THE reputation of German secondaries took a beating in international tests last year but one comprehensive with radical teaching methods scored top marks.
The Helen Lange school in Wiesbaden, Hesse, is an "integrated comprehensive" for 600 10 to 16-year-olds, catering for mixed-ability children, including 24 pupils who would normally attend a special school.
In the Programme for International Student Assessment, run by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the school far outstripped the German average. In fact scores in reading and science were above the average for Finland and Korea, which topped the international league in these subjects. In maths, the school's score was higher than the average of all countries except Japan.
"The key factor is the learning atmosphere which binds pupils, teachers and parents together," says head Enja Riegel.
A visit to a maths class for 11-year-olds reveals a mix of individual and group work with each group assigned an "expert" - a child particularly good at the subject - to explain concepts and help others.
"Children have to be able to work independently," says maths teacher Uschi Gorisch. "Group work allows children to consult each other and compare results."
Children research information themselves in libraries and museums and present it to their classmates or visiting parents in reports, talks or exhibitions.
The results are impressive - around half the pupils go on to grammar school at 16. Intriguingly, Helen Lange was also a grammar before "downgrading" voluntarily to an integrated comprehensive in 1986.
"I wanted a school which reflects a cross-section of the population," explains Ms Riegel, who has been head for 20 years, "as well as teachers prepared to try out new methods and learn new things."
At HLS, each class gets a team of teachers who use an "integrated approach" linking all subjects . The school trains teachers in its methods as well as in core subjects.
Andreas Rech, for example, taught history and religion before joining the school. "Nowadays, I teach German and manage projects," he says. His class of 11-year olds also have regular "free learning" phases where children work independently on projects moving freely in and out of the room.
Much emphasis is placed on reading, especially for10 to 13-year-olds. Every two weeks the children read a book, then analyse it by writing a review or turning it into a play.
Theatre plays a vital role and the school puts on lavish costume dramas twice a year.
Artists and theatre directors help out by organising concert evenings and song recitals as well as stage drama. The school finances this through savings it makes by doing its own cleaning.
All this creates a strong community spirit, reflected in the fact that every child is responsible for some aspect of school organisation.