As a new school year fraught with controversial reforms gets underway in Berlin, Monday saw a record 41,000 children start school for the first time -- but not before they'd taken part in a time-honored ritual.
The "Zuckertüte" was first introduced in 1817
"I want to go home," wailed one pint-sized school starter, as hundreds of misty-eyed mothers, beaming grandmas, and fathers armed with video cameras jostled into the school assembly hall. The occasion was what's known across Germany as "Einschulung" -- a symbolic ceremony marking the start of formal education.
Clutching a garishly-decorated giant cone filled with candy and gifts -- the "Zuckertüte," designed to cushion the blow of starting school -- the boy was hurried into place at the front of the hall next to rows of other infants looking dazed and confused.
As tradition dictates, they all carried empty but spanking new school satchels and sported fluorescent caps sponsored by the Road Safety Association. Thus attired, they settled down for a welcome show put together by the older grades -- their eyes widening in a combination of fear and fascination as a gaggle of eight-year-olds with accordions filled the stage to perform a song about the alphabet. Once the entertainment was over, they were invited up one by one to shake hands personally with the school principal before being whisked off to classrooms for a short chat with their new teacher.
A year to remember
It was the second Saturday in August, and similar scenes were taking place all over the capital.
If it seemed a little more hectic than usual, it was probably due to a slate of radical reforms ushered in by the city’s Social Democrat Education Senator Klaus Böger.
Thanks to his changes, this is set to be a memorable year for Berlin's 350,000 Berlin pupils and 32,000 teachers. In a staunch rejection of what former President Roman Herzog once described as the city government’s ideological "touchy-feely" educational policy, the capital's children are now the first in the country to go to school 6 months earlier than they used to, reducing the average age of school starters from 6.7 to 6.2 and resulting in 13,000 more school registrations for 2005 than ever before.
"My son didn't get a place in the same school as his brother, because so many children were vying for places this year," complained one mother.
200 new teachers had to be hired to handle the increased numbers of new pupils in elementary schools, one third of whom are now under 6, while another 250 were drafted in from high schools.
The pre-school class has been thrown out, and the average 10 percent of children who fail to keep up will no longer be allowed to repeat the grade. Moreover, over the next few years, the first and second grades are to be gradually merged. While this theoretically allows individual children to develop at their own speed -- and possibly prove such quick learners they can skip a year -- critics of the reforms have voiced concern that teachers will be inhibited by the difficulties of reconciling the needs of such a broad age range.
But the opportunity to fast-track through the first two years of school has a number of long-term advantages. "Pupils who do this, especially those who start school at the age of 5, will be considerably younger when they leave high-school," explained Inge Hirschmann from the Berlin Elementary Schools Association. "That means they can join the job market earlier, start vocational training earlier or begin studying earlier -- and that makes Germany more competitive with other European countries."
Rainer Lehmann is an education expert at Berlin's Humboldt University and a member of the PISA consortium (Program for International Student Assessment), which rates student performance.
He admits the reforms might be happening at a somewhat alarming rate, but he believes they were long overdue. Berlin is currently witnessing an unmistakable flurry of middle-class interest in private schooling, and Lehmann was quick to stress what he described as "a growing awareness that state schools in Berlin are failing to serve as sufficiently stimulating learning environments."
"Bettering conditions in elementary schools is the most promising way to effect improvement to the PISA ratings of high schools," he said, "One of the main reasons for bringing forward the age children begin school is to encourage improved long-term performance."
Hirschmann agrees. "The innovations are about making better use of children's thirst for knowledge and motivation at an age when it can be maximized," she said.
Even more importantly, "Berlin has a very specific demographic situation," he pointed out. "Another motive for the reforms is the fact that the earlier migrant children begin schooling, the better."
This is, after all, a city where one third of school starters don't speak German at home. Thanks to Böger, classes in which more than 40 percent of kids have a mother tongue other than German must now be restricted to 20 children -- a luxury in a city where classes are often 30-strong.
Another strand of the reforms welcomed by busy parents is the phasing in of so-called all-day schooling, where the school day lasts into the afternoon, instead of ending at midday which has been the norm in most places. The new, longer day is supposed to include lunch for the kids -- even though on Monday, a number of the capital's 408 elementary schools still lacked the canteens needed to meet the new directive.
"All-day schooling might not improve PISA ratings," said Lehmann. "But it will certainly take the burden off working mothers."
As for the children themselves -- so long as their "Zuckertüte" are big enough, they're not complaining.