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German Lessons
July/August 2009

A recent trip to Berlin reminded me of the timidity that characterises the debate on education in England. The German capital, like every other Land, has control over its own schools: no centralised diktat there, but instead acceptance of the fact that people grow attached to the institutions in their locality. The ruling coalition of the centre-Left Social Democrats and the far-Left party known as Die Linke has just decided to abolish comprehensive schools and go back to a selective system of grammar schools and secondary schools. The other parties do not oppose the main thrust of the plan. The only controversy concerns the method of selection: the proposal is to give schools the power to choose 70 per cent of their pupils and submit to a lottery for the remaining 30 per cent. The centre-Right Christian Democrats oppose lotteries. Here in Britain, such freedom for state schools is almost unimaginable.

Here, by contrast, none of the main parties even mentions selection. The Tories have done their best to bury the whole issue, failing to raise any objection to the abolition of grammar schools in Northern Ireland and only reluctantly defending those that remain in England. Labour and the Liberal Democrats treat the comprehensive principle as axiomatic, despite the accumulating evidence over 40 years that it has reduced academic standards and social mobility.

Instead, we have a bidding war in which the main parties compete to appease the teaching unions. The Conservative promise to abolish SATs at the end of primary school is only the latest concession. Nobody considers the wishes of parents.

Yet the head teacher of a leading Berlin gymnasium (grammar school) explained to me that her pupils all learned Latin and Greek. Many learn Hebrew too, not to mention English, French and several other modern languages. All students also study religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. Not even the best comprehensives in Britain can offer such a broad humanistic curriculum. Parents in Berlin are queuing up to give their children this old-fashioned academic education. Passing on the best of Western civilisation is not seen as a peculiarly conservative preoccupation, but as the right of every child with the ability to benefit from it. 

 
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