The German School System

Today I happened to read an article about reforming the Berlin school system, and I use the term “school” intentionally — rather than “education” system; we’re talking about schools here (and Germany has compulsory school attendance laws rather than compulsory education). The article was entitled “Kulturkampf ums Gymnasium” — roughly “culture war over the Gymnasium.” Of course, as most of my readers know, a Gymnasium in Germany is a public academic secondary school leading to university study. It has nothing to do with an athletic gymnasium (Turnhalle), other than sharing a Greek root word. (English took the sports element, while German took the academic side from Greek gymnasion, a place for training both the mind and body.)

The German primary and secondary school system is a very class-conscious institution in a society that publicly professes social equality, but privately often divides things up along class lines. “Elitism” is a dirty word in Germany, but it is alive and well in its school system, which usually makes students choose either a vocational or academic track at the end of the fourth grade. The Gymnasium dates back to a time when Germany was even more divided by social class than today and only about 8-10 percent of students went on to university. Today that percentage is over 30 percent and rising, but little has been done to reform Germany’s traditional three-track school system or its over-crowded universities.

The Gesamtschule reform of the 1970s was limited in scope, and that type of comprehensive high school (meant to be more egalitarian) has never been able to really achieve a breakthrough in Germany. (Socialist East Germany had a more egalitarian school system from 1959 to 1990.) Intended to be more like an American high school, with a mix of social and educational levels, the Gesamtschule was supposed to be a ten-year experiment (1972-1982) leading to possible school reform, but in conservative Bavaria, the Gesamtschule was phased out after 1982. In most other German states the Gesamtschule is still around but has suffered because it is viewed as inferior to the Realschule and Gymnasium. But the Gesamtschule concept has never had an honest chance to really show its stuff in Germany because it always has had to coexist with the traditional three-track system — and tradition in Germany is slow to change.

The “Kulturkampf” article in the Berliner Zeitung is about the fight between Berlin’s left and right-leaning political parties over how best to reform Berlin’s school system. (One of West Germany’s first Gesamtschulen was established in West Berlin in 1968.) The parties have two very different plans for school reform. The conservative CDU party in Berlin wants to get rid of the Gesamtschule, go to a two-track system, and add more Gymnasien (while making them more accessible — durchlässig — to more students). The CDU plan also includes expanded pre-school education. The SPD and Linke (Left), “rot-rot” (red-red) coalition wants to go in the other direction. The more socialist Linke want to abolish the Gymnasium and expand the Gesamtschule, while the SPD wing would keep the Gymnasium and add a new school type that is a combination of Gesamtschule, Realschule, and Grundschule (elementary). It’s hardly a recipe for agreement.

The Berlin situation is an example of what all of Germany is facing: How do you reform a school system that has largely resisted change for the past 50 years? Everyone knows that change is needed, but finding agreement on how to do that is not going to be simple.

Related Links:

Education: Schools and Universities in the German-speaking Countries (The German Way)
Education in Germany (Wikipedia, English)
Bildungssystem (Wikipedia, Deutsch)

2 thoughts on “The German School System

  1. I have just moved to Austria (from Australia), and keep thinking how impressive the level of organisation is and how it shows the maturity of the country, but your article highlites an aspect of that “age” that is becoming more aparent to me too.

    Change is very difficult, and no one can ever agree how to do it, so the changes are often done half heartedly. They just had to re-sit their national elections because the elected coalition couldn’t agree on anything and nothing was getting done…

  2. Pingback: Homeschooling verboten | The German Way Expat Blog

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