The East Germans Have Discovered the Secret of Successful Schools- by Using the System We've Abandoned; How a Former Communist State Has Revived Its Grammar Schools - and Dumped Political Correctness
Byline: PETER HITCHENS
How pleasant at last to find a place where political correctness is actually in retreat, where old values are treasured, common sense is respected and history is not treated as a rubbish dump to be forgotten, but as vital, irreplaceable experience.
Welcome to the former East Germany, struggling to rebuild civilisation in the ruins of Socialism. Here, until 1989, political correctness took solid form; equal this, equal that, equal the other.
Every slogan on every daft radical demonstration you have ever seen was turned into official policy. Everybody was so equal they had to put up a large fence and build miles of minefields to keep them all in, and keep them all equal.
Take education. In the same sacred cause of 'equality', all children went to the same sort of comprehensive school, at least officially, which is of course what our own Labour Party would dearly like to happen, and works tirelessly to achieve. The East Berlin government proclaimed that it had abolished inequality. As its official propaganda booklet stated: 'The first step taken was to eliminate-all educational privilege. Social status and the size of father's bank account no longer determined the quality of education a child received.' What this meant in practice was that dozens of fine old grammar schools, known as Gymnasiums, free to all those who could pass their rigorous entry tests, were shut down across the East German state, even more ruthlessly than they were in Britain a few years later.
Everyone went instead to Gesamtschule: comprehensives. Everyone, that is, except an elite, who at 16 were able to transfer to special sixth form colleges while everyone else went into the factories.
But that elite was selected not by bank balance but on political grounds. If your parents were not working-class enough, or not loyal enough Communists, or were known to be Christians, or had some other mark against their name, then the best exam scores would not get you in. And that meant you could never take the Abitur, Germany's A-levels; the guarded gateway to every profession, to university, to the secret privileges of well hidden wealth and comfort that the regime reserved only for the loyal, the subservient and the silent.
Meanwhile, across the barbed wire, West Germany's self-governing states preserved their grammar schools - in some cases because parents took to the streets in their thousands to protest against planned closures by local SDP politicians; the equivalent of the Labour Party.
And the moment the fences and the walls came down and the minefields were pulled up, East Germany's new free local governments began to rebuild the lost grammar schools, something we in Britain are told cannot be done.
Well, it can.
One of these new schools is the Gerhart Hauptmann Gymnasium in Wismar, a heartbreakingly beautiful seaport town on the Baltic coast now recovering at last from 50 years of shameful neglect, one of the biggest concentrations of unspoilt 17th Century architecture in Europe.
The same spirit of proud rebirth is obvious in this school, housed in a fine old Edwardian-era building with a frowning arched entrance, stern granite staircases and highceilinged proper classrooms.
Only one of the standard prejudices about Germans is confirmed here. The students wear no uniform, the atmosphere is democratic and relaxed rather than regimented. But education is taken very seriously.
Wolfgang Box, the school's director and a survivor of the old Communist system, is immensely proud of the opportunities his establishment is giving to the children of Wismar. It is one of two new grammar schools founded in the town. Herr Box says: 'There was so much demand for this sort of education from parents when the first one opened that this one had to be founded as well. Before the change, only ten per cent of local children took their Abitur. …