Can greater openness of the school system lead to equal opportunity?

scottwebb,, CC0 1.0
scottwebb,, CC0 1.0

Unlike many other countries, the German school system tracks children into different types of secondary schools when they are still very young – around age 10. As research has shown, transitions from elementary to secondary school are marked by a high level of social inequality. Children from working-class families are less likely to enroll in a Gymnasium (an academically-oriented upper secondary school) and more frequently attend intermediate or lower secondary schools.

Concerning social inequality of educational opportunity, little has changed since the so-called “PISA shock” of 2001, which has led people to conclude that Germany’s education system is rigid and puts young working-class children on a track that makes it difficult for them to attain higher levels of education. In fact, however, the German education system is not as rigid as commonly assumed. Educational choices are not set in stone.

In this post, I look at how open the German education system actually is – and whether an open system truly offers more equitable opportunities to attain higher levels of schooling.

How open is the German school system?

Years of efforts to open up Germany’s school system have been motivated by the following assumption: If we made it easier to transfer from one school type to another, more children from a non-academic or migrant background would have the opportunity to complete the Abitur examination (which marks graduation from an academically-oriented secondary school, or Gymnasium).

Institutionally, a recent study has shown that a variety of steps have been taken over the past five decades to ease transitions to upper secondary schools. Today, attaining the Abitur is also possible through the vocational training system and through the so-called “second chance” system.

And young people are taking advantage of these options: During the 2016/2017 school year, approximately 5,000 students transferred to a Gymnasium even after they had entered the first stage of secondary education in a non-academic school type. Moreover, as many as 15,000 students who were not attending a Gymnasium in the previous year enrolled directly in the second stage of the secondary education leading to Abitur.

“Young people from a migrant background are more likely than their classmates to take advantage of ‘second chance’ educational opportunities.”

Does permeability promote equal opportunity? To answer this question, we need to look at the highest level of completed schooling for students from different social backgrounds, across multiple birth cohorts, and find out whether the rates of Abitur completion among different social classes have now become identical or at least more similar than in the past. It is important in this context to consider both the “regular” path to the Abitur and alternative pathways.

Owing to a lack of data, relatively little research has been conducted on this question. However, more data have become available in recent years, thanks in part to the German National Educational Panel Study.

Why efforts to promote equal opportunity have produced only slight improvements

When it comes to the Abitur, numerous studies have shown that social inequality has declined only slightly. Students born between 1945 and 1955 who came from an academic family were nine times as likely to have completed the Abitur as their final educational level, relative to children whose parents had completed no more than a Hauptschule (lowest level of secondary school) education; among students born between 1975 and 1985, the likelihood was five times as great.

In addition, it matters whether we focus on qualifications to enroll in any university or in a lower-tier university with a subject-specific orientation, i.e. applied sciences. Recent research shows that social inequity has declined only in the latter case.

When it comes to the Abitur, why has social inequality declined so little? While increased openness has indeed allowed many working-class children to transfer from a lower-level school to a Gymnasium, it has also benefited middle- and upper-class families. They, too, are taking advantage of the new “indirect routes” to the Abitur that the German education system has made available.

Permeability – a successful model?

Increased permeability has obviously helped to widen the range of educational options. Even if they don’t enroll in a Gymnasium at the traditional age, many students are now able to gain access to a university education. However, we find that “late starters” are less likely to attend a traditional university after completing the Abitur, opting instead for vocational training or for a more practice-oriented education at a technical or vocational college.

A more open education system is particularly helpful in allowing students from an immigrant background to complete their schooling through a non-traditional pathway. Students of Turkish origin, for example, are more likely to begin their school careers at a lower secondary school (Hauptschule). Some recent studies show that young people from a migrant background are more likely than their classmates to take advantage of “second chance” educational opportunities– but this is true only when both groups are from a similar social background.

“More vigorous efforts at institutional reform are needed to reduce the level of social inequality.”

The open structures that are in place today are the result of a political compromise; they allow for the retention of the traditional system, in which decisions about children’s educational future are made early on, when they have just completed elementary school. Social inequality has thereby been reduced only slightly.

More vigorous efforts at institutional reform are needed to reduce the level of social inequality. Current efforts at reform tend to take two forms: The first is to reduce the number of school types. In a major school reform, Berlin sought to reduce the divide between schools by offering only the Gymnasium and a so-called “integrated secondary school.”

The latest research calls into question the effectiveness of this approach, because it merely attaches new names to the traditional school types, which is not effective in reducing social inequality. Expanding preschool programs is the second and more promising approach: such programs appear to increase eventual educational attainment. To truly understand the impact of early childhood education on subsequent schooling, however, further research will be needed over the next few years.

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