Education: Free to do it their way: Germany: There are no rigid instructions on when and how often to test

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A quick break between classes at the Walther-Rathenau grammar school in Berlin, Marga Quiring confessed she had a problem with Goethe. 'Of course, as a writer, he was marvellous,' she said. 'But as a person, I can never bring myself to like him. Therefore I find it difficult to teach him.'

Fortunately for her, she does not have to - or, at least, not too often. Like most teachers of German and arts subjects in general in Germany, she has considerable scope to pick and choose the texts she teaches. If she wants to drop Goethe for a term, she does. Some of her pupils can even take their abitur (equivalent of A-levels) without having been made to read him, although this is rare.

The freedom to teach German to such a high level without having to include works by the country's greatest writer is, from a British perspective, almost unthinkable: the equivalent of an A-level English course without Shakespeare.

It is a freedom that many teachers in Germany relish. 'Rather than going stale with prescribed texts and rigid guidelines, we have a wide range of themes we can choose from and an even wider range of materials we can use to illustrate them,' said Barbara Schmanz, who teaches English and French. 'I pick topics I like, and sometimes some quite difficult authors or films because I want to talk about them. It keeps me fresh and I think that it is more interesting for the children.'

While relatively liberal, particularly in the teaching of arts subjects at more advanced levels, the German education system, however, is hardly a free-for-all. As a result of the country's federal structure, there is no national curriculum, but subject curriculums are drawn up by teachers and educational specialists in each of Germany's 16 regional states, or lander.

Although there are important regional differences, an advisory body consisting of representatives from the educational authorities in every land ensures that basic curriculum guidelines are similar and that an abitur, or university entrance exam, taken in one land is recognised in another.

Curriculums do not stint on detail. In maths and science, areas of knowledge to be covered are specified precisely. Differences between lander exist: trigonometry may be introduced later in some than in others, but will not be excluded from any.

With arts and social science subjects, the guidelines are only a little less precise. At the age of 16, children learning English in Baden- Wurttemberg, for example, must be taught the future perfect tense, become familiar with the short story form, fables, reports, radio plays, short novels and dramas and cover a variety of themes relating to the United States, such as race relations or the role of Washington as the capital of political life.

Although in theory teachers could try to find their own material to illustrate themes and issues - and some do - most stick to textbooks approved by the education authorities in their land, and which religiously incorporate every single item on the curriculum. Only after the 10th class (age 16), and then mostly in the arts subjects, do they get the chance to be more experimental and the freedom to ignore specified authors who, by then, are anyway only on 'suggested' reading lists.

'With the exception of their senior classes, teachers here are given pretty detailed guidelines about which topics they should teach and the overall structure in which they should be placed. But, in comparison to their counterparts in Britain, they have much more freedom when it comes to methodology,' says Dieter Vater, one of those responsible for drawing up the curriculum for English teaching in Baden-Wurttemberg. 'Our teachers have clearly defined areas to cover - but they are not instructed about how they should teach.'

Nor are German teachers given rigid instructions about when, how frequently, or in what form they should test their pupils. In practice, in addition to homework, teachers do set between five and 10 written tests a year in each subject.

Composition of the tests, however, is entirely up to them: two history teachers in the same school may give completely different tests on the same period. Moreover, oral contributions in class play an equally important role when assessing children's progress and performance.

In most of the lander, even the final abitur exams are set by schools rather than the education authority. Teachers have to submit questions for approval, but then supervise and mark the exams themselves. The final grades awarded are derived from a combination of the exam result and written and oral course work.

Only in Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria and the new east German lander are the abitur exams set externally - with set texts imposed across the board. Although proponents of the more liberal system hate to admit it, an abitur granted by the two large west German states - is more highly regarded than one awarded elsewhere.

'Most people agree that our abitur is worth a bit more,' said Professor Vater. 'It is seen to be a bit harder, a bit more regimented.'

(Photograph omitted)