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Reform quashed

July 19, 2010

Hamburg voters blocked proposals to extend primary school education. The reform, intended to give more students access to higher education, was pushed by the city state's ruling coalition - which is now in big trouble.

a poster in favor of the proposed reforms
Angry parents moved to block proposed reformsImage: Kathrin Erdmann

Voters in Hamburg toppled their government's proposed education reforms Sunday in the city-state's first binding referendum.

The vote assured the preservation of Hamburg's four-year primary schools, rather than extending primary education to six years, which the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Greens believed would give more students a chance at entering elite high schools.

a poster against the government's proposed reforms
Parents forced the referendumImage: Kathrin Erdmann

Of the 460,000 votes counted Sunday evening, 255,000 had moved to quash the government's reforms, leaving no doubt as to the doomed fate of the platform that had been the center of Hamburg Education Minister Christa Goetsch's career. At around 492,000 votes, the referendum drew 39 percent of eligible voters.

Sunday's referendum was forced by the citizens' initiative "We want to learn," which collected 180,000 signatures to let the people decide on school reform. The daily Hamburger Morgenpost quoted the movement's spearhead, Walter Scheuerl, as saying he was proud of the clear result.

"We didn't just beat Parliament - we beat them despite a conglomerated PR machine that the parties, the unions and the state government brought against us on taxpayers' money," Scheuerl added.

A defeat for equal opportunities

Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust, who announced his resignation Sunday following the referdum loss, added that the result was "bitter for everyone who had placed hope in longer collective schooling."

Attempting to minimize fallout from the referendum outcome, federal Education Minister Annette Schavan said the failure of the reform was a positive signal for the Merkel government's education policies.

Perhaps it will be an impulse for thoughts to turn to important questions over the education system, and "not leave it to state governments," Schavan told public broadcaster ARD on Monday.

The city-state's government had believed that longer primary schools would give more children a chance at entering elite high schools and eventually attending university.

Ole von Beust
Von Beust expressed his disappointment over the "bitter" resultImage: AP

Complex system

Under Germany's three-tier education system, children are sent to separate institutions after primary school, the vocational Hauptschule, or for those opting for higher vocational training, a Realschule and future university students to a Gymnasium.

In the city-state of Hamburg, children go to primary school for four years until the age of 10 and are then separated according to their abilities - a move that shapes their lives. Education experts have claimed this is too early, and have argued that two more years of primary school would help weaker students improve their chances for the future.

One government reform the referendum did not shoot down will leave the decision of students' educational fates in the hands of teachers and schools alone, rather than allowing parents to decide.

Many schools around Hamburg had already begun adapting to the other proposed changes - now in vain.

Cloudy future for Hamburg government

Christa Goetsch
Goetsch said she would not step downImage: Kathrin Erdmann

The referendum outcome and von Beust's resignation have larger implications for the Hamburg government, and leave city-state's ruling CDU-Greens coalition with an uncertain future.

"This clear vote by the people is a hit not just to the government but to the people of Hamburg," said the leader of Hamburg's Free Democratic Party, Rolf Salo, who called for Goetsch to step down alongside von Beust in order to allow for new elections.

But Volker Kauder, the chairman of the CDU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, told ARD on Monday that von Beust's departure from office was not so "dramatic," adding his certainty that the Hamburg government would find a suitable successor to fill his post without the need for elections.

"[Elections] are in no way necessary becase the government chief has changed," he said.

Author: Darren Mara, David Levitz (AFP/apn/dpa/Reuters)

Editor: Rob Turner