Educational Concepts in Germany

The Comprehensive School – Pro and Con

Hans-Peter Meidinger. Foto: privatComprehensive Schools: Pro or Con? In many places, the same perplexity reigns in the educational debate as among the pupils themselves. Copyright: Tomasz Trojanowski / fotolia.comThe secondary general school is in a crisis – and with it the three-tier German school system of primary school (Grundschule), secondary general school (Hauptschule), intermediate secondary school (Realschule) and grammar school (Gymnasium). Meanwhile the concept of the comprehensive school (Gesamtschule) is increasingly gaining adherents amongst parents and pupils. A bone of contention in the educational debate.

The principle behind the comprehensive school (Gesamtschule) is that pupils of all kinds receive the same instruction for a longer period and that the various forms of schooling are all organised under the same roof. Advocates of the comprehensive school point to positive results in other countries. Opponents warn against abandoning the achievements and strengths of the German school system and foresee a massive loss of confidence in the public schools. gives the educationalist Ernst Rösner, an advocate of the comprehensive school, and Hans-Peter Meidinger of the German Association of Philologists, one of its critics, a chance to have their say.


Dr. Ernst Rösner. Photo: in private possessionIn rural regions a silent education revolution is underway: pressured by the decay of the secondary general school (Hauptschule), the readiness to try something new and to change the traditional school system is palpable. In Bavaria and even in Baden-Württemberg adherents of the CSU and the CDU themselves no longer deem it reasonable to separate children at the age of nine or ten. Today the rate of transferral from the primary school (Grundschule) to the secondary general school is only about 15 percent. Because of the demographic development, the secondary general school is routing its pupils straight into a process of impoverishment. For with the currently decreasing number of pupils, the grammar school (Gymnasium) is stabilising itself at the cost of the intermediary secondary school (Realschule), and the intermediary secondary school at the cost of the secondary general school. The result is obvious: in the long run no form of schooling without grammar school standards can survive. Comprehensive schools, on the other hand, enable pupils to take all qualifications, including the school-leaving examination (Abitur), at a place near to where they live.

According to surveys of the Institute for Research on the Development of Schools, parents no longer want an early selection of their children after the fourth school year. People reject the idea of distributing children of nine into different courses of education. Most parents want their child to have a better school-leaving qualification than they had, particularly parents who had average qualifications. In order to maintain the socio-economic status of their parents, children today need ever better school qualifications. Before the first PISA study, teachers at the secondary level I were asked what they thought of the early distribution into different forms of schooling. In 1998 a fourth said they were in favour of a longer period of common instruction for children. By 2004, a longer period of common instruction was already favoured by half the teachers.

In Schleswig-Holstein the setting up of comprehensive schools has been met with a considerable positive resonance. Schleswig-Holstein began with seven; in the next school year it will be 56. I am convinced that the idea of the comprehensive school is going to widen into an educational mass movement. I like to think that in a few years there will be as many comprehensives in Schleswig-Holstein as there are grammar schools.

Dr. Ernst Rösner is an educationalist at the Institute for Research on the Development of Schools in Dortmund. In 2004 he drafted the concept paper on comprehensive schools for the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein, and is one of the Chairmen of the Advisory Council for the Introduction of Comprehensive Schools in Berlin.


Hans-Peter Meidinger. Photo: in private possessionAdvocates of a “school for everyone” like to point to Finland and Korea, two countries with integrated educational systems that placed very high in the PISA rankings. What they omit to say is that all the countries in the OECD educational comparisons that bring up the rear also have integrated school systems. For example, the school systems in Greece and Finland are very similar, but the level of achievement and the connection between social origin and educational success could not be more different.

As far as achievement is concerned, in the 2006 PISA study Germany clearly did better than countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which many people previously invoked as models. If OECD studies in Germany, but also in countries with comprehensive schools, note a particularly close connection between social class and educational success, this says little about the school system. It is rather an observation about the deficits of the social integration of some population groups in Germany. This may be seen, for instance, from the fact that countries with similar problems (such as France) also evince a similarly close connection, although they have integrated school systems. Whoever wants to decouple social class and educational success further is not going to solve the problem by dissolving secondary general schools, but rather by accelerating integration policy and supporting the educational will of the relevant social groups.

The demographic argument is also not good for much. Didn’t we complain for years, when the number of pupils was increasing, about schools that were too big and overcrowded classrooms? Now we have the opportunity to get schools and classes of an educationally reasonable size. A secondary general school class of 15 pupils is a piece of good fortune, not a calamity.

In Germany, we have had close experience of a “school for everyone” for forty years. The resounding lack of success of German comprehensive schools runs through all the relevant studies, and interestingly not only with respect to achievement but also with respect to social integration and the acquisition of social competences. Those who nevertheless believe they must push through a school for everyone against the will of broad sectors of the population, will then see how, as in England, there will be a flight from the public schools and into expensive private education – a flight that will surely not lead to less social selection.

Naturally, the three-tier German school system also has its shortcomings. These problems – and on this all well-known educational researchers from Jürgen Baumert and Olaf Köller to Manfred Prentzel agree without exception – are best solved within the existing structures. The structural debate already blocked necessary reforms in content in the 1970s. We should avoid a new hamstringing battle over the schools in the interests of our children’s future.

Hans-Peter Meidinger is Chairman of the Association of German Philologists (Deutscher Philologenverband / DPhV). The DPhV particularly represents the interests of grammar school level teaching staff.
Arnd Zickgraf
the author is a science journalist and writer, based in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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August 2008

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