Preprimary & Primary Education
Traditionally, the Federal Republic of Germany has not regarded kindergarten as part of the educational system, but rather as a private or familial responsibility. Many kindergartens are run by churches, businesses, municipalities, or private associations. Most offer instruction only in the morning. Attendance is voluntary, and parents are expected to pay part or all of the costs. In 1996 about two-thirds of all three- to six-year-olds attended kindergarten. Nursery schools are administered by state ministries of youth and social affairs rather than ministries of education. About 70 percent depend on some private funding. Private nursery schools receive some state funding, as well as state supervision.
While the German Democratic Republic considered childcare and early childhood education a state responsibility, the Federal Republic did not offer comprehensive free kindergarten placements until 1996; even then the demand exceeded the supply of available spaces. The problem disappeared, at least temporarily, due chiefly to the sharp decline in the East German birthrate between 1990 and 1994. In contrast to both American and East German kindergartens, the West German model emphasizes creative play rather than formal instruction.
At the age of six, children begin Grundschule (elementary school), typically holding colorful paper cones filled with candy and treats to assuage the pangs of leaving home to go to school. Children who turn six by June 30 must begin schooling in the fall, provided they are found physically and developmentally ready. For the first two years, teachers do not grade schoolwork, but instead provide evaluations of their pupils' strengths and weaknesses. In the upper grades, a numerical system is used: one means very good, two good, three satisfactory, four passing, and five not passing. The school week may be as short as 20 hours in the early grades, but it gradually increases in length. Pupils study German and mathematics every day, supplemented by two class periods per week in science, religion, physical education, and art or music. Some children begin foreign language instruction as early as third or fourth grade, not surprising, given Germany's borders with nine countries. By fifth grade virtually all pupils are learning a foreign language, even those planning to enter training for blue-collar trades. Often a lead teacher remains with one class for several years, teaching all subjects except physical education and religion. This arrangement is intended to foster close cooperation and trust and to minimize discipline problems.
The Grundschule lasts for six years in Berlin and Brandenburg and for four years in the other federal states. Since 1973 schools in some western states have included a two-year Orientierungsstufe (orientation phase) at the end of fourth grade; parents and teachers meet and begin a process of consultation and advisement through which the child's future educational path is determined, with a final decision made at the end of sixth grade. The Social Democratic Party champions the orientation phase, which is opposed by the Christian Democrats, who favor a stricter separation of pupils destined for each of the three secondary education tracks. Thus this two-year adjustment and advisement period is offered in some federal states (such as Hesse, Lower Saxony, Hamburg, and Bremen) but not others, depending on political party dominance.
Some states require a certain grade point average, particularly in German and math, for entrance into the college preparatory secondary school, the Gymnasium; others use admissions tests. However, all base their decisions on teachers' recommendations as well as parents' wishes. Because children at the age of 11 or 12 have little basis for choosing a future career, their parents often play a decisive role and, in fact, have a legal right to choose their child's school, even against the recommendations of teachers. It is not uncommon for them to push children into a higher level school than teachers have recommended, perhaps to avoid a general secondary school with a high population of immigrant children, whose presence is assumed to lower the overall quality of instruction.
The general effect of this early division of pupils into three separate tracks is a somewhat conservative reinforcement of the status quo, in which children enter professions fairly closely resembling those of their parents in terms of educational level and socio-economic status. In general, the German educational system is geared toward producing competent, useful members of society. It is not the venue for a soul-searching process of independent self-discovery.
The Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) passed resolutions in 1994 establishing other responsibilities concerning schools and teaching. Children are to learn critical attitudes toward television and other media, whose excessive use is blamed for their lack of attention in school and the loss of connection to reality. It must be pointed out that West Germany has had private television channels only since 1985, and the German Democratic Republic had none, although most residents could receive West German television. Thus, the distrust of television's impact on children and its deleterious effects in schooling are more widespread than in the United States. On the other hand, these resolutions' statements about over-indulgence in computer games may reveal deep-seated distrust of the computer's potential as an educational tool and may work against the wider use of computers in the classroom. Primary schools are also charged with engendering in children an attachment to their homeland, tolerance, and allegiance to the European Union ideal.
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