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Learning culture divides Berlin


Many more pupils in the west have to repeat a year than do in the east. Yojana Sharma reports.

BERLIN is still a divided city - at least in terms of education. Double the number of secondary pupils in the west have to repeat a year than do children in the former communist sector.

The gap, which has opened up in the 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, reflects wide difference in teaching and learning cultures between the capitalist and communist worlds.

Overall, up to 5 per cent of Berlin pupils must repeat a class because of poor grades - a traditional but much-criticised way of dealing with failing pupils.

There is no difference between east and west at primary level. But in grammar schools, which take the top 25 per cent of children, about 8 per cent repeat each year in the west while just under 3 per cent do so in the east.

For pupils at Realschule (equivalent to secondary modern) the figures are 13 per cent in the west and 5 per cent in the east.

Almuth Draeger, spokeswoman for the Berlin education authority, believes it is "perhaps because in the east the pressure from society (and) expectations of parents are higher".

Others say the more child-oriented primaries in Berlin's east provide a better foundation for secondary study than the relatively teacher-centred ones in the west.

Teachers trained in the former east are also more likely to help weaker pupils.

In the west, struggling pupils often fall further and further behind. Their teachers are more likely to believe that keeping stragglers down will enable the rest of the class to progress unhindered.

Teachers in the east may also be more lenient with marks. Under the old communist system they were held partly responsible for pupil performance.

"There is still a tendency in the east to consult with parents (on pupils' progress) rather than give out poor marks at the end of the year," says Gerhard Schmid, a Berlin education official. This also enables more parents to help their children earlier in the year.

Parents in the west are also more likely to ignore primary teachers' advice on where the children should go when they finish. Many prefer to push for a grammar-school place even if the teacher suggests that Realschule is more appropriate.

Grammar schools take such children for a six-month "trial period". But, as a result, more fail to make the grade because they relax once the probation period is over.

Although many experts say repeating a class can severely damage pupils' motivation and self-esteem, parents in the west are less likely to regard the experience as shameful. Such pupils are not as likely to fear parental wrath over poor marks and have little incentive to improve their academic performance.

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