Germany′s 16 education systems leave many questions unanswered | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.07.2010
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Germany's 16 education systems leave many questions unanswered

Determining a nation's education policy is tricky enough, but in Germany it gets even more complicated as each of the country's 16 states has its own education system. Some experts say that makes life tough for students.

A teacher calls on a student in a classroom

Germany's state-run education systems leave plenty of room for confusion

German students don't tend to be at the front of the class when it comes to international rankings. Awards for best schools, best reading competence or mathematical ability are usually given to other countries' education systems.

But Germany does have the distinction of one record: it's the country with the most education systems. Each of Germany's 16 states has its own system.

That's a big disadvantage for students switching to a new school in a different state, according to Rita Nikolai, an education researcher from the Social Science Research Center in Berlin.

"The danger that kids will have to step down a level in school or get held back exists," Nikolai said. "Between the states, there are significant differences in the curriculum."

Take the state of Hesse. It offers students foreign language instruction in sixth grade. In most other states, foreign language classes begin a year later. That put students moving to Hesse after completing the sixth grade a year behind their cohorts when it comes to foreign languages. In Hesse, it is then up to individual schools to decide if the student needs to repeat sixth grade or find another solution.

Hands tied at national level

A page of written vocabulary words

Different states have different education standards

Examples like this are everywhere in the German education system, and the confusion may become worse. Many states are planning sweeping education reforms in the next few years.

When students return from summer holidays in Berlin, which is one of Germany's states as well as the capital city, they'll find that all forms of secondary education will be offered in a single school. Previously, students took placement tests to determine if they were placed in a college-preparatory school or a vocational school.

Saarland has just decided to extend the time students spend in primary school from four to five years, while most of the other states are debating between four or six years.

In Hamburg, another German city that doubles as its own state, voters are heading to the polls Sunday to decide on whether to continue tracking students when they reach fifth grade or to keep all students in the same primary school classes until the end of sixth grade.

The autonomy of the states has grown since 2006, when the federal and state governments agreed on a new division of responsibilities - a decision that favored giving the states more discretion in deciding their education policy. While there have always been differences in each state, there is no longer anyone to arbitrate among the states, according to Nikolai.

"Since the reforms the problem is that the federal government can no longer take control of the wheel," she said. "Federal programs for preschool programs can no longer be coordinated from Berlin alone."

'Education should have gone to the federal government'

Christoph Matschie

Matschie thinks education should be left to the federal government

Common education standards, the recognition of high school diplomas from other states and similar questions are debated between the states at the conference of German cultural ministers. The 16 state ministers have to find a consensus on all questions that come up.

"With education policies, it is urgently necessary that we ensure kids have the same educational standards whether they go to school in Berlin, Hamburg, or Erfurt," said Christoph Matschie, education minister in Thuringia.

He is one of the few state ministers who doesn't support the idea of giving states the upper hand when it comes to education.

"The responsibility of education should have gone to the federal government," he said.

Author: Mathias Boelinger (mz)
Editor: Sean Sinico

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