View from here - Germany, Primary parents get litigious

26th June 2009 at 01:00
Emotions run high when choices about secondary school have to be made, writes Frances Mechan-Schmidt

As the school year draws to a close in Germany, this is the traditional time for parents of primary school leavers to turn grumpy. For this is when teachers recommend what type of school their child should attend - thus determining, to a large extent, their futures. Pupils either go on to a basic secondary school (hauptschule), secondary modern (realschule) or grammar school (gymnasium).

If a teacher chooses not to give a pupil the coveted gymnasium recommendation - which offers the greatest number of options for the child's academic career - they often incur the parents' wrath.

Accordingly, school authorities are bombarded with calls from irate parents desperate to reverse teachers' "adverse" decisions in favour of a higher academic notch. Their chances of succeeding depend largely on the education policy in their region.

In half of Germany's 16 states, the teacher's decision is final; in the other half, parents can override this and put their child up for a gymnasium instead of a realschule or hauptschule. In these cases, schools then "sift" children and demote the weakest to academically lower schools after a maximum of two years.

The parental concern for their offspring is understandable since in 13 out of 16 states, Germany's highly selective system streams children after only four years of primary school or, at the latest, six years, as in Berlin, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

And, as Wilfried Bos, an education expert from Dortmund University, says: "The end of primary school in Germany determines whether a child will go on to become a tradesman or a manager." Not least, he continues, because a child's chances of transferring at a later stage to a more academically prestigious school are still extremely low.

Many parents fear their children won't get a job in the future without taking the Abitur - the university entrance exam sat by grammar school pupils - as times are hard and businesses are being picky about those they employ. Hence the dramatic steps taken to get children into a gymnasium.

These include threatening legal action since all education policy, including teachers' decisions on a child's future, is enshrined in regional state law.

"We have parents who turn up with their lawyers when they come to see the teachers about this," confirms Klaus Wenzel, president of the teachers' association in Bavaria, a region where the recommendation of a teacher is final and primaries make tough demands on pupils aspiring to grammar school places.

Borderline pupils can sweat it out in three-day assessment centres, trying to meet the criteria for admission to grammar schools imposed by states such as Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.

My family is lucky to live in the traditionally tolerant state of Hesse, where parents' wishes continue to hold sway when it comes to determining their children's academic future.

Nonetheless, it took all our powers of persuasion seven years ago to convince our son's primary teacher that his academically uneven final report concealed a potentially fine academic mind.

My husband, a journalist, applied his rhetorical skills to plead our son's cause. Sometimes I think an assessment centre would have left us with a few more nerve cells and fewer grey hairs.

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