German children generally enter the secondary state school system at 10 or 11 with no selective process at this stage.
Around one-third of pupils choose to attend gymnasium schools, which prepare them for higher education. Nearly all succeed, this reflected in the fact that around one-third of all school-leavers carry on with their studies.
Most of those remaining attend hauptschule or realschule. These schools are principally geared towards preparing students for the world of work, and at 15 mowt go on to work-related training.
Those who wish to study further will need a good school record and internal examination results before they can enter a gymnasium. For this small group there is some form of selection.
Those studying in gymnasiums must pass a series of examinations, known as the abitur, which determines entry to higher education. Students are tested in four subjects, the content and standard of which varies in the different German federal states.
The abitur is, in effect, the most important selective process in German education. Pupils receive marks for individual papers, together with an overall score. Performance in internal exams and assessment in the three years preceding the abitur counts two-thirds of the final mark.
To study certain subjects at university you need to achieve certain marks. Subjects such as medicine and law require higher marks; more esoteric subjects require a pass.
Federal education ministers are pushing through a series of controversial reforms affecting the abitur. At their last annual conference they decided that all students taking the abitur in the school year 199697 would have to spend three years studying German, mathematics, a foreign language and one other subject, then sitting examinations in these subjects.
Bavaria and Baden Wurttemberg are demanding that students sit five subjects instead of four. Politicians and companies complained at the beginning of the decade that abitur students did not have a good enough all-round knowledge and standard after passing.
A further controversial subject is how long the study period up to the abitur should be. In most west German states it is 13 years, but many of the former east German regions are considering cutting it to 12 years. Some argue this is a natural form of selection, because some will need the extra year in order to pass.
In a highly competitive job market the abitur helps to secure a job. It is being taken in increasing numbers. It is predicted that by 2008 about 44 per cent of school-leavers will have passed the abitur, compared with 32.7 per cent in 1993.
The government, however, is cutting back on higher education funding and charging students higher fees. The result is that the number taking up studies after passing the abitur has fallen since 1990.