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Capital's failures are worst on record

GERMANY. Berlin's school-leaving exam results have shocked officials. Yojana Sharma reports.

THIS year's results of the German school-leaving exam, the Abitur, have shown the worst failure rate in Berlin's history.

One in 10 candidates failed the Abitur this year compared with one in 20 in previous years, causing consternation among the city's education officials. In other German states (LAnder), only 3 to 5 per cent of Abitur candidates failed.

The Abitur is intended for the top 20 to 25 per cent of the ability range and qualifies school-leavers for university entrance at the age of 19. Those who fail will have missed out on apprenticeships that are available to the less academic from the age of 16.

Education experts say the fall in achievement reflects the greater polarisation of schools in the city since the shift of the capital from Bonn in 1999, when the influx of civil servants and an expanded middle class meant great pressure on the "best" schools - particularly church-run and grammar schools. The rest have effectively become "sink" schools.

A decade ago, Berlin's inner city was more socially mixed. The "new" Berliners are described as more "status conscious" and are concentrated in certain suburbs, while middle-class "old" Berliners, previously hemmed in by the east-west divide, have been slowly moving to the less built-up, greener outskirts since 1989.

"Nearly all the schools with a failure rate of 15 per cent and above were city comprehensives or further education colleges," a spokesman for the local authority said. In several Berlin comprehensives, up to one-third of the candidates failed the Abitur.

Inner-city schools allow many of their increasing proportion of less-advantaged pupils to try for the Abitur, to avoid losing their "sixth-form" funding, teachers said.

The worst result this year was achieved by the Walter Gropius comprehensive in the inner-city area of Neukolln, where 17 out of 55 pupils failed. A year ago, the failure rate at the school was just 10 per cent.

The principal, Detlev Skrok, said a "What's the point?" attitude was prevalent among boys. "The view was that with such poor employment prospects it was hardly worth doing all that work."

A systematic analysis of the worst-performing schools has been launched in Berlin, with schools senator Klaus Boger insisting they will be "helped, supported and advised".

The city administration is advocating smaller inner-city classes and more "catch-up" classes in schools with large numbers of non-German-speaking immigrant children.

Pupils have the chance to retake the Abitur only once.

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