Germany's self-image as one of the western world's most highly educated societies took a severe blow nearly a decade ago.
Until then its education system had appeared to be serving it well. Since 1949, its 16 Lander, or regional states, had chosen their own school systems, and nationwide exams were unheard of. The states set their own Abitur - the university entrance qualification - and leaving exams varied considerably between the states, even from school to school.
Germans were also proud of their grammar system. Unlike in the UK, in the past there was no 11-plus or similar exam for primary children entering secondary schools. Instead, teachers recommended final-year primary pupils either for Hauptschule, the basic secondary school leading to apprenticeships; Realschule, secondary moderns leading to middling white-collar jobs; or Gymnasium, grammar schools where pupils take the Abitur exam. Thus teachers determined, to a large extent, their pupils' future.
But then came the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of 2001. It showed that Germany's schools, and by implication its education system, were lagging behind internationally.
The study, and its aftermath, was referred to in the national and international press as the "PISA shock". It brought about a raft of reforms that were gradually introduced throughout the 11 western and five eastern states. The biggest change was the introduction of state-wide school-leaving exams, brought in to facilitate inter-state comparison of school-leaving qualifications as well as to speed up students' entry into further and higher education.
School curricula were trimmed and re-adjusted to fit around the run-up to the new tests, with the Gymnasium course of study reduced from nine to eight years.
The Kultusministerkonferenz, the forum which represents the country's 16 education ministers, also drew up national guidelines, which came into force in 2004, setting targets for standards to be achieved in core subjects - maths, German and English or French - for 16-year-olds (grade 10) at intermediate level.
Even before the PISA findings, it had been noted that a disproportionate number of pupils with migrant backgrounds ended up in Hauptschule (see graph, right), thus consigning them to school qualifications linked to relatively low-skilled jobs.
However, the PISA report further underlined how the class-based, three-tier school system was selective, discriminatory and undemocratic and excluded children from immigrant and poorer backgrounds. As Wilfried Bos, chair of educational research at Dortmund University, remarked: "The end of primary school in Germany determines whether a child will go on to become a tradesman or a manager."
Despite fierce criticism from Germany's biggest teaching union, the GEW, the states have clung on to their selective system, where pupils are even streamed in primary school. Since PISA, the states have introduced a requirement for primary entrants to be proficient in German. Children are now tested six months before entry and given special tuition at kindergarten and, if still not up to speed, they attend a pre-school at primary school complete with booster language courses.
The theory goes that this should ensure that children from migrant backgrounds find it easier to get apprenticeships, if they do still end up attending Hauptschule.
Germany's "dual model" for university-equivalent apprenticeships, where students receive a mixture of on-the-job training and vocational school courses, has been admired by some politicians in the UK, including Conservative party leader David Cameron - perhaps because Britain has never had a vocational system of education structured in quite the same way.
Until recently, there was a more peaceful division between the three types of schools, with those in the Hauptschule standing a strong chance of gaining an apprenticeship.
But in these economically tough times, there is now greater competition for the more popular apprenticeships, with many pupils from Realschule and Gymnasium applying. So pupils from Hauptschule are finding themselves being elbowed aside by those with better qualifications. These pupils consequently feel demotivated, with an estimated 40 per cent failing to complete their schooling.
Economic cuts have made the situation worse, slashing the number of apprenticeships available this year by 20,000 to 563,000. Attractive training places in offices, the service industry and hairdressing are oversubscribed, while more traditional areas such as bakeries and the construction and farming industries are desperate for young trainees.
Parents are also now more determined than ever that their children sit the Abitur, or at the very least the intermediate school-leaving certificate from a Realschule, to improve their chances of gaining a job.
The recent changes have also seen an increase in "all-day schools", predominantly Gymnasium. These start at 8am and stay open till 3 or 4pm (instead of, traditionally, 1 or 2pm) to cope with the extra workload created by sitting the Abitur in eight instead of nine years. Funded by a #163;3.5 billion government programme, there are now 7,200 all-day schools nationwide and 10,000 are planned in total.
However, such huge changes to the system are proving too much for some German parents, who are turning their back on the state system and opting for private schools, despite the rigorous selection procedures involved, including scrutiny of their personal lives.
"Surveys show around 20 per cent of parents would go private if places were available," affirms a spokesman for Germany's Association of Private Schools.
Currently, around 8 per cent of German pupils attend private schools - officially higher than in Britain. But unlike in the UK and many other parts of the world, private schools here are relatively inexpensive: they cost as little as #163;80 a month for day schools ending at 1pm; up to #163;180 for all-day schools; and #163;800 for boarding schools.
The prices are low because many schools are church-run and financed through the diocese, as well as receiving funds from foundations and private donors. Also all German schools, even private ones, receive state subsidies.
Naturally, such trends are not good news for state schools, struggling to cope with all the recent changes and an impending teacher shortage as a crisis looms in the profession. Almost half of German teachers are aged over 50, compared with 25 to 29 per cent in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
Of the estimated 770,000 teachers in the country, around 300,000 are due to retire in the next 10 years and there was an estimated shortage of 40,000 teachers at the start of the current school year. Yet despite recent recruitment campaigns, good pay, generous fringe benefits and permanent job status in western states (not eastern) after three years on the job, students are reluctant to enter a profession that has seen its image damaged by increased violence in schools and mounting social pressure on teachers.
So the education system in Germany appears far from rosy. Matters reached crisis point last summer when the nation witnessed unprecedented scenes of strike and protest as all those affected by recent changes in education - pupils, teachers, students and lecturers - took to the streets to vent their frustration.
Almost 250,000 pupils and students staged nationwide strikes, blocking city centres and university lecture halls, protesting about government cuts in education as well as massive workloads. While pupils voiced grievances about hectic grammar school courses and the overloaded curriculum, students protested about the poorly managed switch to bachelors (BA) and masters (MA) degree systems which has resulted in many former six-year German diplomas being squeezed into three-year BA degrees.
Teachers joined them in protest, aiming to draw attention to stressed-out grammar school pupils labouring to get university entrance qualifications in eight instead of nine years, while lecturers voiced their anger at the disorganised changeover in the degree system.
Dissatisfaction abounds and, despite the changes, the future for Germany's young people still looks uncertain as many German employers, still unfamiliar with BA and MA degrees, are reluctant to employ those with the new qualifications. Troubles throughout the education sector are set to stay for some time to come.
'PUPILS SPEND MORE TIME AT SCHOOL NOW': HEINRICH MANN SCHOOL TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE
Welcome to the Heinrich Mann School in Dietzenbach, a "co-operative comprehensive" bringing together Germany's three-tiered secondary school system under one educational and organisational roof.
Here you can find pupils streamed into Hauptschule (basic secondary school), Realschule (secondary modern), and Gymnasium (grammar school).
As with all German schoolchildren, Heinrich Mann's estimated 1,200 mixed-ability pupils spanning grades 5 to 13 (ages 10 to 19) were recommended for a specific school type at the end of primary school. However, pupils streamed into Haupt or Realschule can jump up a notch, if their marks improve sufficiently, to Realschule or Gymnasium.
In line with 15 out of Germany's 16 federal states, the school shortened its grammar-school course from nine to eight years in 2005.
English department head Volker Christ's grade 10 class, busy grappling with the complexities of the "if" clause, are the last ones on the nine-year course. So do they envy their fast-track classmates? "Definitely not," says pupil Fabian Gerl. "Our learning atmosphere is much better and calmer. They sit until late in the afternoon when we've all gone home." Besides, he says, he doesn't mind doing nine years of grammar school.
Meanwhile, Mr Christ had to adapt courses for his grade 9 class, which will sit their Abitur (the university entrance qualification) a year earlier than the others. "They're simply not as mature as the older ones," he explains, "the work has to be different."
Though teachers tried their best during the difficult transition period, Luise Vieweg, the grade 9 class spokesperson, admits they all worked flat out at the beginning. "The teachers were stressed out and so were we," she says.
Co-prefect Ravin Kumar agrees. "I repeated a class," he explains, "so I experienced the old system and the new one." Before, his school day started at 8am and finished at 1 or 2pm but now he is at school until 4 or 5pm most afternoons. "But we've caught up with the others," he concludes, "we're all at the same level now."
Although it is a major logistical overhaul, the school feels the transition makes sense since pupils finish school sooner and are more internationally competitive.
"The biggest problem was the implementation," explains Klaus Thomae, head of maths and physics as well as personnel. "The shortened grammar school course kicked in at the start of the new school year but the textbooks and materials were still based on the old system," he says. Staff were left trying to compress nine years of work into eight, while teaching and getting used to the new system themselves.
"A lot of time and trouble would have been saved if the books and materials had been changed beforehand," notes Mr Thomae.
On the whole, headmaster Hans-Peter Low (pictured) feels the outcome has been positive. "Pupils spend more time at school now and get more involved in extra-curricular activities," he says. Instead of taking place elsewhere, he says, music, sport and homework supervision centres around school.
All he needs now is the extra staff and resources he's applied for in order to keep the whole thing going.