Germany's comprehensive education lobby is in disarray after a vote by the country's powerful teachers' union GEW (Gewerkschaft fuer Erziehung und Wissenschaft) to abandon its decades-long support for non-selective schools.
In a ground-breaking vote at the union's annual conference in early May, GEW delegates voted by 213 to 144 to no longer back comprehensives as the preferred secondary system. The union was forced to accept comprehensives only as a fourth "option" alongside Germany's three-tier system of gymnasium (grammar), realschulen (secondary moderns) and hauptschule (for the bottom 15 per cent of the ability range).
The comprehensive society or GGG (gemeinnuetzung gesellschaft gesamtschule), which has lobbied for full comprehensivisation, is split. Some see the union vote as continued support for comprehensives alongside the selective system. Others see it as sounding their death knell.
The issue dominated the organisation's annual conference in Luebeck this week as members tried to thrash out its official response to the union vote.
GGG chairwoman Ingrid Wenzler admitted attempts to set up a fully-comprehensive system have "not completely succeeded".
Some 1,000 mxed-ability schools have been set up since the early 1970s but their number has barely grown in the past decade.
"People are no longer listening when we call for a fully comprehensive system, so we must find other ways," said Ms Wenzler.
While many were astounded at the political pendulum-swing of the traditionally left-leaning union, it insisted it had not abandoned the "more egalitarian" comprehensive system altogether. GEW chairwoman, Eva Maria Stange, said the "positive lessons" of the system should be used to set up "transitional" non-selective middle schools, postponing selection which currently occurs at age 10 in most areas and age 12 in Berlin and Brandenburg.
The battle between pro-comprehensive union members and those backing selection has been raging for several years. But it was not until the results of the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1998 showed Germany lagging behind, and a new focus on standards in schools, that the clamour within the GEW to drop its backing for comprehensives rose to fever pitch.
Analysis of TIMSS showed that the selective system produced better performance results, and this was seized on by the pro-selection faction.