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Employers want to kick the Abi habit

Certified capable of anything, but useless at everything - that is how one German employer this year summed up his opinion of the school-leavers he recruits.

Indeed, 1994 was not the year of the teenager. Employers lambasted them as economically incompetent, and as individualists incapable of teamwork. A teacher's conference said the kids of today are nervous, self-satisfied little egotists.

But they agreed that young people themselves were not to blame: it was the fault of the Abitur, equivalent to A-levels, which prepares Germany's brightest for university and the best jobs.

In the past the exam (Abi for short) has enjoyed a good reputation. Parents push their children to concentrate on passing it at the expense of vocational apprentice training, which ironically has been proved to be very successful.

But last summer industry and policy-makers turned on the Abi. They said reforms over the past 25 years have turned it from a general statement of ability into something too specialised. They complained that the Abitur is easier to pass in some schools than others - students in Hamburg have the best chance of passing (33.6 per cent), those in Saxony-Anhalt the worst (14. 1 per cent).

The head of training for Siemens, which recruits 100 Abi school leavers a year, said the company considered itself a "repair organisation" for the deficiencies of the Abi.

The return of a conservative-liberal alliance in the October general election indicated that reform may at last be on the way. Juergen Ruettgers was appointed minister of a new "superministry" for education and research and in his maiden speech said one of his top priorities would be to make vocational education more attractive to teenagers.

One way of doing this would be to make apprentices eligible for grants in the same way as college students. Another would be to provide access to higher education to applicants without the traditional Abitur, Herr Ruettgers said.

The conference of education ministers (KMK) - the organisation representing the education ministers of each of the 16 German states - signalled sweeping new reforms for education, at its conference in November, with special attention paid to the Abitur.

Among the suggestions were a return to a canon of perhaps five compulsory core subjects - an about-turn from the trend towards specialisation of the past 25 years. The directors also want to find ways of improving the image of vocational training.

But if the "back to basics" campaign sounds ideologically-led, teachers and educational critics were quick to point out the hidden money-saving advantages. Fewer subjects means less teachers and bigger classes, they said.

Saving money has also been at the heart of other educational reform issues of 1994. One is the reorganisation of teaching hours, with teachers working longer in nearly every state.

The second is the campaign for teachers to lose their status as Beamte (civil servants), who are tenured, well-paid, and not allowed to go on strike. The system is too expensive and also leads to inequality since the majority of teachers in former East Germany do not have Beamte status for historical reasons.

A third topic considered the result of financial cutbacks is occupational stress. The subject hit the headlines when a Schleswig-Holstein teacher, Guenther Jensen, claimed he was suffering from a stress-related illness caused by his job.

A survey by Germany's biggest teacher union, the GEW, said nearly half of teachers believe they suffer stress-related illness.

To ensure a fully informed debate on reform, rather than one just led by purse strings, the GEW has said it will spend more then DM1 million to sponsor advice, symposia and projects.

Although there are signs of big changes to come, the federal system of education, under which all 16 states have educational autonomy - and different regulations - means that reform is likely to be painstakingly slow.

A joke doing the rounds among German teachers this Christmas was: "The education ministry wished us a happy new year. But they didn't say which year."

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