Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Sandra Wenk

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When we speak of the history of education reform in the twentieth century’s second half, we often refer primarily to the expansion of secondary education and the widening of access to higher education. In and subsequent to West Germany’s post-war era, the debate around educational and policy reform extended to primary and basic schooling, eventually resulting in the emergence of a new type of secondary school known as Hauptschule. The creation of this new, principally vocationally-oriented, institution within Germany’s selective secondary school system both formed part of and influenced a raft of reforms including the extension of the duration of compulsory schooling, the introduction as standard of year group-based classes, the centralisation of rural school systems, the virtual eradication of denominational schooling, the introduction of academic teacher training and the construction of  curricula along ‘scientific’ lines. In the 1960s, these reforms were the dominant topic of the day in education circles and beyond – in regional and state parliaments, among parents and across a broader public.

My research explores the reform-based responses to the contemporary diagnosis of a ‘crisis’ among basic school education and the consequences of these developments for the shape and state of compulsory schooling in West Germany from the 1950s to the early 1970s. I assess the introduction of the Hauptschule as a fundamental reinvention of school-based education in whose context the potential for societal conflict inherent in the institution of schools entered anew, and in a distinct and novel guise, into the consciousness of a wider public sphere. My findings point to changes in the contemporary state of pedagogical knowledge as one cause among others of the labelling of the Hauptschule as a ‘failed reform’ within a markedly short time of its inception. Young people’s attainments in schools had become measurable, comparable and therefore susceptible to targeting by public scandal. Contemporary critics of the West German education system seized upon these discourses and data to undergird their assertions that key objectives of the reform process, such as the promise of ‘equality of opportunity’, had missed their mark.