First, German schools are free of charge. There is no school uniform or dress code and it's compulsory to go to school for children from six to sixteen.
German Primary school start when the children are six years old. Girls and boys study together in mixed classes for four years, mostly focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic including such subjects as Mathematics, German, Art, Physical Education, Music, Religion and a combination of local studies and biology called “Sachunterricht”. Additionally you start learning English in the 3rd year.
After primary school parents decide about their child´s further course of education with a teacher's advice. In Hesse there are different courses that young people can take to obtain a qualification. In case of good final grades, there is also the possibility to pursue the next higher qualification.
The shortest course of education ends with the certificate of the “Hauptschule” in the 9th grade. With this qualification young people can start an apprenticeship in many professional fields.
The certificate of the “Realschule” can be obtained by successfully completing the final exams at the end of the 10th grade. Again, with this qualification you can start an apprenticeship.
The highest qualification to attempt is the “Abitur” (or the A-Levels) at the end of the 13th grade. It grants the permission to study at college or university. However, with this qualification, one can also start an apprenticeship.
Two years before the A-Levels you choose two advanced courses which count twice for your final grade and are part of your 5 A-Level exams. These are divided into three written and two oral exams. Except from your advanced courses, which you have to do a written exam on, you have to do an exam in German and Mathematics. The final grade is put together by your A-Level exams, all grades you get on your advanced courses in the last two years and 24 half-year grades from your basic courses.
In my opinion some certificates, the “Abitur” in particular, are quite hard to get as students are under considerable pressure for two years where every grade counts for their final grade. On the other hand it is beneficial that not only one exam in every subject determines the final grade. Compared to the English school system, where subjects are rather occupational and the A-Levels contain only four arbitrary courses, it's striking that German students have a good educational background in general. Main disadvantage of the German school system is that children are separated by knowledge into the various school forms at the age of ten. From my point of view this is too early to decide about such an important step in children´s further education.