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Monday, 28 January, 2002, 22:53 GMT
Vocational schools under scrutiny
Car factory
Pupils can spend part of the week in the workplace
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

The disappointing results of international tests in literacy, maths and science are still causing reverberations in Germany.

The tests, published at the end of last year, found that German students were among the underachievers for all three subjects.

German school system
Based on individual states, not federal structure
There are academic, comprehensive and vocational secondary schools
Pupils enter school at age 6 or 7
University degrees last seven years

When the Conservative education spokesperson, Damian Green, visited Germany on a fact-finding mission last week, these results were still the most immediate worry for the education system.

These tests - Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) - assessed 15 year-olds in 32 countries, and found Germany lagging behind countries such as the UK, where students were in the top bands for all subjects.

Mr Green's visit in particular focused on how vocational education is integrated in the German secondary and higher education system.

Damian Green
Damian Green visited Germany as part of a policy review

Rather than a national system, such as in England or Scotland, the German school system is based on the individual states, with each having their own local preferences and practices.

But in general terms, the German system allows pupils to specialise in a vocational education throughout their years at secondary school and beyond.

This includes the so-called "dual system", in which pupils spend a couple of days each week in the workplace, developing a practical skill which is complemented by theoretical learning in the classroom.

Disaffection

Allowing young people to see the direct application of their training could be a way of tackling disaffection, said Mr Green.

For those youngsters who had lost interest in formal learning, he said this could be a way of keeping them from dropping out of education.

As part of the visit, Mr Green visited a vocational college in Potsdam in Brandenburg, the Oberstufenzentrum Johanna Just, and saw the German equivalent of a further education college in the UK.

The school, with 2,400 students, provided specialist training in the catering and tourist industries, health care and social care.

Students were typically aged between 16 and 22, but there were others up to their mid-thirties, with training courses often lasting five years.

And as well as in-depth training, and work placements, all the students have to continue with core subjects such as German and modern languages.

Contracts with industry

These students have contracts with a relevant company - so trainee chefs might be linked to a hotel - and progression in these industries is dependent on achieving the type of qualifications available from such colleges.

This college, one of 29 in Brandenburg, has more of a feel of a university than a further college in the UK.

Set beside a lake and occupying an historic building, the school has benefited from a 17 million euro refurbishment, partly funded by the European Union.

Mr Green, considering ideas for future Conservative policy, said he was impressed by the "link between workplace and studies".

"One of the biggest problems is students who don't know why they're there - and who think education is a waste of time," he says, suggesting that vocational training might be more appropriate.

"Politicians can talk about 'parity of esteem', between vocational and academic education," he says.

"But a system needs to be very flexible to put this into practice."

Parental pressure

But the head of Brandenburg's school system, Bodo Richard, suggested that parents are increasingly keen to see children enter the more academic schools - the "gymnasium" - rather than follow a vocational path.

The vocational "realschule" now take about 20% of pupils - although pupils at comprehensive schools can also opt for vocational training at a later stage.

And echoing debates in the UK, Herr Richard said that parental pressure was now pushing authorities to introduce greater choice at primary level and it had also been parents that had pushed for the grammar-school type gymnasiums.

But there were also concerns that the vocational schools were drawing pupils from poorer families and that such selection meant that children were having their horizons limited at too early an age.

Herr Richard ascribed the poor test results to poor quality lessons and raised questions about the style of teaching.

And education researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin said that the test results highlighted the lack of intervention and inspection in German classrooms.

Inspections

There is no equivalent of Ofsted and teachers can go whole careers without coming under any external scrutiny.

National exams are marked and graded by schools without any external involvement - and so standards were not always easy to assess.

There were also concerns over the adaptability of the vocational system, when the manufacturing industry on which it depended was in contraction.

And there were also worries that academic achievement and the selective system were so closely linked to the social background of pupils.

The fact-finding mission also highlighted other fundamental differences, such as how German pupils enter and leave education at a later stage than their UK equivalents.

While four year olds are filling classrooms in the UK, it is usual for German pupils not to begin school until they are seven - and primary pupils only study for half-days.

But at the other end of the age range, German pupils will not leave education until the age of 18 - and many will be much older.

Undergraduate degree courses at German universities can often last seven years.

But talking to the representative of the GEW teachers' union, Thomas Isensee, revealed that there were also areas in common between the two countries.

In Berlin, he said a lack of money had caused worries about crumbling buildings and teacher shortages.

There were also growing concerns about disruptive pupils and fears over ethnic tensions in inner-city schools.

See also:

08 Dec 01 | Mike Baker
Are our students really this bright?
04 Dec 01 | Education
How pupils are doing internationally
28 Jan 02 | Education
Tories revise schools policy
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