DEBATE over comprehensives versus selective schools has flared up in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia after a major study showed selective-school pupils were performing better.
Pupils in Realschulen, which take the middle 60-70 per cent of the ability range, were up to two years ahead of children in the state's mixed-ability comprehensives.
However, similar numbers from the two systems pass the school-leaving exam, the Abitur. Critics believe that comprehensives have for years dished out Abitur passes "on the cheap", hiding considerable deficiencies in pupil achievement. In most states the Abitur is set and marked by the schools themselves.
Comprehensives, in theory, have more higher-ability pupils than the Realschulen of Germany's traditional three-tier system where the top 25-30 per cent are creamed off to attend grammar schools. However, comprehensives, introduced by North Rhine-Westphalia 20 years ago, also have more of the under-motivated, often disruptive bottom 15 per cent of the ability range.
This pulls back the performance of the middling pupils, as teaching in comprehensives is mostly whole-class instruction pitched at the "average" child, educationists say.
According to the Max Planck institute of human resources in Berlin, the differential between comprehensives and Realschulen is most acute in Year 10 (16-year-olds) - the year before work for the Abitur begins. This is despite evidence from Year 7 that thre are no significant differences in basic cognitive skills between the two groups.
"Our results show without doubt that middle-ability children do better at Realschulen," said Dr Olaf Koeller, one of the authors.
The study covered 2,800 pupils at 71 schools. In maths it found that Year 10 Realschulen pupils were as much as two years ahead of the comprehensive pupils. They were also a year ahead in English, physics and biology. Grammar-school pupils were up to three years ahead in maths compared to comprehensive pupils.
Gabriele Behler, education minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, is attempting to steer the debate away from inevitable comparisons between the comprehensive and selective systems. Her party, the Social Democrats, introduced the comprehensive system.
She has focused instead on trying to shore up the credibility of the comprehensive Abitur. She indicated that some comprehensives suspected of doling out "cheap" Abiturs would lose their Year 11-13 "sixth forms".
Ulrich Sprenger, chairman of the Comprehensive School Working Group, which opposes the comprehensive system, said
Ms Behler had completely failed to address the issue of why comprehensive pupils were falling behind their Realschulen equivalents.
The Max Planck institute believes that the greater help given to weaker pupils in the comprehensive system is often cancelled out by the constant pressure on those who see themselves at the bottom of the pile.