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Permeability: Reform required for secondary school leaving certificates

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Chairs stand on tables in a classroom. Photo: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa/Symbolbild

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The Realschulen are the “sandwich schools” in the country: They take on potential secondary school students as well as overwhelmed high school students. The level of the Realschulen suffers as a result, say the teachers there. And demand a reform of the system almost across the board.

When Dirk Lederle talks about his problem child in the Heitersheim secondary school, his anger at the school system in Baden-Württemberg is obvious. The boy is in the 5th grade at the school Lederle runs, but he doesn’t really belong there. “He’s completely overwhelmed, frustrated and, in fact, no longer able to teach,” Lederle complains. There are always children who went to secondary school right from the start, but who only write fives and sixes. “The certificates look accordingly,” says Lederle. “Children can only tolerate that to a limited extent, because failure is extremely demotivating. If you have to watch that as a teacher or headmaster, your heart bleeds.”

From the point of view of Lederle and the Association for Education and Training (VBE), responsible for the misery is a reform of the secondary schools, which has been opening up the branch for the secondary school leaving certificate for years. According to a VBE survey, almost all teachers in Baden-Württemberg’s secondary schools are worried about overwhelmed children like the Heitersheim boy and would rather get rid of their secondary school diploma sooner rather than later. Nine out of ten teachers are therefore in favor of abolishing the secondary school leaving certificate at the Realschule and giving more weight to the recommendation for primary school.

The high school diploma can be acquired by students at different types of schools. Secondary school students can be taught on the way to the degree “undergraduate”, i.e. at a simpler level (G level). In contrast, teaching at Realschulen takes place at an “intermediate level” in the first two years of school – regardless of which school-leaving certificate you are aiming for later. For many mothers and fathers, however, it is more attractive from the point of view of the Realschule to deviate from the primary school recommendation and to send their weaker child to the Realschule and not to the actually suitable Hauptschule or Werkrealschule.

The offer of the Hauptschule certificate at the Realschule, which was decided under the then Minister of Education Andreas Stoch (SPD), has been in effect since the 2016/17 school year.

“The teaching of G students together with the other Realschule students in a class is questioned for pedagogical reasons,” said VBE state chairman Gerhard Brand. If both levels are taught at the same time, neither can be used properly. Result: some would be overwhelmed, others would not be sufficiently supported. The system does not do justice to the children and is labour-intensive.

Realschulen are in Baden-Wuerttemberg in a kind of sandwich position: They are catch basins for the students who would have gone to one of the secondary schools that are increasingly being closed. You can get your high school diploma there. But high school students who come to the Realschule because they are overwhelmed also have opportunities there.

The VBE not only calls for the lower secondary school leaving certificate at the currently almost 480 public and private secondary schools to be seen as an exception if there is no alternative nearby. The joint orientation level in classes 5 and 6 – without failing and at a more difficult M level – should be shortened to one year, so after class 5 at the latest the G level should be offered. And schools that want to offer a G-train because they can afford it should be supported from the point of view of the VBE. “The vast majority of teachers see the previous concept as a pedagogical failure,” said Brand.

Minister of Education Theresa Schopper (Greens) also sees a “definite need for action” at the orientation level. “The regulation in the orientation level, which only evaluates at Realschule level, is demotivating for some students who consistently get bad grades,” she admitted. She agreed to rethink the VBE’s ideas.

Almost unanimous approval also comes from the state parliamentary groups. The Green coalition partner, the CDU, “expressly” supports the demands, said education expert Alexander Becker. The AfD sees itself confirmed: “As in all schools, the lessons in the Realschule must be at the same level,” said MP Rainer Balzer. “We reject different learning levels in one class.” The FDP spoke of a “clear alarm call”. Realschulen would become a gathering place for everyone, no matter what talent they had. “Then the children will be curtailed in their state constitutional right to be schooled differently,” said FDP education politician Timm Kern.

However, headmaster Lederle also sees the parents as having a duty: A quarter of the children with a recommendation for the technical or secondary school ended up at the Realschule, according to the ministry a fifth. “The parents ignore the recommendation and still want to try it.” Of these children, however, only half made it to graduation. “For the others, the Realschule is associated with disappointment and a deadline.” For cases like his problem child in Heitersheim, he would like an “emergency exit clause” after the 5th level.

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