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Nation embraces the new elitism

Germany now has a sponsored state school that admits only the gifted, reports Frances Mechan-Schmidt

The concept of elite schools, previously unthinkable in this egalitarian society, is suddenly very much in fashion.

The most recent - and prominent - example is Schloss Hansenberg, Germany's first boarding-school for gifted children, where pupils have just completed their first academic year.

The rise of elitism in schools mirrors efforts by the federal government to create a top rank of universities.

The Hansenberg school, in the wine-growing area of Hesse, opened last September amid much press fanfare. It is run by the Hessian state authorities but sponsored by Dresdner Bank and Altana AG, an international pharmaceuticals and chemicals group.

Timothy Williams, one of two British children among the 70 pupils, buzzes with enthusiasm despite a gruelling 8am to 5pm working day: "There's such a great learning environment here, and some very, very good teachers."

The school, an upper secondary, takes 14 to 17-year-olds to university-entrance level in three instead of four years and is open to anyone with the right academic ability and social aptitude.

There are more than 40 hours of teaching a week, plus Saturdays, yet pupils are still keen to learn. They work in groups or teams, do their own research and present their findings to the class.

"Everyone pays attention here and works together," says Timothy. Fellow pupil Magnus agrees. "The teachers are very motivated, so it's fun learning with them," he says. "They make sure we really understand the subject during class rather than dishing out loads of homework."

Homework does not loom large in the Hansenberg concept: the emphasis is more on developing understanding what goes on in the classroom. "There's a close relationship between pupils and teachers here," says headteacher Wolfgang Herbst. "Campus life throws people together as well as making heavy demands on them," he said. "Pupils and teachers working, eating and playing together under one roof - that's still rare in Germany. Then there's all-day schooling, still very different to the German system."

The close-knit learning environment is intensified by the all-round living experience. Nearly all pupils are boarders. They clean and tidy their own rooms and meet for extra-curricular activities such as sports, music, languages, theatre or debating.

Teachers, pupils and social workers, who live on site and look after the children's welfare, sit next to each other in the school canteen.

Opportunities for discussions are plentiful and this is echoed in the harmonious atmosphere of the classrooms.

While some take Chinese as their third foreign language, others do business English courses in preparation for practical training abroad, an integral part of the school's programme.

Dresdner Bank and Altana AG will help organise the vocational training for pupils, one reason the Hessian government was keen to involve these business heavyweights from the start.

"The state government saw this as an opportunity for young people to put theory into practice at an early stage," agrees Viktoria von Zitzewitz-SchAnzer, the school's managing director. "Dresdner Bank and Altana AG will run business seminars and workshops as well as help pupils gain practical experience abroad."

Ms von Zitzewitz-SchAnzer predicts that Schloss Hansenberg will be the first of many schools of its type. "Gifted children are present in every school," she says. "They want to be stimulated and they're prepared to work hard."

Further information on the school website:

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