View from here - Hamburg rocked by reform ructions, but change still alive

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Germany Mayor Ole von Beust is forced to resign after voters reject his plan to extend primary education in the city

It is not often a proposed school reform brings about a politician's downfall, but that is exactly what has happened in the city state of Hamburg.

In a recent referendum, the state coalition government of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its junior partners, the Greens, failed to convince voters that extending primary school by two years was a good idea.

They had argued that making the primary phase last six years, rather than four, would give pupils a better chance to develop before being selected for secondary school.

Hamburg's mayor, Ole von Beust, whose government had been brought to the brink of collapse by the vehement opposition to the proposed reforms, conceded defeat and tendered his resignation before the official result of the referendum was announced. It brought to an end the latest in a series of turbulent events in education in the city.

Last year - during a winter of discontent - 125,000 school pupils and university students staged massive nationwide strikes over several weeks in protest against upheaval caused by classroom overcrowding, botched curriculum and degree changes, and chronic government under-funding.

Against that background, Hamburg's city government planned a bold move when it decided to break with tradition and keep children in primary school for two years longer, the aim being that they would be more mature when the time came to be streamed into one of Germany's three secondary tiers: an academic gymnasium (grammar school), realschule (secondary modern) or hauptschule (basic secondary school).

The idea was a pet project of the Greens and the price for its support in forming a government with the CDU, which made the deal despite their doubts over the notion that children would learn better if they stayed together in the same class for longer.

The majority of Hamburg's parents, it seems, had similar doubts about the educational experiment. A well-organised campaign drummed up three times more than the 62,000 signatures necessary to hold a referendum on the proposed reforms, which were duly overthrown at the polls at the end of July.

Heinz-Peter Meidinger, chairman of the DphV, the German association of grammar school teachers, and a strong supporter of traditional values, congratulated Hamburg's parents on their "fantastic success" at overturning a reform which would have "undermined" the quality of the gymnasium by depriving it of two years' teaching.

He also lambasted other states contemplating similar changes, such as North Rhine-Westphalia, whose left-leaning government may extend collective learning to 10 years, and the miniscule Saarland state, which is proposing a modest five- instead of a four-year primary school education.

Yet there is some light at the end of the tunnel for reform-minded citizens.

In Hamburg, another reform, not affected by the referendum, will go ahead. Similar to Berlin - which plans to scrap its realschule and hauptschule and replace them with all-purpose secondary schools offering all school-leaving certificates, including university entrance - the city will amalgamate its various secondary schools into two types: gymnasiums and "catchment-area schools", both of which will offer higher school-leaving exams after eight and nine years respectively.

The spirit of change, in Hamburg at least, is not yet dead.

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