GERMAN primary schools and kindergartens will co-operate more closely as the country prepares to introduce national education targets for the first time.
Breaking with tradition, kindergartens will now foster children's social and communicative skills through more interactive role play to prepare the way for learning. They will also encourage highly-gifted children and help ethnic-minority youngsters with inadequate German language skills.
Of the 16 regional states, Bavaria has already introduced an all-round kindergarten programme to promote children's social skills and other states are following suit.
Pre-school activities in Germany were traditionally strictly separate from formal education. However, pressure has been mounting in the wake of Germany's poor performance in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), published last year.
Education authorities were also shaken by a recent report commissioned by the federal education ministry which compared Germany's school system to those in France, Canada, the UK, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The report cites the positive aspects of strong Pisa contenders such as Sweden, Holland and the UK. These include longer school days, earlier starting age (five plus) and national education standards, still absent in Germany, where children start at six.
Pupils will in future face increased monitoring at kindergarten followed by early continuous assessment at primary school, plus rigorous testing for 10-year-olds poised to enter secondary school.
In the past six months all states have introduced a requirement for primary entrants to be proficient in German. Children are tested six months before entry, given special tuition at kindergarten and, if they are still not up to speed, attend a pre-school year at the primary.
Standards of English at primary level are also being tightened up.
Previously, nine and 10-year-olds learned English using a playful approach with songs and games. However, the importance of English in an increasingly global world has made it a compulsory subject at many primaries with graded assessments of children.
The measures will support the introduction of national targets for 16-year-olds taking their intermediate certificate.
Many primaries are unhappy about all the changes because they feel they already do a good job. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) published earlier this year ranked Germany's 10-year-olds 11th out of 35 countries (as opposed to 21st out of 31 countries for 15-year-olds in the Pisa study).
However, the GEW, Germany's main teachers' union, supports nationwide education targets and stricter guidelines on standards.