View from here - Hamburg ructions over reform

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Mayor Ole von Beust was forced to resign after voters rejected his plan to extend primary education in the city, writes Frances Mechan- Schmidt

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.

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 - a quarter of a million 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 underfunding.

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 their support in forming a government with the CDU, which made the deal despite doubts over the notion that children would learn better if they stayed together in the same class for longer.

Most 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, 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.

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