Birth drop leads to mixed-age lessons

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Germany. Eastern German primaries threatened with mass closures because of a drastic decline in the birth rate are watching to see if a village's revolutionary answer could save at least some schools and jobs.

Pupils in Protzen, Brandenburg, are taught in 90-minute blocks, two age groups at a time, covering up to five subjects within that period.

More than 40,000 babies were born in 1980 in the region of Brandenberg when it was part of the old GDR. This fell to fewer than 13,000 in 1994. About 200 primary schools out of the region's 662 will be closed unless they find 15 new pupils in each year.

At first Protzen parents were sceptical and rejected the idea, remembering the old GDR, when some village schools had 30 pupils per class, covering four age bands. Then they saw the scheme in action and changed their minds.

Teacher Llona Drietchen explained: "The teacher must have a burning desire for this new form of lesson, otherwise it's not possible."

What makes the work of Ms Drietchen and her fellow teacher Jutta Steiner all the more remarkable is the contrast to what they were teaching in Protzen only six years ago, when the GDR still existed.

Then the teacher's main role was to educate children in discipline. The whole nation learnt from the same set of textbooks. Now the two teachers have an enormous choice of material, but nothing that specifically caters for mixed-age classes.

Although classrooms are a lot more relaxed now, considerably more planning is needed for the 90-minute block, as classes have to move from one room to another within that period.

The new scheme also requires younger children to ask the older ones for help before rushing to teacher. Headteacher Jorg Lettow added: "Younger and especially strong pupils can also set to work with the tasks facing the older group, while the others repeat and practice. Both the more talented and the weaker ones are helped - and school boredom prevented."

Boredom is what could be facing teachers in the neighbouring former GDR regions of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, if the Protzen model doesn't spread - boredom on the dole queue.

In Protzen itself unemployment has reached 14 per cent, excluding 120 of the 470 villagers who are on temporary government-backed job-training schemes.

For primary teachers in the eastern region of Saxony, unemployment could be a step closer. The regional government has rejected the Protzen model. Teachers elsewhere will be hoping for a different decision.

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