School and Learning in Germany

“The Neustadt Model” or Obsolescent Model? Secondary General Schools in Germany

Schüler der KGS von Neustadt am Rübenberge; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungPupils of the KGS at Neustadt am Rübenberge; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungThe new federal states and Bremen don’t have them (any longer); Schleswig-Holstein, the Rhineland-Palatinate and Hamburg plan to abolish them. Other states, on contrary, want to upgrade the secondary general schools. The recipe: more practical relevance.

In the next few days the tenth formers at the secondary general school track of the Neustadt am Rübenberge cooperative comprehensive school (Kooperative Gesamtschule / KGS) will be receiving their school reports. Emblazoned on the letterhead of the report, next to the logo of the KGS, is that of the local vocational training centre. Beginning in the ninth form, the pupils may select from the offerings there a course in metalworking, colour engineering, nutrition or body care and then attend classes twice a week.

Pupils in vocational training; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungThis arrangement is called the “Neustadt Model”: in-school training, graduation from which can be credited as the first year of vocational training. In 2009 this concept garnered the Neustadt am Rübenberge KGS first place in the nation-wide competition “Strong Schools”, in which approximately 600 secondary general, special and integrated schools took part.

Half of this year’s KGS class already has a contract for a traineeship in the pocket. A further twenty per cent will soon have one, going on previous experience. Only five years ago, the situation looked very different: nearly a fifth of the pupils broke off their schooling. Of those that persevered, only fourteen per cent received a traineeship. The rest circled in a holding pattern at the vocational school. Today the secondary general school and the vocational school together adjust class schedules and their contents in accord with one another.

Undisciplined and innumerate?

Secondary general school pupil with teacher; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungThey are supposed to be lazy and unpunctual, to be baffled by the simplest arithmetical problems and reading texts: it is because of such prejudices that the files of secondary general school leavers are often sorted out of job applications from the outset. The exception is the states of Bavaria and Baden- Württemberg. There the secondary general school is regarded as a ‘regular school for the practically gifted’, where, according to PISA studies, a good education is available at a high level.

Yet even in Bavaria and Baden- Württemberg registrations are gradually declining. In the other states, primary school teachers recommend only every fourth child to go to a secondary general school, and only fifteen per cent of parents choose them voluntarily. “The secondary general school is becoming a collecting tank for children from low-income families and pupils with immigrant backgrounds”, sums up Dieter Dohmen, Director of the Institute for Education and Socio-Economic Research and Consulting (Forschungsinstituts für Bildungs- und Sozialökonomie / FiBS), in a study from October 2008. “In view of the demographic development and the changed transient behaviour”, he concludes, “it is therefore only consistent to re-think fundamentally whether we want this form of schooling”. Yet abolition would not automatically solve all the problems. German schools are not, he notes, prepared to deal with heterogeneous classes.

High-flyers working their way up from nothing

Secondary general school pupil; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungThanks to the demographic change, even applicants from secondary general schools with mediocre marks or less than perfect knowledge of German sometimes have a chance. And they seize it, as Andreas Wißing, training supervisor with the Deutsche Telekom in Recklinghausen, reports. He raves about the high performance of his trainees, which will shorten their traineeship by a year. At the outset, he hardly credited them with the capacity even to persevere. Now he says “It’s well worth tapping the potential of the lowest educational segment.” It contains many high-flyers.

Businesses accept this target group into several nationwide projects and send their own instructors to the schools or organise additional instruction for their trainees. New selection procedures bank on a longer and individual observation of candidates. And yet this has done nothing to alter the wretched reputation of secondary general schools as “leftover schools”.

Being allowed to show what you can do

To make graduation from the secondary general school count for something again, it needs to be identified with qualifications, stresses education economist Dieter Dohmen of the FIBS. It is precisely this that the Neustadt am Rübenberge KGS, which has been designated a “Strong School”, has succeeded in doing with the “Neustadt Model”. In their vocational placement, the young people are allowed to show what they can already do – and many are then hired. They are streets ahead of their contemporaries in practical skills and in motivation. “The infrequency of times absent shows their interest”, says Herbert Koch, who teaches future painters and varnishers.

Combined with practice, theory no longer seems so grey. Martina Klemke, who teaches mathematics and science at the KGS and body care at the vocational school, stresses this point. She explains the composition of shampoo in the chemistry lessons and has the pupils calculate in mathematics class how many packages of it a hairdresser’s needs per month. “Our young people then finally understand what they really need all the lessons for”, she says.

Everyone pulls together

Secondary general school pupil; © Gemeinnützige Hertie-StiftungMany colleagues have already looked round by him, reports Tjark Ommen, headmaster of the secondary general school track of the KGS. He tells them that the model stands or falls on whether the teachers of the cooperating institutions understand themselves well with each other. They have to pull together in everything – in the matter of discipline too. At the KGS there are clear rules. For example, every violation of the school regulations is punished. Tossing a Coke can next to a dustbin means having to clean up; forgotten homework means staying in after school. No tolerance prevails with respect to graffiti and smoking.

It is all the more important that parents also cooperate. When a teacher takes over a class, the first thing he therefore does is pay a visit to all the pupils’ families. This is time-consuming, but the time is worth it. Teacher and parents talk to each other – and not only about marks. The school organises information evenings on questions of education and on vocational orientation. At these evenings former pupils explain what matters in their training. Punctuality, a neat appearance, perseverance, for example. And they also give particular tips on technical literature and work clothes.

Today the secondary general school track of the Neustadt am Rübenberge KGS can hardly manage all the registrations it receives, says Martina Klemke. Nor is the change from intermediate secondary to secondary general school felt any longer to be tragic: “The child will still get somewhere”. Owing to this success, the Neustadt Model is soon to be anchored in Lower Saxony’s education act.

Matilda Jordanova-Duda
is a freelance journalist living Königswinter.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2009

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