Germany's three-tier secondary system may soon be consigned to the past. Hauptschulen - roughly equivalent to secondary moderns - are being amalgamated into comprehensive schools or the vocationally-orientated middle tier, the Realschule.
Hauptschulen in the past took the least able 15 per cent of primary school-leavers and taught them in small, remedial classes, preparing them for a trade in the later years. But the Realschule mix of academic and vocational training is seen as better preparation for work.
Last year only 6 per cent of primary school-leavers in Berlin and Hamburg opted for Hauptschulen, leaving almost half the places empty.
Several German states say they will no longer guarantee a Hauptschule in every district. Pupils will have to travel further to more "central" Hauptschulen, which education officials say will offer a wider choice of subjects.
State education ministers believe that young people being prepared for work need courses not offered at Hauptschulen, including computer courses. The changes will also enable many Hauptschule pupils to take the Realschule matriculation, at 16 instead of 15, opening up opportunities for late-developers.
But many believe the centralised Hauptschule will mean the end of the third tier. If the schools are difficult to get to, parents will put their children in local Realschulen.
Hauptschulen also suffer from image problems. This stigma has been successfully reduced in pilot projects in Berlin and Hamburg where Real and Hauptschule streams are taught under one roof but in separate classes.
Several states, including Hessen, Baden Wurttemburg and North Rhine-Westphalia amalgamated Hauptschulen into comprehensives in the 1970s and 1980s, but conservative state governments are committed to keeping the grammar schools. They also say too many of the lower-ability children have to repeat a year in comprehensive schools, destroying motivation.
However, several states are moving towards comprehensivisation of the non-grammar tiers.
Not all parents and teachers are pleased. Teachers say a large number of Hauptschule pupils have special needs and should be taught in smaller classes.
"The Hauptschulen exist so that the others (Gymnasium and Realschule) can maintain their levels," said Karla Werkentin, headteacher of a Berlin Hauptschule. "We stabilise the selective system."
There are also fears of a drop in standards in the Realschule.