How has the school system changed recently?


Stefan Kuehne

Stefan Kühne, born 1979 in Erfurt, works at the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) as the scientific coordinator of national educational reporting. His work focuses on education statistics and indicator research on the school system. Most recently, he published “Private (elementary) schools as a blind spot in public services?” In the specialist journal Die Deutsche Schule (issue 3, volume 104).

Development trends in the German educational landscape

A lack of daycare places, low student competencies, lengthy transitions to vocational training, overcrowded lecture halls: the often attested backlog of modernization in our education system has been contrasted with gradual but profound change processes in the German educational landscape for several years.

School canteen in Bad Kreuznach. (& copy dpa)

In the public debates, the German education system often appears as a cumbersome tanker with a lag in development and a poor performance record. If you take a closer look, however, there has been a lot of movement in the system in the last decade. At the beginning of the new millennium, the driving force behind these developments was the poor performance of German schoolchildren in international comparative studies such as PISA. In addition, demographic change and the increasing qualification requirements on the labor market increased the pressure on education policy and administration to act. Since 2006, scientists have been able to observe what has changed across all educational areas with the help of ongoing educational reporting: For example, how has the range of educational institutions in Germany changed? Who visits which facilities and for how long? Are we seeing increasingly better educational outcomes today, i.e. higher skills and qualifications? Where are the challenges in the education system remaining?

Using the data on the institutions, participants and results of institutionalized education, this article provides an overview of the major changes in the German education system over the past decade.

The educational landscape is becoming more diverse

First of all: The education system combines five very different, historically grown educational areas under one roof. Their administration, organization and functioning has traditionally been largely isolated from one another in Germany - not least because responsibilities are distributed differently between the federal, state and local governments. It is all the more astonishing what far-reaching changes are now emerging within and between these educational areas:
  • In the elementary sector, the range of day-care facilities and child day care facilities has been greatly expanded (Illustration 1). On the one hand, it has been recognized that early childhood development processes are crucial for the further learning development of children. On the other hand, politics is also complying with the changed social demands on the compatibility of family and work. From August 2013 there is even a legal right to child day care for one and two year olds. In order to be able to offer enough childcare places for an estimated 37 percent of children under the age of three by then, the state must create more childcare offers, especially in western Germany.

Fig. 1: Childcare rate for children under 3 years of age in daycare centers and day care from 2006 to 2011 (in percent)

Figure 1: Childcare rate for children under 3 years of age in daycare centers and day care from 2006 to 2011 (in percent) (More on this ...)
Data source: Federal and state statistical offices, child and youth welfare statistics (bpb) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

  • In the school system, however, many public school locations could not be maintained. In view of the demographically declining number of pupils and the tight budget situation in the responsible federal states and municipalities, numerous schools have been closed - in the eastern German states, more than a third since 1998. In the meantime, almost all federal states have adapted their school structures: the traditionally separate secondary school, secondary school and grammar school courses can now be found under one roof in many places. This was a reaction to the dwindling acceptance of the secondary school in the population as well as to new goals in educational policy. After decades of ideological trench warfare over the tripartite school system, the pragmatic trend is now emerging in the majority of countries to offer (only) types of schools with two or all three courses in addition to the grammar school. The same school leaving certificate can thus be achieved in different institutions: School types and school qualifications are becoming increasingly decoupled from one another.

  • In contrast, the number of private schools has doubled in the last ten years (Figure 2). Especially in East Germany, where only a few independent schools existed before reunification, the number of private schools rose between 1998 and 2010, from 285 to 837 institutions. In Germany, private schools are predominantly run by non-profit organizations with no commercial interests. Nevertheless, especially in large cities, it cannot be ruled out that parents may choose certain schools based on their social background and that this is accompanied by an increasing segregation of the student body.

Fig. 2: Development of public and private educational offers between 1998 and 2010

Figure 2: Development of public and private educational offers between 1998 and 2010 (More on this ...)
Data source: Federal and State Statistical Offices, various statistics (bpb) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

  • With the gradual transition from half-day to all-day school, the school system is going through a profound change. In the interplay of lessons, extracurricular offers and extracurricular activities, the everyday life of students in many places follows a completely different rhythm than it did ten years ago. While in 2002 just 16 percent of all schools nationwide offered all-day operation, this now applies to more than half of the schools. However, primarily open all-day schools were expanded, in which participation in the all-day program is not compulsory for all pupils, but rather voluntary.

  • The pre-vocational "transition system" after general schooling has been firmly established over the past 20 years. It catches young people without a chance on the training market in a variety of career orientation and preparation measures. However, these measures do not lead to a vocational qualification and are largely uncoordinated. For the young people it is therefore mostly a question of holding loops. They partly use this to catch up on a school leaving certificate. Due to demographic change, the high demand for apprenticeships has meanwhile decreased. Nevertheless, especially for these young people, the transition to the apprenticeship market has hardly improved (Figure 3).

Fig. 3: New entrants to the vocational training system in 2000 and 2010 according to school-leaving qualifications (number)

Figure 3: New entrants to the vocational training system in 2000 and 2010 by school leaving certificate (number) (More on this ...)
Data source: Federal and state statistical offices, school statistics; Federal Employment Agency, Measure Statistics (bpb) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

  • At the same time, the demand for higher education among young people has skyrocketed. While 260,000 young people started studying in 1995, the number of new students almost doubled in 2011 to more than half a million. In the course of the higher education pact of the federal and state governments, the range of courses - especially at universities of applied sciences - has been significantly expanded since 2005. At the same time, higher education policy reforms and initiatives such as the international Bologna Process led to a fundamental restructuring of the higher education system that goes far beyond new study regulations and degrees.