School and Learning in Germany

“Give Us Back The 13th Year!” Eight or Nine Years of Secondary School?

Schüler bei der Abiturprüfung; © ColourboxPupil taking his Abitur exams; © ColourboxSince 2010, the G8 reform, as it is known, has been gradually shortening the comparatively long time pupils spend at German grammar schools from nine to eight years. The idea is to make German school-leavers more competitive on the international labour market. Yet the switch to the “fast-track Abitur” (the Abitur is Germany’s university entrance qualification) has provoked protest amongst pupils, teachers and parents alike.

Lena and Florian Steinmann from Nuremberg are just two of the 70,000 or so pupils in Bavaria who took their Abitur this summer. Unlike her brother Florian, who has nine years of grammar school under his belt, Lena had one year less time to prepare for her exams under the new G8 system. “I did feel that I had to learn more than my brother in a shorter space of time, but now I’m glad to be finished a year earlier”, says the 18-year-old. All the same, she admits that it is an odd feeling to be getting her school leaving certificate at the same time as her older brother.

In the states of Bavaria and Lower Saxony, the first G8 year left school in July 2011. Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Brandenburg and Bremen are to follow suit in 2012, while Schleswig-Holstein’s turn will come in 2016. The only state that is retaining the nine-year system is Rhineland-Palatinate; the eight-year Abitur there exists only in the form of a pilot project at full-day schools. All over the country, however, resistance is growing. One reason for the criticism is that German has a federal system which puts education in the hands of the individual federal states, and more and more states are demanding the freedom to decide whether to implement the G8 concept. In North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, for example, schools themselves are free to choose between the two systems, while Baden-Württemberg is already working to draft a corresponding law.

No time for voluntary activities

Pupils taking their Abitur exams; © ColourboxThe shift to G8 has resulted in a unique situation for grammar schools in Bavaria and Lower Saxony in the 2010/2011 school year. To cope with the double year of school-leavers, the Abitur exams for the G9 pupils were brought forward by six weeks, entailing changes to the syllabus and to the number of class tests. For the first time, it was possible for students who had achieved poor grades to take assessment tests and still be admitted to the Abitur examinations. Furthermore, an additional Abitur resit was arranged in September so that students who failed to pass their Abitur the first time around could resit the exams while still within the school framework.

While her 19-year-old brother plans to embark on a degree in law this autumn, Lena intends to give herself a six-month break – like many of her friends, she is keen to spend some time working her way around Australia or doing voluntary work overseas. However, not everyone takes such a positive view of the shortened Abitur as Lena does. “I would like to spend another year with my school friends before everyone moves away to university”, says Caroline Meier, a grammar school pupil in the Bavarian town of Weissenburg. She is set to take her Abitur exams in May 2012.

Caroline is well aware that she will not have much in the way of free time during her last year before her Abitur if she wishes to achieve an average mark of at least 1.5, the grade required to study veterinary medicine. Given such ambitious targets, 36 lessons a week at school including afternoon classes and homework, driving lessons now that Germans can take their driving test at the age of 17, not to mention a part-time job at a kiosk, Caroline is left with precious little time for her hobbies and friends, let alone to engage in voluntary activities. This year she had originally hoped to be a scoutmaster responsible for her own group. “Just now I don’t know how I’m supposed to cope with everything as I’ve got to prepare for my Abitur”, she says.

“Learning means gathering experience”

Cover of “Abituraufgaben 2011” ; © Stark VerlagYakamoz Karakurt, a pupil from Hamburg, feels much the same as Caroline. In August 2011, she published a commentary on the subject of G8 in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. “What are the people who make the decisions about our schooling actually thinking?” writes the 15-year-old, and makes the following appeal to the education ministries: “Please give us back this thirteenth year!”.

Like many of his colleagues, however, Bavarian education minister Ludwig Spaenle is convinced that the reform is the right way forward: “The eight-year grammar school system is designed to prepare pupils in a more systematic way to meet the requirements of universities and the business world”, said Spaenle, summarizing the objectives at the end of the 2011 school year. Yakamoz criticizes the way many of those in charge in the ministries focus so much on academic performance: “We are supposed to be machines that function, at least 10 hours a day. Functioning, however, is not the same as learning. Learning, above all, is about gathering experience”. It is not only pupils, however, who are complaining that the eight-year “fast-track Abitur” leaves virtually no time for personal development, something that is crucial during adolescence – parents and teachers also agree.

Taking the pressure off learning processes

Pupils playing volley ball; © ColourboxKlaus Wenzel, president of the Bavarian Association of Teachers (BLLV), also has his doubts about the reform’s methods and success: “I have the impression that nothing has changed – all that has happened is that G8 has shortened the time pupils spend at school by one year, with all the negative consequences this has for students and teachers”. “Parents are unhappy, pupils are worn out”, is Wenzel’s sobering conclusion. He continues: “If we want to promote genuine education, that is to say holistic and comprehensive capabilities, skills and qualifications, then we must take the pressure off learning processes at school rather than trying to accelerate them”. He claims that increasing the speed of learning under the G8 system does not improve performance – on the contrary, it generates an aversion to learning, failure and a refusal to study.

It is clear that Klaus Wenzel is not alone in his opinion – a citizens’ initiative in Lower Saxony, for instance, has already collected over 250,000 signatures of people calling for a return to the nine-year grammar school system.

Kathrin Lucia Meyer
is a freelance journalist, blogger and grammar school tutor in Pleinfeld.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2011

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