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May 2004

Short Cuts

How reducing the years spent at school may help Bavaria's pupils

“Our young people should be given the best possible start in life. They should have an excellent education. However, it is also important that they are able to compete with young people from other countries who enter the job market earlier and therefore have better chances in the global community.” So spoke Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian Minister President, on November 6, 2003, when he announced the introduction of the so-called G8—the reduction of schooling at Bavaria’s Gymnasien (grammar schools [UK], high schools [US]) from nine years to eight years. Politicians and educationalists in Germany have long been searching for a way to improve the Gymnasien. The school days in Germany are currently shorter than in many other European countries, which gives Gymnasiasten (pupils at Gymnasien) disadvantages: most students do not matriculate before the age of 19 and the short school day puts the onus for learning on parents to a greater degree than in other countries, so that one-parent families and parents who are non-native German speakers, for example, are often unable to give their children the necessary support.

In order to remedy these deficiencies, the G8 is being introduced throughout Germany over the next few years. But what will the G8 mean in practice for students currently or soon to be attending a Gymnasium here in Bavaria? Firstly, the changes take effect from September this year and will affect pupils who are currently in their first year at the Gymnasium, i.e. in grade 5 (11- to 12-year-olds) and those who will begin grade 5 in September. As the curriculum will necessarily now cover the same material as before but in a shorter time, the school day will be longer. This means that pupils in grades 5 to 9 will spend an additional one to two afternoons a week at school and those in grades 10 to 12 up to three afternoons a week. Core subjects, such as German and math, will be given special emphasis and the new subject “Natur und Technik” (nature and technology), insofar as it is not already part of the curriculum, will be taught in the lower classes as an introduction to biology, physics, chemistry and computer studies.

Another characteristic of the G8 are the so-called Intensivierungsstunden. Students will be divided into small groups and given the opportunity to work on subjects they find difficult, repeat material and expand their knowledge base. It is hoped that this will prevent weaker pupils from having to repeat a year’s schooling—known in German as sitzenbleiben (literally “to stay sitting”)—and allow gifted students to make better progress.

Change is also planned for the Oberstufe (grades 11 and 12), where classes in specialist subjects that were once part of the Abitur (matriculation) will be reduced in favor of German, maths and one foreign language. Not only is this considered to be a better preparation for university, it is also hoped that this will help students to maintain a sense of continuity and stability within the class unit that they have grown accustomed to over the years—the (in)famous Pisa educational review showed this to be an important factor in successful learning.

Many parents and teachers oppose the introduction of the G8. They argue that it will lead to a lowering of academic standards—over-taxed teachers will find themselves with even more on their plate—and students will no longer have time to pursue extracurricular activities. And, finally, pupils now in their first year at Gymnasium will find themselves playing the thankless “guinea pig” role, having to re-adjust to a new curriculum and a freshly developed educational concept. The author of this text has a son who is just such a “guinea pig.” Watch this space for developments.

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