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Germany

Secondary Education


Upon completion of the Grundschule, about one-fourth of pupils enter the Hauptschule (secondary general school), where they study German, mathematics, the natural and social sciences, and a foreign language. After unification, the new East German states did not introduce the Hauptschule, preferring instead to combine the general and intermediate secondary schools as an alternative to the Gymnasium. The Saarland adopted this combined secondary school model in 1997. Some of these schools combining the Hauptschule and Realschule also exist in Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein and are known by various names: Mittelschule, Regelschule, and Sekundarschule. These developments may call into question the future existence of the Hauptschule.

In most West German states, the Hauptschule encompasses grades five through nine, but seven through nine in states where the orientation phase remains part of elementary school. Some of the general secondary schools end with ninth grade, some with tenth. Instruction in a foreign language has been required since 1969, and most pupils choose English, although those in border regions may choose French. The upper grades include some computer science and practical work courses. Throughout the past twenty years, the proportion of pupils entering the Hauptschule has declined as parents push their children into the more prestigious and more academically oriented Realschule and Gymnasium. After three to five years of a common curriculum, including German, civics, religion, and physical education, pupils completing the Hauptschule earn a Zeugnis mittlere Reife (school leaving certificate), which entitles them to enter an apprenticeship. There is no final examination. Those who have earned outstanding marks in the Hauptschule and who complete tenth grade may receive the school-leaving certificate normally awarded at the end of the Realschule. The dropout rate from the Hauptschule is around 9 percent. Successful graduates begin vocational apprenticeships in one of the country's recognized trades, which total around 400. Each year about 600,000 young people enter an apprenticeship. While completion of the Hauptschule served for decades as the gateway to an apprenticeship, in 2001 an equal number of beginning apprentices have completed the Realschule and around 15 percent have the Abitur. This transition has made it increasingly difficult for young people with only the Hauptschule certificate to compete for a training position.


Germany's vocational training system has enjoyed a high reputation based on its success in producing skilled craftsmen through the "dual system" of education. Hands-on practical training is supplemented by theoretical instruction in the Berufsschule (vocational school), where young people learn theoretical material two or three days a week. These schools usually specialize in one or more areas: industry, commerce, agriculture, home economics, or offer a mixed curriculum. Nearly 60 percent of class time in the vocational school is devoted to training and the remaining 40 percent to specialized subjects. Some discrepancies arise within this dual system because apprenticeships are shaped and supervised by chambers of handicrafts and trades, while vocational schools are administered by state ministries of education. Because the entry level qualification for these schools is the completion of 10 years of schooling, classes have become quite heterogeneous, enrolling graduates of special schools for the disabled as well as those who have earned the Abitur.

Students at the vocational school spend the remaining weekdays and their vacations as trainees in the workplace. This system depends upon close cooperation between educational administrators and private industries, which furnish these paid apprenticeships. This system grew out of medieval tradition: during the Middle Ages apprentices traveled from town to town, learning from several masters. Those who passed the first level were recognized as Geselle (journeymen) competent to practice their trade. Those who continued through further examinations and produced a Meisterstück (masterpiece) were entitled to hire and train apprentices of their own. Today, the examination at the end of vocational school is administered by employers and trainers as well as teachers and includes an oral examination. Those who pass it are then qualified as Facharbeiter (skilled workers). Many are then hired by the companies that have trained and observed them for the past two or three years.

The shortage of available apprenticeships that Germany experienced during the mid-1990s was overcome, in part, due to the country's low birthrate and pressure for children to enter the intermediate secondary school or the Gymnasium. Most children from immigrant families follow the educational path through the Hauptschule, vocational school, and apprenticeship. Today, however, the availability of apprenticeships is limited by the country's economic slump. About one third of all private firms offer apprenticeships, and 90 percent of these are small firms employing 50 people or fewer. Overall, about half a million firms now offer such placements.

Because of the system's dependence on industry to furnish apprenticeships, those in certain trades are frequently oriented either toward girls or toward boys. Thus around 55 percent of girls in the Berufsschule choose apprenticeships in just 10 trades. The most popular are doctor's assistant, retail sales, hairdresser, and office worker. Around 40 percent of boys train to become auto mechanics, electricians, industrial mechanics, or business specialists in wholesale or foreign trade. In this way the vocational training system would appear to reinforce, rather than break down, gender stereotyping in vocational choices.

Apprenticeships last for two to three years, with shorter training periods for high achievers or those who have passed the Abitur. Apprentices receive a small allowance that increases yearly. What they are taught is determined by federal ministries, based on recommendations from craft associations and trade unions, which thus exercise tight control over the quality of preparation for those entering their field. Apprentices completing their training undergo examinations by chambers of industry or chambers of crafts or trades.

The challenge of providing training in high tech fields assumed critical proportions in the 1990s. In August 2000, for instance, Germany authorized 20,000 new immigrants to enter the country on five-year work permits in order to fill the country's shortfall of skilled computer technicians and software engineers, careers unforeseen in the days of the medieval guild system which gave rise to the dual system of apprenticeships and vocational training.

Around 40 percent of pupils finishing the four or six-year elementary school enter the Realschule, which encompasses grades 5 through 10 and is designed to educate mid-level administrators, functionaries, employees in service or commercial sectors, and managers. The number of these intermediate secondary schools increased greatly during the 1950s. They enroll the broadest spectrum of social classes, particularly in rural areas. The Social Democratic Party traditionally supports these schools, and such initiatives as their combining with general secondary schools. This is now the case in most East German states and the Saarland.

The Realschule is viewed as a middle class institution, providing a strong grounding in mathematics, modern languages, and technical fields. German and math lessons fill four periods each per week; a foreign language (usually English), geography, physical education, and fine arts for two periods each a week; and science and history for one period each. About one-third of these pupils also study a second foreign language such as French or Russian. Beginning in grades seven and eight, pupils may be separated into pre-vocational tracks. This track, emphasizing business and economics, enrolls about twothirds of the girls in these schools, while the mathematics, science, and technology track enrolls half the boys. The social science and humanities tracks attract about twice as many girls as boys. Graduates of the Realschule (those in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg must pass a standardized test) are entitled to attend a Berufsfachschule (full-time vocational school) or a Fachoberschule (vocationally oriented upper secondary school).

The founding of Berufsfachschulen is a newer trend. These full-time vocational schools enroll about 300,000 students nationwide. Admission to these institutions requires completion of either the Hauptschule or Realschule. The Berufsfachschule trains students for careers in nursing, bookkeeping, social work, forestry, commerce, the technical trades, tourism, social welfare, home economics, auto mechanics, and medical and dental technology. The course of study lasts from one to three years.

Overall, proper certification of one's education and vocational training is both more complex and far more widespread than in the United States. Job advertisements frequently specify the qualifications required, and both employers and prospective employees recognize a plethora of diplomas, certificates, and licenses, each stamped and validated by professional organizations. Those who lack such documentation stand a far poorer chance in the job market, where the American model for the "self-made man" receives little respect. Moreover, this somewhat rigid system means that workers contemplating a career change must invest considerable time and often money in earning new degrees and certificates.

Approximately one-fourth of Germany's pupils completing elementary school enter the Gymnasium. Most cities offer several models of Gymnasium specializing in modern languages, ancient languages (Greek and Latin), math and the natural sciences, the arts, or humanities. These schools may be further characterized by their religious affiliation, and, until the mid-1970s, many of those in the West were segregated by gender. A student at a modern language Gymnasium might have French and mathematics five periods a week; German, Latin, English, chemistry, history, and philosophy for three periods; and physical education for two periods a week. The traditional emphasis on Latin or Greek has declined considerably over the past decades. Today all Gymnasia include computer facilities and offer some information technology courses.

These schools are divided into a lower level, grades 5 through 10, and an upper level, grades 11 through 12 or 13, in which students concentrate on fewer subjects. Most require basic or core courses: German, math, civics, sciences, physical education, religion, the arts and music, English, and one other foreign language. Basic or core courses are taught three periods a week, while the courses students choose for their specialty, Leistungskurse, meet five periods a week and require higher standards of student mastery. These specialty courses may be chosen from the disciplines listed above, but may also include law, technology, statistics, psychology, sociology, education, astronomy, geology, or computer science, depending on the school. About 9 percent of those students who eventually pass the Abitur are enrolled at special economics Gymnasia for the three upper grades and concentrate on accounting, law, economics, and information technology. There are other specialized Gymnasia for music and the arts. In 1977 North Rhine-Westphalia introduced the Kolleg, a school providing vocational education and preparation for the Abitur and university admission. Instruction integrates vocational and general subjects. Graduates can also enter the vocationally oriented upper secondary school, sometimes called a polytechnic school Fachoberschule.

The increased emphasis on specialized courses in grades 11 through 12 or 13 necessitates choices pointing towards a future career. Some critics believe it weakens the Gymnasium's historical role in providing a liberal arts foundation for university study. Thus the balance between core and specialty courses and how they are weighted in the Abitur was debated and revised during the 1990s. These revisions specify that all pupils must study German, mathematics, and a foreign language in depth throughout their Gymnasium years, regardless of their choice of specialization. During the 1990s, the nationwide conference of university rectors criticized the structure of the Abitur, insisting that science and history, including contemporary history, should be compulsory as well.

Budget tightening in recent years has resulted in Gymnasium classes of as much as 30 students. Because teachers enjoy tenure and are assigned to one school, it is difficult to adjust the teaching staff to meet changing demand for more or fewer teachers in a given subject.

High school students are assigned a few hours of homework each afternoon, but testing is fairly infrequent, perhaps two tests per semester in specialty subjects, with just one or none in core subjects. Report cards are issued twice a year, and oral participation weighs heavily in student grades.

At the end of 13 years (12 in the Saarland and most of the new federal states) students at the Gymnasium sit for examinations (the Abitur) in at least three specialized subjects. Approximately one-fourth of the country's secondary school graduates passes the Abitur each year. A half-day of essay questions is followed by a half-hour oral examination. Some states such as Bavaria have a centralized Abitur, while other states administer different tests in each school. The Bavarian Abitur, requiring examination in four subjects instead of three, is considered the most difficult. About one-fifth of a given year's age group passes the Bavarian Abitur, slightly below the national average of 27 percent. That proportion rises as high as 30 to 40 percent in some states, and this leads Bavaria to threaten that it will institute a separate entrance examination for students from other states seeking admission to one of its universities.

Regardless of such disputes, considerable standardization and quality control of the Abitur already exist. The Conference of Ministers of Education of the federal states establishes standards for 33 subjects at both the basic level of advanced courses and the advanced level of specialty courses. State ministries of education exchange questions used in written exams, share test results, and disclose their criteria for evaluation. Despite this approach to standardization, there is enough variation in the test's difficulty that students who fail it in one state or city may be able to pass it elsewhere. Questions are submitted by teachers in the schools, so there is some risk that they "teach to the test," although they cannot be certain that the questions they have submitted will be selected. Tests are administered by teachers to their own students, observed by another teacher of the same subject, a recorder, and a chairperson. Students who pass these examinations are awarded the Abitur or Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife. Those who fail may try once more. Because this examination permits admission to any German university, its approach is regarded with considerable trepidation.

In the 1990s many German Abiturienten (students who had passed the examination) equipped themselves with formal training in a trade as well. About 15 percent of apprentices now have achieved the Abitur. For the most part they seek training in fields such as banking, insurance, communications, and management. Their presence makes it more difficult for candidates who have only the general school-leaving certificate to find apprenticeships.

The chief function of the Abitur is to serve as a credential opening the door to university study. Because of overcrowding in desirable specializations such as medicine, veterinary and dental medicine, biology, and chemistry, most universities introduced numerus clauses (caps or quotas) in these disciplines in the 1970s. As a result, graduates of the Gymnasium may nonetheless need to wait as much as five years to enter a university. Some pursue traineeships, travel to improve their language skills, work as au pairs, or exist as trades people while they await admission. Males may fulfill their 12 months of military service obligation or 15 months of alternative service.

The Gesamtschule, emerged as an alternative to Germany's multi-track school system in 1969. Today these schools are found chiefly in Brandenburg, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin, educating about 13 percent of the country's schoolchildren. Instead of the Gesamtschule, some East German states established a middle school (known as a Sekundarschule, Mittelschule, or Regelschule) combining features of the Hauptschule and Realschule through grades five and six. Most comprehensive schools provide full day instruction, lasting from eight o'clock in the morning until around three o'clock in the afternoon.

The West German Gesamtschule of grades 5 or 7 through 10 may house a Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium under one roof so that pupils can transfer easily from one type of school to another, or it may be integrated so that all pupils follow the same curriculum. The first two years, grades five and six, called the Förderstufe, offer maximum flexibility in changing tracks or even transferring to an outside school. From seventh grade upward several levels of difficulty are offered in most subjects, enabling pupils to be grouped by ability. Many comprehensive schools end after tenth grade, and graduates receive certification equivalent to completion of a Hauptschule or Realschule. They may then continue to a Gymnasium. Other comprehensive schools extend through grade 13 and administer the Abitur in-house. These schools offer more electives than the traditional schools, and the number of electives increases in the higher grades. Comprehensive schools are intended to be more democratic in governance, more flexible, and employ a more pupil-centered approach to teaching. Although the Gesamtschule has been the focus of much educational research, it is still considered experimental and controversial and are opposed by the Christian Democrats and the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union. Therefore, these schools are seldom found in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

Several reports published in the 1990s investigated whether comprehensive schools had achieved their purpose in their first quarter-century of existence. These studies reveal that the comprehensive schools have gradually become alternatives to the general secondary school or Hauptschule, with the more able pupils being sent to the Realschule or Gymnasium. Deprived of the upper strata of student achievement, the Gesamtschule has sometimes fallen below initial academic expectations. Furthermore, because these schools draw enrollment from three levels (Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium), they are often regional, rather than local. They are also considerably larger than other German schools, enrolling as many as 1,000 to 2,000 pupils. Some blame these factors and larger classes for student feelings of anonymity and alienation. And, because of their full day schedule and the broad spectrum of course offerings, these schools may be more expensive to operate than other types.

There are other differences between these three types of schools besides the curriculum they offer. Parents of children at the Gymnasium or Realschule usually set high expectations for their children's success, monitor their progress, participate in parents' councils, and stay in contact with teachers, all factors which contribute to their children's success. On the other hand, children at the Hauptschule may come from homes where there is less support for education, lower expectations, and less assistance with homework. These children are also more likely to bring discipline problems into the classroom, and a very few may need to transfer to a special school. Teachers at this level are apt to need stronger skills in pedagogy and interpersonal relations, while teachers at the Gymnasium are more likely to be successful simply with presenting the material.

Students in elementary or secondary schools who receive failing grades are likely to be held back, a decision reached in a conference of teachers. According to most reports, being held back is not stigmatized; rather, it is viewed as a decision made in the best interest of the child. Pupils who fail two subjects also have the option of transferring to a lower level school, for example from the Realschule to the Hauptschule. In that school, only one year may be repeated; a pupil who is still failing can leave school after the age of 16 with a school-leaving certificate, which is not equal to the normal qualification. About 10 percent of pupils per year take this step; thus the dropout rate from Germany's schools remains very low. A contributing factor may be the difficulty of finding work as an unskilled labor in an economy which places a high value on occupational training and credentials.

Transfer from the Gymnasium down into the Realschule is not uncommon and leaves children the possibility of earning the Abitur later. Pupils may also transfer into the comprehensive school, if there is a Gesamtschule in the area, or to a vocational high school (Gymnasium).

Nearly 4 percent of the country's school population attends Sonderschulen (Germany's special schools) for the physically or mentally handicapped. These institutions, developed out of church-sponsored facilities, are one area where churches continued to play a significant role even in the avowedly atheistic German Democratic Republic. The principle of separate schools was established after World War II, but has been repeatedly questioned. Some expected that children with special needs could be integrated into comprehensive schools. The largest groups of pupils in special schools are those with developmental delays or learning disabilities. At the elementary level, some pupils, usually those with dyslexia or mild learning disabilities, are being mainstreamed. During the first four years of schooling, pupils with disabilities may be sent to these special schools, a decision reached by the local superintendent, teachers, and parents. Almost one fifth of these special schools are private, chiefly those for pupils with hearing or vision impairments. In a few cases, children with disabilities may be schooled in a regular classroom of the Hauptschule, but their chances of finding an apprenticeship are slim; Germany has no real anti-discrimination policies comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Proponents of Germany's separate Sonderschulen contend that this system offers two advantages: it provides specialized education efficiently to those with special needs, and it spares other schools the expense of special equipment (wheelchair ramps, elevators) to accommodate such pupils; some Sonderschulen are residential institutions. The disadvantages are that separation of these children may not prepare them adequately for integration into the workplace. Furthermore, other children may not learn tolerance or a willingness to accommodate those with special needs. The trend is moving toward increased mainstreaming of physically or mentally challenged pupils.

Significant changes in Germany's three-part secondary school system began in the 1980s. Larger numbers of German children who might otherwise have entered the Hauptschule chose the Realschule instead, motivated in part by the belief that the quality of instruction in the Hauptschule had been compromised by the influx of immigrant children. While the majority of citizens favor the current system of separating pupils after the fourth grade into three separate institutions, many parents aim higher than the school level where their children are placed; for example 52 percent would prefer that their offspring attend the Gymnasium, while only about half that number actually do so.

Efforts toward less stratified, more egalitarian structures, such as the orientation phase following fourth grade and the comprehensive secondary school, have gained ground where the Social Democratic Party is strongest, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, and the three city-states. However, the Christian Democrats and their affiliates, the Christian Socialist Union, form a bulwark preserving the more conservative, traditional three-part division of secondary education in areas where they dominate the political scene, such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

Germany's public school system presents several contrasts to the American model. Student activities play a far smaller role than is the case in American high schools, although German schools may create their own newspapers. Team sports seldom form part of the school experience; rather children join soccer or swimming clubs, which are sponsored by municipalities or private organizations. Music lessons and school bands are also rare in German schools. Driver education is given through Fahrschulen (private schools) where tuition is expensive, and the minimum age for obtaining a driver's license is eighteen. Thus, in contrast to the American pattern, it is rare for high school students to drive to school or to hold part-time jobs at the end of the school day.

German schools offer few special programs for the gifted and talented. It is assumed that these pupils will ascend to the upper tracks within the Gymnasium, and this arrangement appears satisfactory, given the system's separation of pupils into tracks based on intellectual ability.

Relatively little career counseling occurs in German schools. For the most part, decisions about which secondary school to enter also encompass decisions about a future occupation. The Bundesanstalt für Arbeit (Federal Agency for Work) and its information centers disseminate information about various careers.

At all levels, Germany's educational institutions have been struggling to keep pace with technological innovations. At the turn of the twenty-first century, only about one third of the country's schools had Internet access. In May 2000 Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced a new four-year initiative to spend 750 million marks to equip public schools and libraries with Internet connections, to develop educational software, and to expand opportunities to study information technology at colleges and universities over the next five years. In 1999, only 20,000 students began their studies in computer science; at the technical universities of Berlin and Munich about half the applicants had to be turned away due to a lack of financing for such programs. Some universities, such as Hannover and the Free University in Berlin, have responded by introducing newer, shorter information technology programs. In addition, 100 Fachhochschulen offered 100 openings each in one-year postgraduate training programs in information technology.

Evidence of the country's serious shortage of computer experts can be seen in Schroeder's initiative to offer 20,000 non-European Union computer specialists a green card entitling them to work in Germany for a five-year period, accompanied by their families. A few months after this initiative was announced in 2000, Germany had received far fewer than the expected number of applications, most from India, Pakistan, Algeria, and Bulgaria. After much debate, German authorities agreed that applicants must either hold an advanced degree or prove a minimum yearly income of 100,000 DM (about US$50,000). German employers found themselves on the horns of a dilemma: while their culture respects and recognizes academic qualifications above any comparable measures of worth, the sudden demand for computer experts has forced them to become more flexible.


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