School and Learning in Germany

Flexible Chaos? Longer Period for German Primary Schools

Grundschüler; © T. KösterPrimary school pupils; © T. KösterFour, five or six years? In Germany politicians and educators are arguing over the duration of the period for primary school. Equal educational opportunities for all children or educational levelling without a guiding idea – opponents of reform fear the demise of the “good old” grammar school.

That a child-oriented education means adults’ establishing a tough policy could already be seen in the 1970s and 80s in West Germany. Back then conservative and social-democratic politicians grappled over the establishment of the so-called “comprehensive school” (Gesamtschule), in which the tripartite structure of secondary general school, intermediate secondary school and grammar school was to be merged into one up to the tenth class (secondary school I).

What conservative circles called a “school chaos”, modernist educators appraised as the optimum method for providing children of different social strata an equal starting point for their cognitive and intellectual development.

Experimental crucible: Hamburg

Primary school teacher and pupils; © T. KösterIn 2010 the city of Hamburg experienced its own “school chaos”, which also concerned the merging of school forms desired by parts of the population, this time the merging of primary school and the so-called orientation stage, the first two years of secondary school (classes 5 and 6).

After long negotiation, the majority of the Hamburg Senate, consisting of the CDU and the Green-Alternative List under Ole von Beust (CDU), agreed on the compromise of the “primary school”: beginning in 2011 all children from the first to the sixth class were to go to school together and then either to grammar school (until the twelfth class) or to “district schools” where they could take secondary general and intermediate secondary school diplomas in addition to A-levels (here in the thirteenth class).

Impact of PISA

Primary school pupils; © T. KösterOne major reason for the CDU-Green decision was the unsatisfactory marks that Hamburg’s scholastic performance had received, particularly in the PISA Assessment of 2003 (PISA-E). The city’s school were rated at most in the middle field, if not even in the lower third.

Politicians and educators recalled the thesis enunciated in 1994 by of the Chairman of Berlin’s Primary School Association, Peter Heyer: “scholastic education is above all a matter for the children ... They have to live with the consequences”. A longer period of learning, he argued, enhances children’s feeling of self-esteem “continually”. Further, the four-year model of primary school stood, he said, “in the tradition of class-bound thinking from the previous century”.

End of the grammar school?

Primary school pupil; © T. KösterAlthough in the end even CDU mayor Ole von Beust was convinced by the primary school concept, on July 18, 2010 a liberal-conservative coalition of Hamburg citizens from mainly the middle and upper classes prevailed against the reform in a referendum: of 491,000 voters, a more than sufficient 276,304 voted against the new concept.

The chairman of the oppositional parents initiative “We Want to Learn”, Walter Scheuerl, was glad that “Hamburg schoolchildren will now have a good school system”. Scheuerl and his supporters feared that the primary school model would disadvantage able pupils in learning and that the grammar school would be devalued as an independent form of advanced schooling.

Models: Berlin and Brandenburg

Primary school teacher and pupil; © T. KösterA genuinely six-year long primary school period exists in Germany only in Berlin and Brandenburg: both states are governed by a coalition of the SPD and the Left Party. In the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, however, there is a similar so-called “regional school” that is attended after the fourth class so as to prepare pupils for grammar school or O-levels. In some other states there is also at the three advanced school levels an “orientation stage” or “support stage” which is supposed to help children make the transition from pre-specialised learning levels to specialised levels.

Interesting in this discussion of education policy is the fact that some states want not so much to extend the period of primary school as to enhance the quality of the traditional four-year period. In Bavaria, for example, there is now a three-year long pilot project called “Flexible Primary School”: following their own pace, the young pupils learn to read, write and add and subtract at an “entry level”. This stage may last between one and three years. Only then comes the third and fourth class.

Andreas Wirwalski
is a freelance journalist and writer based in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2011

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