Constitutional & Legal Foundations
Germany's constitution, which dates from 1949, guarantees all citizens free choice of schooling or a vocational training position, as well as the free choice of occupation. Article Seven of the Basic Law establishes joint federal and state supervision of educational institutions. The federal government establishes compulsory education, the organization of the educational system, the recognition of educational certification, and chiefly holds jurisdiction over higher education and vocational training. West Germany's states established the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in 1948. The five new East German states became members in 1990. This body, known by its German acronym, KMK (Kultusminister Konferenz), facilitates greater standardization of schools and the mutual recognition of certificates awarded by vocational schools and comprehensive schools, and it lays down uniform requirements for the Abitur, the entrance examination for university admission. Particularly since the mid-1990s, the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs has moved toward greater standardization, in part to ensure comparable qualifications of pupils who move from one state to another. Previously, school-children's qualifications would have been judged on the basis of the type of school they attended; now there is more uniformity in these basic subjects, regardless of whether they have attended the Hauptschule or Realschule.
States retain the chief responsibility for education. They establish general curriculum guidelines, which may specify how many periods of instruction are required at each grade level in each subject. State ministries of education also create a list of approved textbooks and other curriculum materials. In some states, such as Bavaria, there may also be a centralized, statewide Abitur, or other achievement testing at designated grade levels.
Local communities have jurisdiction over other aspects of schools and schooling, which are often determined by party dominance. Within municipalities, town or city councils administer schools directly; there are no independent school boards as there are in the United States. Citizens' voices are heard chiefly in the parents' councils attached to individual schools and school classrooms.
Germany's Basic Law also mandates religious instruction in schools, although children may opt not to take it once they reach 14 years. Usually they choose between Lutheran and Catholic instruction, but recent years have witnessed a trend toward more ecumenical instruction, particularly in the East, where courses in ethics (rather than a particular denomination) were introduced in the early 1990s.
Germany's political parties champion significantly different educational policies. The Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Socialist Union, held power from 1982 to 1998 under the leadership of Helmut Kohl. These parties represent Germany's Catholics and Lutherans, who each comprise about 35 percent of the population. They argue that early and clearly delineated separation into the three tracks (Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium) is necessary to maintain educational quality. The Social Democratic Party (in power from 1966 to 1969 and again since 1998) champions broader access to education and, therefore, advocates adoption of the Gesamtschule (comprehensive high school model) and two-year orientation phase in fifth and sixth grades, rather than separating pupils into prevocational tracks after fourth grade. The Free Democrats, a small swing party, advocate a 12-year path to the Abitur, private colleges, independent funding sources for education, and the teaching of tolerance and conflict resolution in schools. Since unification, two other small parties have entered the scene. The former East German Socialist Unity Party, known in 2001 as the Party of Democratic Socialism, wants to abolish the three-part division of secondary education and the providing for childcare through all-day schooling. East Germany's small revolutionary parties, which arose just before the opening of the Berlin Wall, have allied themselves with Alliance 90/the Greens. Like the Party of Democratic Socialism, they champion a single curriculum for all children through tenth grade. Furthermore, they want schools to teach ecological awareness and a stronger respect for diversity. They advocate mainstreaming children with disabilities and eliminating Sonderschulen (special schools) and reducing the pressures of grading and evaluation in schools.
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