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Berlin education and international schools guide

The wall came down and international schools sprang up, or at least began to. However, it was only with the arrival of capital status in 1999, and the attendant influx of expats, that educational establishments, teaching in English, were encouraged to open their doors in Berlin.

Without the increased interest by local German families willing to pay for an IB Diploma, so that their offspring can attend foreign universities and escape the long German degree courses, the private international schools would be on shakier foundations. Some expat parents believe that the large numbers of local pupils dilute the ‘international school’ experience but others say this makes it far easier to integrate and get to know local families.

The word from expat parents, particularly those posted to Berlin after a stint in Asia or London, is also, that the international schools lack the buzz and the intellectual excitement of counterparts elsewhere. However, others (particularly academics, including visiting professors to Germany’s Max Planck Institutes and Universities) praise the standard of teaching as ‘solid’. Either way, it has always been very important in Berlin to get a feel for whether a private international school’s rolls are rising or falling – a sure sign of financial viability or otherwise. 


Private (independent) international schools 

Only two schools date back to 1960’s John F. Kennedy School (in existence already but re-christened in 1963) and Berlin International School (BIS) founded in 1959.

The Berlin International School in the southern Berlin suburb of Steglitz is run by the private Kant foundation, with a reputation for running academic local schools (grammar schools). Although run by a German foundation, it is closer in feel to international schools than the state options, John F. Kennedy School and Nelson Mandela International School, but without the higher fees.

The Berlin British School in Charlottenburg was established in 1994, by local British businessmen, on the site of the former British Military School. It shares the premises with the popular Charles Dickens state bilingual primary school (a ‘Europe School’, see below). Its advantage for expat families is a good ESL (English as a second language) support programme, which tends to be lacking in some other schools. 

The Berlin Brandenburg International School offers all four elements of the IB Programmes, including the Careers option. Formerly Potsdam International School, they moved from their somewhat isolated locale in Brandenburg to Kleinmachnow, which is in the southern part of the city, close to the expat enclave of Zehlendorf.  

There are four relative newcomers, the Berlin Bilingual School (2007) the SIS Swiss International School (2008) the Berlin Cosmopolitan School (2004) and the Berlin Metropolitan School, also opened in that year. 

State bilingual schools 

The private international sector is not the only option. One of the best-kept secrets in Berlin is the quality of state-run bilingual schools, which are free of all tuition fees and therefore give the private alternatives a run for their money (although some say they have a different clientele, less diverse than their independent counterparts). Competition from these schools is often cited as a reason why it has been hard for international schools to thrive in Berlin. 

Prime examples of such state-run schools are the John F. Kennedy School Berlin and the Nelson Mandela International School. They employ German teachers alongside international staff (usually half the pupils are local), and they run varied, hybrid (well-considered against good international schools) curricula, at least until pupils begin to prepare for specific school-leaving examinations.

The John F. Kennedy School remains one of the top Berlin schools, sought after by both local and expat families. It is a well-endowed school for ages 5-18 in Zehlendorf and has outstanding results plus an impressive array of extra-curricular options.. Parents’ advice to those coming from abroad, particularly if your child is bright and a fluent English-speaker, is: “always give it a try, just in case. It’s worth it.” 

Those without an American connection, or looking for a more ‘European’ feel, head for the state Nelson Mandela International School (founded in 2000) and now taking pupils from 5-18.  It takes pupils across the ability range and offers the International Baccalaureate and the BBR, a vocational qualification. There are no tuition fees, but it has none of the shabbiness, typical of some cash-strapped Berlin state schools (eg. the Europe Schools).  “A school that seems to be getting it right,” is the verdict of one discerning mother.

Europe schools 

Also typical of the hybrid model are the bilingual ‘Europe Schools’; state schools set up by the Berlin authorities (they all have a special “Europe School” logo, whatever the language combination). Do NOT confuse with European (none in Berlin) schools run by the EU commission and offering the ‘European Bac’ as a qualification.

Originally the Europe Schools were based at former military schools for British, American, French and Russian personnel and converted to state bilingual schools. The German-English, German-French and German-Russian primaries have been so successful that the model has expanded to include Italian, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Spanish and Portuguese. All, bilingual primaries with classes of 50 per cent German and 50 per cent of the other nationalities.  

Two Europe schools, Charles Dickens Primary School in Charlottenburg (near the Olympic Stadium – but pupils travel in from across the city) and Quentin Blake Primary School in Zehlendorf, combine elements of the German and the British primary national curriculum. English-speaking pupils and German pupils are taught reading and writing in their mother tongue separately and the two groups come together for subject lessons, with mathematics taught in German and the humanities taught in English. 

Both these Europe primary schools are busy and happy places. Unlike other state primaries in Berlin, lunch is provided and an array of supervised extra-curricular activities is offered to all children after school until around 5 pm. The primary Europe Schools feed into secondary Europe Schools intended to continue the dual-language model until the pupils are completely bilingual in both languages, usually by age 14 (year 8). After this, transfer from outside the system is very difficult.  

Schiller Gymnasium (SESB) is a secondary school for pupils who are in the top 20-25 per cent of the ability range (pupils may be admitted for a year’s ‘probation’), takes English mother-tongue pupils, usually transferring from Charles Dickens and Quentin Blake primaries. Few international families join the English mother-tongue section after year 7, although the school does occasionally take bright pupils with little or no German in year 8. The pattern of teaching follows the Europe School method, with some subjects in German (mostly maths and the sciences) and some in English (humanities and biology) and is particularly strong on modern European  languages. 

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Berlin considered by expats'.

Getting into German-English Europe schools

Europe primaries take pupils aged 5-12. Europe secondaries are for pupils age 12-19. However, it is the German-English primaries that are the most sought after by international families; they’re a good option for those hoping for their children to become bilingual (easier than many expect, particularly since several subjects are taught in English). 

There are long waiting lists (places are allocated by lottery for German pupils), particularly for the youngest age groups. British and American families have priority for admission, then other English speakers (Canadian, Australian etc) are next, then English speakers from the Indian sub-continent and Africa (a bonus being if one parent is German). 

Siblings of existing pupils have first priority and at the youngest grade levels are tending to take up large numbers of places. In recent years, there have been waiting lists for five and six year-olds (in practice it is almost  impossible to get a place for a six-year old in grade 1).

The Berlin government has been expanding the two German-English Europe primaries and is trying to accommodate as many English speakers as possible, so if waiting lists build up, new classes open up at pre-school level (five year olds). Departures among international families open up places in the higher grades; particularly in year 4 and above.

Note: you can only apply to a Europe school once you are officially resident in Berlin. Unlike the private international schools they will not promise a place before you relocate.

And finally…

Overall, Berlin’s international schools are down to earth. Neither students from private international schools nor the state-run bilingual schools wear school uniform and it can be hard to distinguish between the pupils. Unlike other cities, parents remark that there can be surprisingly affluent families attending state-run schools, with students happily mixing across a wide social range. Teenagers, in particular, love the city. Excellent public transport and a low crime rate give them the freedom to ‘hang out’ and enjoy the town.

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