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National targets set new agenda

States waive freedom to control their own education system in favour of country-wide efforts to raise standards

Germany has taken its first steps towards establishing a national curriculum across all 16 states by introducing uniform standards for all 16-year-olds taking their intermediate certificate.

The Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK), the forum which represents the country's 16 education ministers, has announced the introduction of national guidelines from next September. These will set targets for what is to be achieved in maths, German and English or French, the core subjects for grade 10 pupils (16-year-olds) at intermediate level.

The move represents a major change of tack by the individual states, which until now have fiercely guarded their right to control their own education system. Now they will start to gear their curricula more towards the national standards.

Some, like Baden-Wuerttemberg and Berlin, have already made adjustments in accordance with the guidelines, others will follow suit before the targets are introduced after the summer.

The setting of national targets is widely seen as a reaction to Germany's poor ranking - 21st out of 31 countries - in international comparative tests of 15-year-olds under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), published last year.

The tests have since served as a valuable model for German education experts charged with drawing up the new standards on behalf of the KMK.

"The Germans have no national test models of their own to fall back on," said Professor Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, vice-president of the Alexander-von-Humboldt university in Berlin and a key figure in the KMK standards commission. "Access to Pisa blueprints speeded up the process of setting new targets here in Germany."

According to Professor Tenorth, the standards commission also drew inspiration from other high-ranking Pisa education systems such as Sweden, Canada and Britain.

"The British system allows schools to work in a decentralised way while comparing their progress on a central level," says Tenorth.

He will lead a nationwide agency that will provide sample test papers and advise individual states on how to meet the new standards by co-ordinating their learning agendas.

"In effect, we will have a national curriculum here once national targets are in place and nationwide tests are up and running," said Mr Tenorth, who anticipates having full-scale intermediate examinations in place by 2006.

However, Eva-Maria Stange, chairwoman of the GEW, Germany's biggest teachers' union, said the standards alone would not improve the quality of Germany's schooling.

She said the union would only back the new standards if there was a system of regular monitoring to ensure they were set across all states.

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