History of Education in Germany by Grindel, Susanne (2018)

The German school system in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The educational background of the textbook sources

The overview is divided into periods from which the commented textbook sources originate. The timelines are "soft" data: they are not static and are not exclusively related to a particular year. Rather, the aim is to classify the sources in the respective educational history context of their use in the textbook and to give rough time orientation marks.

1910 – School towards the End of Imperial Germany

At the beginning of the 20th century, most states in imperial Germany had seen the emergence of a three-tiered school system, comprising Volksschule (primary school), Mittelschule (middle school) and secondary schools. Compulsory school attendance, which had already been enshrined in law for a long time, was now becoming as much a practice as a theory; as a result, illiteracy had become very rare. It was primarily the eight-year Volksschule that served to satisfy the legal requirement of school attendance; in cities, it increasingly comprised several classes, whereas in rural areas schools with only one class tended to prevail. By this time, the Volksschule was teaching nature studies, history and geography as well as its traditional areas of basic skills and religious studies. The increased significance given to primary education in imperial Germany was also demonstrated by the improvements made to teacher training and to teachers’ remuneration and reductions in class size. In 1911, a Volksschule class would comprise an average of only 51 pupils rather than the 64 typical in 1886. Middle schools, which in Prussia were subjected to a comprehensive restructuring in 1908, mostly comprised six classes and followed a syllabus that was broader than that of the Volksschule , including one or two foreign languages. These schools were tailored to the needs of the ‘middle classes’, with the aim of creating distance between them and the working classes. In rural areas they additionally acted as ‘feeder’ schools for the secondary schools in the cities. The secondary schools comprised nine classes; like the middle schools, however, in many areas they also contained their own preparatory schools which prepared pupils for direct entry into secondary school, replacing the first three years of Volksschule . They provided a ‘general education’ in such a way as to introduce pupils to academic methods; the curricular content was structured in categories, each with a different thematic focus. Where the Gymnasium , the most traditional form of secondary school, focused its curriculum on the classical languages, the Realgymnasium would more strongly emphasise modern languages, mathematics and the sciences, while the Oberrealschule demonstrated a clear tendency towards these latter two fields. Since 1900, the three types of secondary school had been essentially equal in terms of the further opportunities open to pupils gaining their leaving qualifications, especially admission to universities and to the higher-level career tracks within public service. As far as social prestige and share of pupils attending are concerned, however, the Gymnasium continued to enjoy a clear advantage, with around 50 percent of the relevant pupil group going to this type of school before the beginning of the First World War. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the secondary-school system for girls was also restructured by the state; it retained, however, a structure that differed from the boys’ equivalent. The Lyzeum , which comprised ten school years including preparatory school, formed the basic outline of the secondary education system for girls. At early secondary level, it branched off into so-called ‘ Studienanstalten ’ of either a Gymnasium , Realgymnasium or Oberrealschule nature, each ending with the Abitur , which opened up the gates of university education to girls alongside boys. Furthermore, the Lyzeum included its own teacher-training seminar at sixth-form level. Altogether, the secondary-school system went through a dramatic expansion after the turn of the century, as a consequence of both economic and societal shifts. The middle schools and especially the secondary schools retained a socially selective character on account of factors including the fees they required. For middle-class children, who constituted the majority of secondary-school pupils, these schools were a preferred and successfully utilised means of social advancement. Schools were primarily funded by local authorities; management and monitoring of the school system, however, lay in the hands of the individual federal states, which laid down the framework conditions for education policy, prescribed curricular content and monitored teaching staff by means of school supervisory authorities. The Volksschule remained under the strong influence of the Church. In most states of the Empire, there were separate Volksschulen for each major Christian denomination and schools were supervised at the lowest level by the local clergy. Around the turn of the century there was growing criticism of both the form and content of lessons in regard to all levels of the school system. What later became known as the reformist education movement aimed to fundamentally restructure schools and the instruction they gave in order to achieve a more holistic education of both body and spirit. These approaches, however, were soon overshadowed by the increasing politicisation and nationalisation of school education in Imperial Germany. Schools became an arena of the battle against the workers’ movement. History and geography lessons took on a central importance in the project of rearing pupils to become obedient subjects at the service of the authorities, immune to the ideas of social democracy and committed to a militaristic nation state. In this context, German and in particular Prussian history was increasingly abbreviated to essentially a prelude to the German Reich of 1871; the teaching of German culture and achievements emphasised a nationalist perspective, which railed with mounting aggression against France, Germany’s supposed ‘hereditary enemy’. This teaching was complemented by the increasingly militaristic nature of physical education in schools in the years preceding the beginning of the First World War. These tendencies were summed up in the brief formula ‘The Occident in the curricula, the House of Hohenzollern in our hearts and military service in our actions’ ( Das Abendland im Lehrplan, die Hohenzollern im Herzen, den Kriegsdienst im Handeln ; Kraul, 120). Viewed as a whole, three features can be taken as characteristic of the education system of Imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century: a) the extension and modernisation of school education, b) the differentiation of educational facilities and the teaching they provided; and c) the politicisation of schools and teaching.

1925 – School in the "Weimar Republic"

From the beginning, the school system of the Weimar Republic was the subject of political and ideological controversy; nothing less was at stake than the opportunity to shape the next generation’s attitudes towards the new Republic and the democratic system. The Republic’s key political parties, the Social Democrats, the liberal left and the Catholic centre, had differing ideas on the ways in which schools might contribute to democratisation. Fundamental issues such as the abolition of denominational schools or the transferral of responsibility for education policy from the federal states to Reich level demonstrated just how incompatible the various positions on these issues were. The clauses on schooling in the Weimar Constitution of 1919 offered a compromise which only served to cover up the antagonism and failed to provide a space for genuine reconciliation of the divergent points of view. The Weimar Constitution Primary Schools Act of 28 April 1920 declared the first four years of Volksschule compulsory for all children aged six to ten years. This was at least a start along the road to the standardised school system prescribed by the constitution, the intended embodiment of democratic education and equal access to education for all pupils. The preparatory schools, which in 1921 were still attended by around half of all future Gymnasium pupils, lost their legal basis. It was not possible to implement further, more radical approaches to restructuring the school system, such as those debated at the Reichsschulkonferenz in June 1920 by representatives of regional governments, municipalities, professional associations, youth organisations and academia, at Reich level. In the subsequent period, the individual federal states took various measures depending on their specific political orientation; a committee consisting of representatives from the Reich , federal states and municipalities took on the task of maintaining a minimum of common ground. The authority of religious figures to oversee Volksschulen had been abolished immediately following the revolution November 1918; nevertheless, the denominational structure of the primary-school system was maintained in most federal states. Training for Volksschule teachers was improved and was now only accessible to those who had successfully gained their Abitur ; in Prussia, such training was now administered by specialist training colleges ( Pädagogische Akademien ), while some states even assigned this task to universities. The gap between Volksschule and secondary school was to be narrowed by the introduction of so-called Aufbauschulen , whose purpose was to allow older as well as younger pupils to access more advanced educational levels. The introduction of the Deutsche Oberschule , a fourth type of secondary school whose curricula focused on a specifically German educational canon, aimed both to widen access to secondary education and strengthen pupils‘ identification with their nation and its people. These schools did not exist in particularly significant numbers; nevertheless, the Weimar period did see an increase in social mobility in the school system for both boys and girls. While in imperial Germany it had primarily been the middle classes that had been able to climb the social ladder as a result of attending secondary school, now this opportunity was increasingly opened up to children from working-class families. In 1921 only nine percent of secondary-school pupils came from the working classes; by 1931 this figure had increased to 13 percent. Generally speaking, however, these measures to promote the democratisation of German society via improved access to educational facilities and via social advancement as a result of secondary school attendance benefited only a small fraction of children. Around one to two percent of the girls and five percent of the boys born in any one year were attending the final years of secondary school during the Weimar period. Along with improved access to educational opportunity, curricular content was also intended to promote a democratic consciousness among pupils. The Weimar Constitution had already given schools the responsibility of promulgating an ‘attitude of citizenship’. The introduction of citizenship ( Staatsbürgerkunde ) as a school subject, likewise prescribed by the Weimar Constitution, remained unimplemented; instead, citizenship education was declared a ‘basic principle of instruction’ to be promoted through a variety of subjects, from the teaching about German and regional natural history, customs and culture ( Heimatkunde ) given in primary schools to German, history and geography lessons in more advanced schools. Heimatkunde in particular, however, rather served – at least when taught as prescribed by the curriculum – to counteract the sense of insecurity engendered by the developments of the time and to instil in pupils strong ties to their region, traditions and people. Likewise, the other subjects mentioned above did little to encourage a republican attitude that would resist the racist-nationalist and anti-democratic tendencies that were gaining in strength towards the end of the 1920s. Teaching in schools retained a traditional orientation, particularly at the Gymnasium , and kept its distance from events taking place outside school. Any more deliberate reference to the political situation of the time, as took place in the Oberrealschulen , was unmistakably characterised by nationalist and revisionist features, which became apparent in topics such as the situation of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles or the reinforcement of cultural ties to the territories either occupied or abandoned in the east and west following the First World War. Overall, the Weimar Republic was unsuccessful in its project of immunising its pupils against anti-democratic tendencies by creating greater structural and curricular openness in the school system. Instead, teaching in Heimatkunde , German and history boosted German nationalist tendencies in the overarching context of the political radicalisation of the time. The majority of pupils were encouraged not to appreciate republican and democratic values, but rather to be loyal to state authorities and adopt nationalist attitudes.

1940 – School During National Socialism

The educational policy measures undertaken by the National Socialists did not pursue a cohesive programme. Nevertheless, these interventions into the school system were driven by two motives: the inculcation of the National Socialist world-view into young people and the reduction of the influence of school on young people, with a concomitant increase in the significance of state youth organisations in their formation. Centralisation and Gleichschaltung , the process of ‚alignment‘ of all institutions in public life with National Socialist dictates, within the school system began when the Reich Ministry of Science, Education and People’s Education ( Reichsministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung ), founded in 1934, took over responsibility for policy in schools; the federal state ministries of education were relegated to merely administrative institutions. State influence on the school system increased once again. Private schools, particularly those run by the Church, were subject to increasingly onerous restrictions, in line with the general intent of the Reich Ministry of Education ( Reichserziehungsministerium ) to eliminate the Church’s influence on the school system. The three-tiered system of Volksschule , Mittelschule and secondary schools was maintained. In 1936, secondary schooling was shortened from nine to eight years. Two years later, in 1938, radical reforms saw the standardisation of all hitherto existing types of secondary school. The ‘principal form’ of secondary schooling from this point onwards was to be the ‘Upper School for Boys’ ( Oberschule für Jungen ), where pupils followed courses emphasising either languages or the sciences; this type of school was attended by more than four fifths of all male secondary-school pupils. Girls were catered for along similar lines, in the ‘Upper School for Girls’ ( Oberschule für Mädchen ), where pupils specialised in either languages or home economics. The Gymnasium , with its tradition of teaching classical languages, remained in existence as a ‘special form of secondary school’; nevertheless, numbers of pupils attending these schools declined by almost two thirds. A specifically National Socialist component of the educational policy of the time was represented by selective and elite schools where boys, and later girls, aged ten to eighteen years were to be trained for future careers as leaders loyal to the Nazi party. As the future elite, they were supposed to represent National Socialism from a racial, physical and intellectual point of view; they were to go on to ensure continued hegemony for the NS regime and expand its rule beyond the boundaries of the Reich. To this end, the ‘Educational Institutions for National Policy’ ( Nationalpolitischen Erziehungsanstalten [Napola] ) were established in 1933 as state secondary schools monitored by the Reich Ministry of Education. Later, separate institutions were also founded for girls. The content of the curricula they taught was heavily influenced by racial ideology, physical training of a military nature and loyalty to the party. Leavers were destined for positions in the Reich army, state administration and the Party. The ‘Adolf Hitler Schools’ were even more closely monitored by the NSDAP. Established in 1937 as ‘Party schools’ for boys aged between 12 and 18, they were under the authority not of the Reich Minister of Education but of the Reich Youth Leader. These schools were dependent on the Party both legally and financially. Regardless of their social backgrounds and – initially – of their intellectual abilities, the boys attending them were to be trained for leadership positions within the National Socialist party. Soon, however, the conviction prevailed that leadership could not be built on physical qualities alone, leading to increased emphasis on curricular content, which was rendered comparable to that found in regular secondary schools. Pupil numbers at the NS selective and elite schools remained negligible, with only one percent of all school leavers having passed through them. The 7 April 1933 legislation to ‘re-establish the professional civil service’ ( Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums ) made it possible to remove teachers from their positions for racial or ideological reasons, and to discipline and intimidate those who remained in office. Likewise, pupils were ‘filtered out’ of secondary education in line with NS racial ideology, a process aided by legislation, likewise enacted in April 1933, intended to counter ‘the overcrowding of German schools and institutions of higher education’. Jewish pupils were ostracised, while girls were increasingly excluded from more advanced educational facilities. The National Socialist state used schools as instruments of indoctrination; this was particularly the case for German, history and geography lessons. These subjects in particular had already been given a distinctively nationalist flavour in the Weimar Republic; accordingly, the curricula, structures and teaching materials used in these subjects in the Weimar period initially remained unchanged. It was not until 1937/38 that new guidelines were published for primary and secondary levels. Until this occurred, the curricular content in these subjects had been altered in the interests of National Socialist ideology via decrees which introduced a strong emphasis on genetics, racial studies ( Rassenkunde ), early Germanic history and physical education. Even subjects that are generally less susceptible to ideological contamination, such as mathematics, did not remain free of racist ideas and the consistent politicisation of all aspects of education. Schools were under permanent pressure from the state-run Hitler Youth (HJ) organisation, which challenged the traditional primary authority of schools in matters of public education. Conflict with teachers and clashes of schedule between young people’s required service to the HJ and lesson time were virtually institutionalised, furthering the HJ’s claim to a privileged role in the socialisation of young people. The parallel coexistence of thematic and institutional continuities from the Weimar period and a multiplicity of conflicting or barely coordinated interventions remained characteristic of the National Socialist school system. In the education of this period, ideas of equality of opportunity taken from the repertoire of social revolutionary politics, concepts drawn from the youth movement, such as the ideals of leadership and a sense of identification with one’s social group, and reformist notions such as practice-based learning via community experience met with physical training of a military nature, a racist worldview and complete state control of youth.

1955 – Restoration and Reform Following the End of the Second World War

After the end of World War II and the experiences of the National Socialist dictatorship, both successor states of the German Reich returned to concepts from the Weimar Republic when approaching the reform of their school systems, thus reviving controversies surrounding educational policy from the 1920s. At the same time, the four Allied occupying powers were placing demands on the school system; their ideas were initially broadly similar, consisting principally in a call for democratic education and equality of opportunity, stemming from the belief that the failure of the education system was a key factor in the development of dictatorship, militarism and racial ideology. The Allied forces came to an arrangement regarding fundamental reform of the education system in the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945. The various military governments took different approaches to implementing their ideas on education. In the Soviet zone of occupation, an ‘anti-fascist and democratic’ education reform process was swiftly initiated: legislation on the ‘democratisation of German schools’ introduced a standardised primary school lasting eight years, following which pupils could proceed to a four-year secondary school ( Oberschule ) or a three-year occupational training college ( Berufsschule ). Private schools were abolished; denominational schools were repressed and marginalised. The school system was subject to central state supervision. The Ministry of the People’s Education ( Ministerium für Volksbildung ), led by Margot Honecker from 1963 until the end of the GDR, ensured that schools were increasingly put to the service of the ideological and economic overhaul of society in accordance with ‘real-socialist’ principles and the realisation of socialist ideas on how a person was expected to be. Legislation enacted in 1959 on the ‘socialist development of the school system’ ( Gesetz über die sozialistische Entwicklung des Schulwesens ) extended compulsory school attendance to ten years. The previously existing eight-year primary school was replaced by a ten-year Polytechnische Oberschule ( POS ) for general education, with a primary, middle and an upper level. These eight years could be followed by four years at the Extended Upper School ( Erweiterte Oberschule , EOS ), where pupils could obtain a university entrance qualification. Other routes to higher education included, most significantly, vocational training which concluded with the Abitur ; this route, which served above all to prepare students for degrees in technical subjects, was taken by around one-third of school-leavers who gained university entrance qualifications. Admission to an Erweiterte Oberschule depended on pupils’ academic achievements and career plans, as well as on the political reliability and activity of pupils and their parents. A further admission criterion was related to pupils’ social backgrounds; quota systems systematically raised the proportion of children whose parents were classed as ‘workers’ or ‘farmers’ attending an Oberschule or an EOS . This, alongside financial and educational support schemes, gave rise to a rapid increase in participation in more advanced education. From the mid-1960s onwards, however, the proportion of those permitted to study for higher education entrance qualifications was tailored to the needs of the economy and scaled back from 18 percent to 12 percent of each school year, a figure that then remained constant until the end of the GDR. While the numbers of those gaining Abitur had been clearly superior to those of the Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s, they sank below West German figures in the subsequent period on account of restrictive policies in the East and educational expansion in the West. From 1965, in order to produce the specialists that were needed, specialist schools and classes were introduced within the mainstream system, focusing on music, physical education, Russian or mathematics and intended to provide direct support to pupils with particular talents in these subjects. The curriculum emphasised the sciences and technology, alongside strong components of civic and physical education. The ‘polytechnic’ teaching, which consisted of theoretical and practical elements, was intended to prepare pupils for entering the world of work and industrial or agricultural production. In line with the Soviet model, the aims and content of teaching were derived from the Marxist-Leninist canon, which served as the foundation of all teaching. Together with the youth organisation of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany ( Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands , SED), the Free German Youth ( Freie Deutsche Jugend , FDJ), schools drew their pupils into identification with socialist ideology and placed increasing restrictions on freedom of thought and opportunities for personal development. The western Allies had also planned a standardised school system with at least six years of school attendance for the areas they occupied. It was to replace the vertically structured system of secondary schools, which were seen as elitist and authoritarian, thus rendering equal educational opportunities available to all pupils, an aim also to be furthered by the abolition of school fees and charges for textbooks. Nevertheless, the individual occupying forces placed divergent emphases in the reforms they effected to the schools in their spheres of influence. The Americans aimed for comprehensive ‘reeducation and reorientation’ towards democracy in both schools and the wider culture; to this end, they ran reorientation courses for Volksschule teachers lasting several weeks and used ‘reeducation teams’ to impart the democratic forms of instruction which teachers were to use in future. The British were more restrained in their educational policy, while the French placed their hopes in the instilment of cultural values in the classroom as a route to democratisation. Unlike in the Soviet occupation zone, however, it was not possible to implement more than a handful of the Allied forces’ proposed reforms in the western zones. One reason for this was the underdeveloped nature of the reform plans. Another was that educational reforms could not be carried out in the western zones without the support and assistance of German politicians and institutions, who saw the causes of the failure of the German education system to resist Nazism not in the authoritarian and ideological manipulation of young people on the part of the National Socialist system, but rather in that system’s undermining of schools’ authority, with the Hitler Youth having weakened the influence of schools and teachers. For these reasons, conservative education policymakers in the western occupation zones spoke out in support of the re-establishment of the traditional German school system, including the re-introduction of denominational schools. This view of the issues perceived the Gymnasium as reliable bastion of the German educational tradition, and a denominational education in Catholic or Protestant schools was assumed to protect pupils from falling under the spell of radical ideologies. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949; its Basic Law ultimately returned legislative and administrative responsibility for education and schooling to the federal states. It was not until 1969 that constitutional changes granted the federal level power to set framework legislation on education. The Standing Conference of State Education Ministers ( Kultusministerkonferenz , KMK), which had been established in 1948, ensured, however, that the particularism and heterogeneity that arose as a result of federalisation were kept to a minimum. The Standing Conference was supposed to regulate issues of significance beyond the boundaries of individual states, such as the dates of school years, terminology for different types of schools, and to ensure that the school-leaving qualifications of the individual federal states were comparable nationwide. Its resolutions, however, were not binding before they had been accepted and ratified by the federal states. Refederalisation complied with the requirements of the Allied forces and appeared only logical in view of the experience of the Nazi period. It did, however, also reinforce some tendencies to stasis within the German school system. With the exception of Berlin, the extension of primary school to more than four years was never implemented. The ‘Agreement between the States of the Federal Republic on Standardisation in the School System’ that was reached in Düsseldorf in 1955 ultimately established as the standard school system in West Germany the traditional three-tiered structure consisting of Volksschule , Mittelschule and Gymnasium – the latter now officially and uniformly labelled as such. In some states, compulsory school attendance was, at least initially, only for eight years. Even the ‘Hamburg Agreement’, which replaced the Düsseldorf Agreement ten years later, only made a few essentially cosmetic alterations, renaming the Volksschule the Grund- und Hauptschule and the Mittelschule as Realschule . Instruction at the West German Mittelschulen and Gymnasien was given in single-sex classes, and at all schools tuition was to a certain extent gender-specific. Subjects such as home economics and handicrafts were to prepare the girls for their social roles as housewives and mothers in accordance with the family policies of the time. Unlike in the GDR, where the school system was deliberately rendered more accessible to children from working-class families, the West German system reinforced social boundaries and gender-specific opportunities. Equality of access to education was thus de facto non-existent. While curricular content at GDR schools was designed along Marxist-Leninist lines, schools in the Federal Republic of the 1950s focused on Christian western culture. The primacy accorded to such values as the home, the family, the state and the church was intended to convey a sense of tradition and security; there were no plans to encourage pupils to engage with National Socialism. Post-war school policy in both German states thus picked up on and continued – in extremely different ways – the legacy of the Weimar Republic. While fundamental changes were introduced in the Soviet occupation zone and in the GDR, the western occupation zones and the Federal Republic ultimately saw the reestablishment of the traditional German school system.

1975 – School and Education Reform in the Federal Republic and in the GDR

Economic and social developments in both German states in the 1950s and 1960s did not fail to exert their influence on their respective education systems. In the Federal Republic, tension between economic and social modernisation and the stasis apparent within educational policy became increasingly explicit. The growing demand for a qualified workforce in the wake of the country’s economic boom together with the increase in population led to educational expansion, i.e. greater participation in the education system. There was an increase in the numbers of pupils attending the more advanced schools, which however, did not precipitate particularly noticeable change in social mobility within the school system. The generational conflict of the 1960s and attempts to democratise post-war society likewise contributed to a move towards comprehensive educational reform. In the mid-1960s, the diagnosis of a Bildungskatastrophe (‘educational catastrophe’), as posited by Georg Picht in 1964, heralded criticism of the lack of modernisation in the West German education system. The German Education Council ( Deutscher Bildungsrat ) founded in 1965 and comprising representatives from education authorities, society and academia, took on the task of developing recommendations for educational reform on behalf of the German federal and state governments. The ‘Structural Plan for the Education System’ it presented in 1970 called for a restructuring of the system along the lines of international standards. The proposals involved the replacement of the traditional vertically structured school system with a horizontal structure integrating the primary-school sector (years one to four), in the Sekundarstufe I (years five to ten) and Sekundarstufe II (years ten to thirteen) within a comprehensive type of school known as the Gesamtschule . The key ideas of the Structural Plan were incorporated into the General Education Plan drawn up in 1973 by the Federal and State Commission for Educational Planning ( Bund-Länder-Kommission für Bildungsplanung , BLK, founded in 1970). Both plans had the overall aim of qualitative and quantitative expansion of the school system; to the end both of securing equality of opportunity for pupils and fostering their individual talents and abilities, the new type of school was to be comprehensive in intake yet internally differentiated according to pupil performance and preferences, while its teaching was to aspire to high academic standards and relate to the current state of academic research in each subject. However, as the German Education Council and the BLK were only able to make recommendations, and resistance among conservative forces in politics, society and education to further reforms, especially in the matter of school structures, was clearly on the increase in the early 1970s, these plans were only partially implemented. Years five and six generally became an ‘orientation phase’, which was intended to postpone the decision as to which type of secondary school a pupil would ultimately attend until a later date and thus allow a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. Further, the sixth-form level of Gymnasium , the Oberstufe , experienced reforms including the introduction of a wider range of courses and subject options together with methods of working intended to prepare pupils for higher education. This notwithstanding, the integrated Gesamtschule was, following a trial period of ten years, only introduced in the states governed by the Social Democrats (SDP), and even here merely as a fourth type of school alongside the Hauptschule , Realschule and Gymnasium ; further, the foundation of a Gesamtschule was made dependent on the parental demand. Even these partial reforms caused controversy over the following years, a contributory factor to which was a number of shortcomings in their implementation. The radical educational reform attempted for in the mid-1960s must therefore be regarded as a failed project. In spite of a clear increase in numbers of pupils attending advanced educational facilities in the 1970s and 1980s, education opportunities continued to be highly dependent on social class, whereas gender inequality within education was more or less overcome during this period. In the GDR, the structures created at the end of the 1950s were confirmed by legislation on 25 February 1965. This legislation on a ‘Uniform Socialist Education System’provided an overarching framework regulating all sectors and aspects of the country’s education system. It emphasised the ideological and political mission of schools and declared the development of a ‘socialist personality’ to be a goal of education. The new subject of ‘defence education’ ( Wehrunterricht ) introduced in 1978 was a key component of the ideological project of raising class-conscious, loyal, socialist citizens, as well as indicating the extent to which educational practices in the GDR were permeated by military culture as well as ideological notions. The central institution of control over education in the country was the Ministry of People’s Education ( Ministerium für Volksbildung ), which developed curricula and monitored textbooks. The theoretical foundations of socialist education were based on the work of the Academy of Education Sciences, a state institute whose actions were required to adhere closely to political imperatives, and teachers were expected to implement these principles in their teaching practice. Teaching was structured by a curriculum that was compulsory for all schools, with uniformly specified numbers of weekly lessons for each subject and an obligatory, state-licensed textbook for each subject, accompanied by teaching handbooks. This self-contained set of social and educational principles was based on the idea that it would enable entire generations of pupils to experience a shared socialist education, thus strengthening relationships between generations and promoting the development of a uniform socialist society. The implementation of these political and ideological aims was supported by the Ministry’s centralised management of the school system, which extended into individual schools, and the requirement imposed upon the lower-level authorities to report back to the Ministry. From an institutional point of view, there were no major reforms at this time. From 1982 onwards, pupils did not progress to an Erweiterte Oberschule until they had reached year ten of their schooling, with the result that such schools were reduced to only two year groups. Anyone wishing to transfer to an EOS needed to have learnt a second foreign language as well as Russian. Around three to four per cent of any one school year received the opportunity to continue their school career at an EOS. Alongside pupils’ performance, political and ideological criteria remained decisive in this regard; after the change in the definition of the elite precipitated by the education system of the 1950s, these criteria functioned more as a return to social exclusion than as their opposite in the changed education-policy landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. Teaching at the POS remained focused on mathematics and the sciences in accordance with the requirements of the GDR economy. In 1988, this area took up 29 per cent of all teaching time at these schools; 22.9 per cent was occupied with German language and literature and 11 per cent was concerned with ‘ polytechnischer Unterricht , which involved an introduction to the workings of the GDR economy ( Einführung in die sozialistische Produktion ), technical drawing and ‘practical work’ in which pupils experienced regular sessions of collective work in industrial or agricultural settings. Education and learning enjoyed a high status in GDR society, being viewed as of central importance to the continued development of a socialist society and as vital in ensuring young people developed ‘socialist personalities’. The educational institutions that had been installed during the Soviet occupation were extended and streamlined under the supervision of the state and the SED.

1995 – School in reunified Germany

The end of the GDR and the reunification of the two German states brought about radical changes to education policy in the new Bundesländer , involving a fundamental restructuring of the forma and content of the school system that had hitherto existed in the eastern states. Teachers, especially those with leadership functions and those in subjects with particular tendencies to ideological content, such as citizenship or history, were scrutinised as to the extent of their ties to the SED and checked for involvement with the east German Stasi (Ministry of State Security), a process which led to the dismissal of a number of teachers from the profession. Responsibility for the school system was taken over by the Ministries of Education in the five newly formed federal states Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia, which were admitted to the Standing Conference of State Education Ministers (KMK) in 1990. New legislation on schools was passed, new curricula were put in place, and initial and ongoing teacher training was overhauled. All this took place within a limited timeframe and gave rise to a number of issues initially as the new Länder adjusted to the reforms. The reunification treaty of 1990 had given the new Länder until June 1991 to put the legal requirements for the federal education system in place. As of the 1992/1993 academic year these states essentially adopted the three-tiered school system, with Brandenburg introducing a six-year primary school. Some states created a type of school that integrated the Hauptschule and Realschule for years five to ten of secondary level ( Sekundarstufe I ). These schools were given differing names, such as Sekundarschule (Saxony-Anhalt), differenzierte Mittelschule (Saxony) or Regelschule (Thuringia). The GDR subjects of ‘defence education’ and Staatsbürgerkunde were removed from the curriculum and replaced by social studies ( Gesellschaftslehre ) and political education, while religious education was added to the curriculum as an opt-out subject with ethics or philosophy as alternative options. The period of compulsory school attendance covered nine years (ten years in Berlin and Brandenburg). For the upper level of secondary school ( Sekundarstufe II ), the new Länder agreed that students should obtain their university entrance qualification at the end of twelve years of schooling. In the GDR, the production of curricula, textbooks teachers’ handbooks, along with teacher training, had taken place in accordance with fixed educational and social principles and had been managed centrally. In the Federal Republic, on the other hand, curriculum development took place within a continuous framework within which teaching practice evolved by a process of consensus, implicitly steered by the requirements of society and subject-specific educational research. Curricula, in this context, were merely outlines which gave teachers a great deal of scope in planning their lessons; the use of textbooks and supplementary materials was not set in stone from the outset. Adapting to this way or working gave rise to some initial confusion and frustration among teachers. It was not the dissolution of the GDR, but rather, from the mid-1990s onwards, international comparative studies of educational achievement (TIMSS, Pisa I and II, IGLU) in which German pupils only achieved mediocre results which provided the impetus for important initiatives for reform in education policy in post-reunification Germany. Discussion of these studies’ revived the ideological controversy of the late 1970s and early 1980s surrounding the tiered school system. The debate which pitted the Gesamtschule against the Gymnasium , and that on internal versus external differentiation, gained new momentum. From an international perspective, allocating pupils to different types of school as early as the end of their fourth year of schooling is indeed a German peculiarity, with only Austria dividing pupils equally early in their school careers on the basis of academic potential. German expenditure on education as a percentage of gross national product is considerably lower for both primary and secondary level than in comparable industrialised nations. Critics have likewise lambasted the structure of teaching in German schools for its emphasis on the acquisition of specialist knowledge as opposed to the provision of a competency-based education. Overall, empirical comparisons of educational systems found the German school system to show obvious deficiencies in regard to equality of educational opportunity, the performance of individual schools and the learning atmosphere within them and they found them to be lagging behind comparable countries in the modernisation of its education system.

2014 – School and education today

In the majority of Germany’s 16 federal states, a pupil’s school career today consists of four years at primary school, five or six years at lower secondary level ( Sekundarstufe I ) and a further two or three years at upper secondary level ( Sekundarstufe II ). The states of Berlin and Brandenburg have extended the four-year primary level by two years. Compulsory school attendance begins around the age of six in all states and comprises a total of nine years in most states and ten years in Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia. The school system within this framework is diverse, encompassing various types of schools. The primary sector is comparatively uniform, comprising years one to four in most cases. At Sekundarstufe I , with years five to nine (or five to ten) of schooling, a number of different types of school cater for pupils. Hauptschule , Realschule and Gymnasium each teach pupils at a specific level of academic ability. The Hauptschule comprises years five to nine (extending to year ten in Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia) and provides a basic general education tailored to the assumption that students will progress into vocational training after leaving. Realschule covers years five to ten and offers a more extensive general education with subject options permitting pupils to focus on the sciences, technical subjects or modern languages. The Gymnasium used to comprise years five to thirteen. Since the turn of the millennium the majority of the Länder, however, have opted for a shorter period of eight years (so called G 8) and in 2016 the change was to be completed in all federal states. The reform met with sustained criticism and some states may return to the former situation. The Gymnasium imparts an in-depth general education that prepares pupils for higher education. At the end of year ten, pupils may acquire the intermediate certificate of education ( Realschulabschluss ) and thus admission to the sixth-form level ( gymnasiale Oberstufe ) or the upper secondary level ( Sekundarstufe II ) of the Gymnasium . The Gesamtschule , Mittelschule , Regelschule , Sekundarschule , combined Haupt - and Realschule , Integrated Haupt - and Realschule , the Regionale Schule and the Erweiterte Realschule are all mixed-ability schools which either teach pupils together in accordance with the comprehensive idea or provide separate courses, for example at Hauptschule and Realschule level, according to ability. The Gesamtschule in particular may exist as a ‘cooperative’ or as an ‘integrated’ institution. The cooperative Gesamtschule encompasses several types of school under one roof, where pupils are taught separately according to the recommendation given by their primary teachers. The integrated Gesamtschule , however, teaches all pupils together and ‘streams’ pupils in the core subjects according to ability. In the majority of federal states, an ‘orientation phase’ in years five and six postpones the decision on which type of school a pupil will attend ( Gymnasium , Realschule or Hauptschule ) until a later date and reduces the social inflexibility of the three-tiered school system. Although Germany largely continues to favour a multi-tiered school system, which assigns pupils to different types of schools at an age earlier than in most other industrialised nations, numbers of pupils per school year taking the Abitur have increased since educational expansion commenced, from 11 per cent in 1970 to 29 per cent in 2005. The proportion of all 18- to 20-year-olds gaining university entrance qualifications (including qualifications giving students access to the universities of applied sciences, or Fachhochschulen ) was about 43 per cent in 2005 and about 49 per cent in 2012. These figures demonstrate that participation in advanced education has increased substantially, and that this increase has included those from social groups not traditionally associated with higher levels of education. This improvement in participation does not, however, mean that equality of educational opportunity has been established, with gaps in opportunity between various social groups remaining relatively consistent. The fact that children from across the social spectrum are increasingly taking part in advanced education is perhaps primarily a result of changes in the job market and within families, although educational expansion itself no doubt has a role to play, the inflation of educational qualifications it has engendered compelling successive generations to strive more intensely for a good education. Those who currently tend to fall behind in this race appear to be primarily the children of immigrants, whose share of the pupil population has been on the increase since the 1980s. There is no state monopoly on schools, meaning that private or church-run schools exist alongside the state schools that are funded by municipalities, local authorities working in cooperation, or by the federal states, and which do not charge for attendance. Numbers of private schools and schools run by Germany’s two main Christian churches have been increasing in recent years. Private schools are protected by law and are labelled ‘substitute schools’ ( Ersatzschulen ) or ‘complementary schools’ ( Ergänzungsschulen ), depending on whether they completely replace attendance at a state school or merely provide additional educational services. They require state approval; once this is gained, the qualification certificates they issue are officially recognised as equivalent to qualifications gained at state schools and they are provided with financial support. Basing their actions on the federal legislative framework at federal level as laid down by the Federal Ministry of Education, the Ministries of Education of the individual federal states take decisions on the structure of the school system in the Land in question, its curricula and the training, employment and remuneration of teachers. The school supervisory authorities of the federal states monitor such ‘internal’ matters. Towns, cities and municipalities, which fund the schools, take responsibility for ‘external’ matters such as the construction and maintenance of school buildings and the employment and payment of non-teaching staff. Schools themselves enjoy only limited autonomy, although there have been calls to increase it in the arenas of financial management and staffing as a way of maximising individual schools’ performance. The Federal and State Commission for Educational Planning and Research Funding ( Bund-Länder-Kommission für Bildungsplanung und Forschungsförderung , BLK) and the Standing Conference of State Education Ministers ( Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder ) serve as permanent bodies for discussions on education policy in the federal system. State education ministers have authority to approve textbooks for use in general schools via a complex procedure. As all federal states develop their own curricula, each textbook must be approved for use in the classroom by each federal state separately. Many states do not require textbooks for Sekundarstufe II to go through approval procedures. The ministries of education in Saarland, Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein have now ceased to subject textbooks to individual approval procedures. This might possibly point towards a general move away from approval procedures on the part of education ministries. Which books are actually used in the classroom is the decision of teachers, initially taken collectively by meetings of all teachers of a specific subject and ultimately ratified at a school-wide meeting of teachers ( Schulkonferenz ), which also includes parent representatives. The German school system’s performance internationally has revealed a need for modernisation. Instead of a blanket approach to education reform, which would be difficult to implement given the federal system in German education policy, individual states have begun their own initiatives. Curricula have been revised and reduced, schools have been given more scope to make decisions, stricter quality control has been introduced via centrally organised nationwide examinations, binding, standardised learning objectives have been drawn up and changes have been made to teacher training. Reforms to curricular content and teaching practices have the aim of encouraging pupils to think and work more independently and train their problem-solving abilities and ‘joined-up’ ways of thinking.


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