16 Länder.

One thing is similar in all the Länder: the costs of the school system are shared. The costs for school buildings, equipment and also for secretarial and domestic support are tasks of the maintaining bodies Schulträger, e.g: the community, the district or the Land. The funding of teaching staff is the task of the individual Land

Administration of School and Special Educational Needs

School administration is in some Länder structured in a three-tier system, in which the Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs form the upper tier, the schools' offices of the regional authorities or independently existing upper-level schools' offices form the middle tier, and the schools' offices of the local authorities form the lower tier. In some Länder and in the city-states school administration is based on a two-tier system arrangement.  In big Länder as Baden Wuertemberg or North-Rhine Westphalia the school administration is structured in a four-tier system.

The school system in Germany is organised both horizontally and vertically. After 4  years of primary schooling, the system divides into 4 types of schools: 5 years of general secondary schooling; 6 years of intermediate schooling; 9 years of grammar schooling or 9 years of comprehensive schooling which makes up the three other school types and leads to university level education. Besides this, there are the schools for special education. After 9 or 10 years of schooling, vocational training starts. (Please refer to the diagram below). That pattern is the framework for all 16 Länder. In detail it is different for example in Berlin and Brandenburg the primary school lasts for 6 years, in Bavaria there are regularly no comprehensive schools. The cultural sovereignty the Länder leads to these differences. In addition, because of the German unification in 1990, two different school systems had to be unified.  

Gymnasien, comprehensive schools, vocational schools and usually also Realschulen are directly answerable to the intermediate regional authorities or the top level of the school supervisory authorities (Ministries of Education and Cultural Affairs), while the much more numerous primary schools, Hauptschulen , certain special schools and, in some Länder, also the Realschulen are the concern of the authorities at the lower level. ("The Education System of the Federal Republic of Germany, KMK, 1995)

The development and organisation of special education in the Länder was harmonised by several decisions adopted by the KMK and especially by the "Recommendations on the Organisation of Special education" (Empfehlung zur Ordnung des Sonderschulwesens; Decision of March 1972) and recommendations for all types of special schools, Sonderschulen. The current situation is documented in the "Recommendation on Special Education in the Schools of the Federal Republic of Germany" (Empfehlungen zur sonderpädagogischen Förderung in den Schulen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Decision of 6. May 1994): "...The education of disabled young people is in principal more and more a co-operative task of all schools. The special education should be understood as a necessary addition and key-element of providing general education." (KMK , 1994, Page 1)

 Key-elements of this process are:

  •  possibilities for special educational support in special schools and in mainstream schools 
  •  awareness raising in dealing with disabled people 
  •  the development of early intervention services 
  •  the development of educational services in Kindergarten and mainstream schools and development of
  •  possibilities for support, especially in primary schools 
  •  the use of newly developed technical aids 
  •  correction/improvement of assessment and diagnosis 
  •  more sensitivity to the neighbourhood area of the child when finding a school 
  •  more attention to the place of learning and the forms of special education (prevention, integration, special schools, co-operation)

The aim of these recommendations is to create equal opportunities for people with a disability by developing a better standard of special educational support in special schools as well as in mainstream schools.

Within all these changes, it is necessary to take account of:

  • the necessary quality and the guarantee of extent of special educationalprovision, 
  • flexibility of support in a system of combined and adapted aids, 
  • equal opportunities for SEN pupils independent of the local and form of support 
  • individual support/development of all pupils in integration settings (disabledand non-disabled),   the co-operation of all persons and institutions involved in this process. (KMK, 1994, p.3/4).

In the following years up to 1999, the KMK enacted recommendations for the "emphasis of individual education support" Förderschwerpunkte with respect to learning, speech, emotional and social development, intellectual development, physical development, hearing, vision, autism and long term illness. Each of these Förderschwerpunkte provides information about the educational starting point, the phenomenon of individual special needs and its diagnosis, the provision of SNE and possible placements. The user gets an indication of co-operation and collaboration as well as access to the qualification of the staff.

These recommendations are available (in German) from 

These recommendations are the basic for developments and changes in the different Länder and have influence upon the integration policy, the laws, the curricula, the change of paradigm and the definition of SEN.

In 1994, the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) was changed and enlarged for one new article: Art. 3, Abs. 3, Satz 2  "Nobody must have disadvantages due to his/her handicap." (Niemand darf wegen seiner Behinderung benachteiligt werden).

In the last 20 years the development of integration policy has changed towards better educational support of pupils with a disability- towards "integration".

There was an agreement that the installation of a general compulsory school attendance age is not enough to guarantee the appropriate specific support and development for disabled pupils. Within the compulsory school age phase, there is a differentiated system of special schools. On one hand, this has been an advantage for mainstream schools, because pupils with difficulties and learning problems had their own school to ensure their specials educational needs. On the other hand the severely and multiply disabled children had as a result of this process of differentiation the right to education in special schools. 

Today  there is an agreement on aims of schooling. School and any necessary special educational support have the aim of integration of disabled children and adults in professional life and society. However, there are different positions in the different Länder in terms of if the aim of integration to professional life and society should be reached via a special school or in a general school with disabled and non disabled together.

With these different meanings of the key term of integration - integration as aim, or integration as way and aim - a lot of policy discussions arises. Several Länder have begun a trial period with integration models of experiments in mainstream schools or outside special schools. Some of them give priority to integration with the same curriculum, some of them with an adapted or differentiated curriculum. Within this position a necessary framework of decisions, according to the place of special educational support, the organisation or the use of resources is connected.

Since 1960 the situation of special education has been directed by "Expert Opinion in order (Rules) to the Special Education System" by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs  of the Federal Republic of Germany, the KMK. Within the process and discussion about SEN, this Conference has drawn up a consequent directive of educational development (1988). The system of special education should be more flexible - it is not any longer necessary to stipulate/commit  the place of SEN, the arguments are not any longer institution orientated. The way and the place of special support depends on categories with regard to personal conditions. In this case the terminology of "Needs for Special School" ("Sonderschulbedürftigkeit") has changed to "Special Educational Needs" ("sonderpädagogischer Förderbedarf").

Within the 16 Länder different times were taken to organise school projects for the integration of children with and without disabilities. It took another 15 years until the first Land (Saarland in 1988) established integration as a part of the school-law, which meant that integration had a regular status. Schleswig-Holstein followed together with Berlin in 1990. This pattern has continued during the following years.

In 1994, the KMK passed recommendations for special educational needs for all schools in Germany. Recommendations only can be passed by full agreement of all 16 Ministers. Due to this, it was a special event in the development in Germany. For the first time all Länder agreed that prevention, integration and education in special schools is a task of special needs education.

From 1996 until2000 the KMK has developed recommendations fort he following issues of special educational needs support:

  • Erziehung und Unterricht von Kindern mit autistischem Verhalten 
  • Education of Children with autism
  • Förderschwerpunkt emotionale und soziale Entwicklung 
  • SEN-support  emitional and social developments
  • Förderschwerpunkt Lernen 
  • SEN-support learning
  • Förderschwerpunkt Sprache 
  • SEN Support language and speech
  • Förderschwerpunkt Sehen 
  • SEN support vison
  • Förderschwerpunkt Hören 
  • SEN-support hearing
  • Förderschwerpunkt Unterricht kranker Schülerinnen und Schüler 
  • SEN support fort he sick pupils
  • Förderschwerpunkt körperliche und motorische Entwicklung 
  • SEN support physical and motor development
  • Förderschwerpunkt geistige Entwicklung. 
  • SEN-support mental development 


  • Many pupils with special educational needs are integrated in mainstream schools - especially in primary schools - in all of the 16 Länder. However, there are still a lot of barriers within the school-laws. In German Länder the parents have the right to choose the place of education for their child- in integrated or segregated settings, but only with approval of the school administration/ authorities. A free choice is forced by parents associations and teachers unions. Within the signature of the UN-charter, 2009, the Bundesländer will check their laws. The KMK- Working Group SNE starts to develop concepts towards a more inclusive educational system 
  • The concept of teacher training is changing in many Länder. In some universities, SEN is a part of the initial teacher training for all teachers. In the framework of SEN teacher-training, integration or examinations in integration settings are required.
  • All Länder have built up a system of co-operation between special schools and mainstream schools. Special schools get more and more the task to work as a resource centre. This kind of work will be intensified and extended in consideration of inclusive education.

Additional Information about Special Needs Education in Germany can be found in the following documents and from the following links:


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