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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The German primary and secondary school systems, 1960s and 1970s



Now that my daughter Lilwen has completed two of four weeks of GCSE exams, with 26 exams across 9 subjects, I would like to reflect on and share memories of my school education. The memories are also lively because of a reunion of our class 40 years after we graduated from secondary school, which took place in late April.

Primary school started at age six, with four years. In my case, two years were conflated into one, so that I had three years of primary school, covering the syllabus of four years. At the end of primary school, the teachers sat together with parents on a 1:1 basis and discussed the progression path for the pupils, with three choices: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium, depending on student ability and profile. I remember that for me, progression to Gymnasium was never in doubt, and I also remember my first experience of the problems with this differentiation: I had mentioned in passing to a girl in my class, whom I liked at the time, that I was looking forward to being in Gymnasium with her; she looked at me very sadly and said that she was going to continue to Hauptschule: “You see, Daniel, I am not as clever as you are”. I had never considered the possibility of making judgments on the basis of “clever”.

Secondary school started in year 5, and lead all the way up to year 13. In years 5-10, all pupils of a cohort, i.e., who had started in year 5 in the same calendar year, were taught in three permanent groups, classes, of up to 30 pupils each. The years were named in Latin. The lower grade consisted of years 5,6,7, called Sexta, Quinta and Quarta. The middle grade consisted of years 8,9,10, called Untertertia, Obertertia and Untersekunda. The upper grade consisted of years 11,12, and 13, called Obersekunda, Unterprima and Oberprima. Our school had its own upper grade system, and my cohort was the last cohort allowed to graduate from this gymnasium with its own system. While at other schools, pupils in years 11,12 and 13 abandoned the core class system in favour of coming together only as cohorts of subject-specific courses, in our system the core class cohorts remained across years 11,12, and 13. In those core cohorts we remained for core subjects, Language (Latin or English), Maths, German (with three 50-minute lessons per week) and History, with Philosophy in year 13 and Geography in year 12 (with two 50-minute lessons per week). In addition to the core subjects, we had to select one main optional subject with the highest number of lessons per week (four), and at least one secondary option, with the same amount of lessons per week as in the core subjects (three). I chose biology as main option, and German/Theatre, French, English and Chemistry as secondary options. 

Two core cohorts were added to the three that had been in existence since year 5, made up of students from the Realschule schools in the area deemed “clever” enough to progress to Gymnasium. They were not integrated into the existing cohorts, but became two core cohorts in their own right, and had to struggle against discrimination because of their “difference”. The school made sure that teachers perceived to be particularly good and fair were selected where possible as their core subject teachers. For the main and secondary options, students from all five groups were mixed.

In years 5-10, examination took place through regular written assessments under exam conditions in each subject, with a certain set number of such assessments in each half year, but arranged only by the teacher concerned, and marked only by that teacher, without co-marking by colleagues or external input. The marks received on those assessments were then averaged and if between two marks, the contribution to class discussion was added to the weighting. The marks for each subject were then formalised in a report card in January/February and in June/July. The marks on the June/July report card determined whether a pupil could progress into the next year, or had to retake a year, moving down to the relevant cohort. Each year, each group would thus get repeaters from the year above. Marks ranged from 1(very good) via 2 (good), 3 (satisfactory), 4 (sufficient), and 5 (inadequate) to 6 (insufficient). A mark of 5 in two subjects, or a mark of 6 in one subject would count as grounds for a pupil to have to repeat the year.

In the first half of year 11, teaching in the core subjects continued normally, while the rest of allocated hours was given over to tasters of the option choices on offer. Each pupil could opt for a maximum of six of those tasters, which were taught by the teachers who would also take on those subjects for good for that cohort. At the end of the first half of year 11, pupils made their choice of optional subjects to continue. In the 2nd half of year 11, options were taught at full workload, but none of all year 11 marks counted towards the Abitur, the general qualification for university entrance.

In years 12 and 13, core subjects were taught in the established groups of pupils, each with their dedicated class teacher, in their dedicated classroom. For lessons in the main and secondary options, pupils went to the classrooms allocated to the options. Assessment for core and option subjects were in centrally timetabled assessments, two per half-year. The marks for each half-year report card were arrived at in the same way as before, averaging the assessment marks and adding the oral contribution where needed. In the 2nd half of year 13, one set of assessments followed the procedure established for years 12 and 13, followed by the main Abitur exams, which were longer (6 hours compared with four hours across years 12 and 13). For each subject, an average of all year 12-13 report card marks (two for year 12 and one for year 13) was further averaged with the marks of the 1st set of assessments from the 2nd half of year 13, and the resulting mark was finally averaged with the mark achieved in the Abitur exam proper. The Abitur-exam was double-marked internally. The entire body of teachers then discussed the marks profile for each pupil before finalising the final mark. Sometimes, pupils would be invited to an oral exam, and improving marks in an oral exam was also an option for pupils. 

To give an example, my profile in maths was:

Year 12 assessment 1: 1
Year 12 assessment 2: 3
Year 12 report card mark for the first half year: 2

Year 12 assessment 3: 3
Year 12 assessment 4: 4
Year 12 report card mark for the 2nd half year: 3

Year 13.1 assessment 1: 4
Year 13.1 assessment 2: 3
Year 13.1 report card mark for the first half year: 3

Year 13.2 assessment 3: 2


Years 12 and 13.1 average: 3
Combined years 12/13 average (3) and year 13 2nd half averagec(2): 3


Year 13 Main Abitur exam: 4

Average of combined years 12,13 (3) and Abitur exam (4), and thuis final Abitur mark: 3 (taking into account the fact that several of the previous averages were rounded up rather than down). 

Sadly, we were the last cohort following this system. Our head teacher lost his battle against the politician-bureaucrats in charge, who made sure that after his retirement, his successors never had his kind of intellectual power, but were good at pushing through orders from above…