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Childen in a classroom
Children are split up into different levels after grade fourImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

School reform

June 22, 2011

A draft statement by the conservative Christian Democrats is calling for a radical reform of the German school system. More than anything, the new platform could be a turn away from state control of education in Germany.


Leaders of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have made public a draft statement that calls for the abolition of Germany's three-tier high school system, a significant change of course in the party's educational policy and federalist ideology.

The 30-page draft is to be approved by party leaders on June 27 and debated at the party's convention in Leipzig in November.

"We currently have too many school forms that confuse parents, pupils and teachers alike," the draft reads. "That is why we are calling for a reduction in school forms and the implementation of a two-way model in all states."

Childen in a classroom
The two lower-level secondary schools would be merged into a new kind of schoolImage: picture-alliance/dpa

After the fourth grade, most German children move into one of three educational tracks: the general secondary school ("Hauptschule," grades 5-10), the intermediate secondary school ("Realschule," grades 5-10) and the academic high school ("Gymnasium", grades 5-12 or 13). Teachers identify which school a child should attend.

Currently, students who finish at either of the two lower-level schools typically go into vocational training or apprenticeships. A small number may also continue through the final grades at the academic high school, at the end of which they can earn the diploma necessary to attend a university.

The CDU's proposal calls for a merger of the two lower-level schools into a new school model, called the "Oberschule," or "upper school." Some federal states have already introduced such schools, or are planning to do so to varying degrees.

Consensus: There is a problem

Nearly all major parties in Germany have now identified the lowest-level general secondary school as problematic, namely because graduates tend to be disadvantaged in the job market. Children with migrant backgrounds are also more likely to be placed into these schools than their ethnic German counterparts.

Two students, one with Muslim headscarf
Children with immigrant backgrounds are more likely to be placed in low-level schoolsImage: Ludolf Dahmen

The center-left Social Democrats have called for a longer period in which children learn at the same level. They have also called for parents to have more input into their children's educational future, in cooperation with teachers.

In a statement published on the website of the pro-business Free Democrats earlier this month, the party's secretary-general, Christian Lindner, said he supported "educational pragmatism."

"That excludes defending the low-level general secondary school at all costs, as the educational conservatives do," he said. "But that also excludes the position of those on the left that unified schools should be introduced everywhere, against the will of the parents."

Resistance in Bavaria

Resistance to the CDU's plans has come from its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Bavarian state Education Minister Ludwig Spaenle said the three-tier system ensures educational diversity and individualized planning for students.

In comparison to other German states, far greater numbers of students in Bavaria attend the general secondary school. The lowest-level schools represented 33.4 percent of all secondary school pupils in the 2006-2007 school year, according to the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden - the highest percentage of all states.

Annette Schavan
Schavan said the federal and state governments need a "culture of cooperation"Image: picture alliance/dpa

Some politicians within the CDU also view the proposal with skepticism. Hans-Jürgen Irmer, the CDU state education minister of Hesse, said Germany has "very well-functioning general secondary schools" and that a simple name-change would not solve the problem.

State or federal control?

Perhaps most significant in the CDU's proposed new platform is the increased involvement of the federal government in education - traditionally a state-controlled sector.

The draft statement calls for "federally unified educational standards." While it concedes that state control of education encourages competition, "it must not be allowed to exhaust itself into regional splintering."

This moves the CDU further away from the so-called "cooperation ban," a 2006 amendment to the German constitution that strictly limits the federal government's influence on state educational systems.

The measure has come under increasing criticism from nearly all sides of the political spectrum. Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan said last month that Germany needs a "culture of cooperation" between the federal and state governments, "not a ban on cooperation."

Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Susan Houlton

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