Educational Inequalities in Germany after the Rise of Comprehensive Schools

Monday, 16 July 2018: 15:45
Oral Presentation
Camilla BORGNA, Collegio Carlo Alberto (University of Turin), Italy
The traditional German tracking system—characterized by a rigid sorting of fourth-grade pupils into three hierarchically structured and spatially-segregated school types, only one of which (the Gymnasium) leading to the university-entrance certificate (the Abitur)—has been substantively transformed in the last decades, under the pressure of demographic developments, increasing educational expectations of the middle-class, and institutional reforms. This contribution focuses on the expansion of comprehensive schools (Gesamtschulen), a once-residual school type granting access to the Abitur, which in some states has now replaced all pre-existing school types except for the Gymnasium.

What are the implications of the rise of comprehensive schools for social-class inequalities in access and progression through secondary schooling in Germany? According to status maintenance theory, access to the Gymnasium should become less socially selective as the supply of comprehensive schools increases, because this opens up an alternative pathway towards the Abitur, which could be especially attractive for the middle- and upper-class families whose children are not among the top-performers at school. In contrast, according to cultural reproduction theory, comprehensive schools could be attractive for the upper-class only insofar as they remain a residual sector (e.g. pilot projects in specific urban areas, sometimes with non-traditional pedagogy). In this perspective, as comprehensive schools expand to the point of replacing the other school types, both upper- and middle-class parents should increasingly turn to the Gymnasium as the most prestigious and therefore only “appropriate” school type for their children.

In this contribution I test these alternative hypotheses by analyzing data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), which provides rich information on a nationally-representative sample of students who entered lower-secondary schooling in 2010/11 and on their subsequent transitions and competence development.