View from here - Grammar raffle is just not fair

18th September 2009 at 01:00
A random-selection scheme intended to boost social justice in Berlin will not help anyone, argues Frances Mechan-Schmidt

Whatever will they think of next for Germany's hard-pressed grammar schools? First, curriculum changes were introduced so that they would have to harass youngsters to complete nine years' secondary work in eight.

Now Berlin's education authorities are planning to "raffle" 30 per cent of grammar-school places, starting next summer, to ensure more "social justice" when admitting pupils.

The scheme is the realisation of a dream long cherished by Die Linke ("the Left"), the volatile junior coalition party in Berlin's far-left state government headed by the Social Democrats, whose origins are to be found in the former East German communist party. Instead of the usual procedure where places are allotted on academic merit or residential proximity, one in three pupils at Berlin's grammar schools will now win the chance to hobnob with the academic elite at a top-notch grammar school in the country's capital, notwithstanding their own mediocre marks.

Inevitably, the plans have unleashed a storm of protest among the nation's academics. "A random selection procedure of this nature makes no pedagogical sense at all," said Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, an education expert at Berlin's Humboldt University.

Pupils at Berlin's Beethoven Gymnasium, a renowned grammar school that will be affected by the scheme, agreed. "A pupil who doesn't have good marks may still feel they have the right to try their luck at a school like ours," explained 15-year-old Hanna Zabel. "But will that make it the right school for them?"

Co-pupil Robin Huper agreed. "Gifted children will be left hanging around while teachers struggle to help pupils who can't cope with the work," he said.

Still, Jurgen Zollner, the Social Democratic education minister for the city state of Berlin, is convinced the idea has its merits. "This is the best way to ensure equal opportunity for socially disadvantaged children who would otherwise have no hope of making it to a grammar school," he said.

But are the authorities doing such children a favour? What if, in the end, they don't make it academically and have to leave the school after the scheme's trial period of one year?

The headmaster at the Beethoven, Wolfgang Harnischfeger, doubts whether children could cope with all this. "I feel it would be disconcerting for them to be put in such a position," he said. "They may fit in socially, but if they don't succeed academically, they have to leave. It's cynical, really."

Many pupils potentially eligible for the scheme could come from schools such as Berlin's Erika-Mann, which has a high proportion from migrant backgrounds and with serious learning difficulties. Karin Babbe, the school's head, has doubts about whether her pupils may get a chance they could not otherwise have had.

"A scheme based on random selection or luck can only ever function as a temporary solution," she said. "It has nothing to do with fairness." Equal opportunity, she thinks, can only come from good education.

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