Guten Tag! My name is Christina Egan, and my main job is to catalogue books: old and new, juvenile and academic, in English and in foreign languages. It’s a fun job – and I can do it because I received an outstanding education, entirely free of charge, in Germany. I got a good grounding in social science at grammar school and an overview of history and philosophy at university; and I can read or work out texts in many languages because I learnt ancient and modern languages as a matter of course.
A European baccalaureate is more comprehensive than a degree in the United Kingdom: during the three years of sixth-form, we immersed ourselves in Marx and Freud, ploughed through algebra and genetics, and chewed through Virgil and Shakespeare in the original. A tiered education system like in the Federal Republic of Germany provides a marvelous opportunity for academically gifted children. For those who have not made it to grammar school by the tender age of 10 or 11, it is hard to catch up; yet everyone else goes to school till 18 or 19, too, and earns a technical baccalaureate or a vocational qualification, which are all highly respected (and may offer better career opportunities!).
I started my university education with Theology (see below), together with a colourful bunch of people, who were always on a protest march in the streets or hanging around a monastery! Then I changed to German Literature & Language with Art History and again found my fellow students highly motivated to gain knowledge and change the world. We did not party much but did discuss medieval architecture with as much passion as existentialist novels. The standards were exacting, but the curriculum was lax: you were expected to meander around uni for five or six years and somehow acquire a vast general knowledge. No equivalent to the B.A. existed; you graduated with an M.A. right away, or else an education degree which opened the gate to the two years of (remunerated) teacher training.
Nowadays, courses are far more structured and pressurised. A main difference between Europe and the UK is the focus on languages. Even for art history, we were required to read two modern foreign languages plus Latin. We were taught English thoroughly from the age of 10; now, children start English the same week they start school, at the age of 6. Our linguistic skills are linked to our collective identity: Germans need no political contracts to become Europeans – they are Europeans.
Faculty & Library of Theology at the University of Marburg
Photo by Willow (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The volume Education in Germany since unification (2000) actually focusses on the 'New Federal States', as we prefer to call the former GDR. It covers schools and universities, teacher education and vocational education. The comparisons between former West and East Germany may inspire you to compare to your own country or this country; as you will have heard, the education system differs substantially between Britain and Europe, and Germany's has some unique features.
The last chapter deals with the contentious issue of religious and moral education. In the Federal Republic, the churches are still entwined with the state and religious education integrated into the curriculum, far more so than in many other countries. In the GDR, the totalitarian Party was militant atheist, while the churches were a bulwark of opposition and a driver of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.
For the most recent data, look at the chapter on Germany in the online International Encyclopedia of Education (2010), which gives you an overview in about 4,000 words and offers links to further resources, which will since have been updated again.
More titles can be found in the Comparative Education Collection in the IOE Library on level 3.
For almost half a century, a different world lay behind the Iron Curtain, which went through Europe, right through Germany and right through Berlin. What was it like to be brought up, to go to school, to qualify in a profession in an official Workers' and Farmers' State?
Is it true that you had to be member of the Communist youth organisation to attend higher education or even sixth-form? Were there enough crèches and purposeful after-school activities when almost all mothers went out to work? Was there practical support for women to study and train besides parenthood and paid work?
These questions, and many more about the history of education in Germany between 1800 and 2000, are answered in Schulen und Hochschulen in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik 1949-1989. It is one of a set of massive blue volumes which present tables and charts and explain them in concise essays. The Datenhandbuch zur deutschen Bildungsgeschichte is ongoing, so watch out for the 21st century, as well as more information about the bygone kingdoms of Prussia and Bavaria.