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East Germany

The Educational System

In the mid-1980s, the education system comprised preschool education (kindergarten) for children from three to six years of age; a compulsory ten-year polytechnical education for all children of ages six through sixteen; postpolytechnical education, which consisted of either vocational training leading to entry in the work force or extended general education leading to the university; and higher education at a special technical institute or university.

Attendance at kindergarten was not mandatory, but the majority of children from ages three to six attended. The state considered kindergartens an important element of the overall educational program. The schools focused on health and physical fitness, development of socialist values, and the teaching of rudimentary skills. The regime has experimented with combined schools of childcare centers and kindergartens, which introduce the child gradually into a more regimented program of activities and ease the pains of adjustment. In 1985 there were 13,148 preschools providing care for 788,095 children (about 91 percent of children eligible to attend).

Compulsory education began at the age of six, when every child entered the ten-grade, coeducational general polytechnical school. The program was divided into three sections. The primary stage included grades one through three, where children were taught the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. The primary stage also introduced children to the fundamentals of good citizenship and, in accordance with the 1965 education law, provided them with their "first knowledge and understanding of nature, work, and socialist society." Instruction emphasized German language, literature, and art as a means of developing the child's expressive and linguistic skills; about 60 percent of classroom time was devoted to this component. Mathematics instruction accounted for about 24 percent of the curriculum and included an introduction to fundamental mathematical laws and relations. Another 8 percent was devoted to physical education, which comprised exercises, games, and activities designed to develop coordination and physical skill. Polytechnical instruction was also begun at the primary level and consisted of gardening and crafts that gave the child a basic appreciation of technology, the economy, and the worker; about 8 percent of classroom time was allotted to such instruction.

An intermediate stage in the child's education began in grade four and continued through grade six. The study of the Russian language was introduced at this stage and consumed about 12 percent of classroom time. Natural and social sciences also became part of the curriculum and together with mathematics formed about 26 percent of instruction time. Another 44 percent of instruction was taken up with German literature, language, art, history, and geography. The remainder was divided between sports and polytechnical instruction. During this stage of the young person's education, the political-ideological content of the curriculum becomes increasingly important. The curriculum emphasized the connection between education and work, and it acquainted pupils in a more detailed way with the life of society and with work, science, technology, and culture. The development of a socialist personality, especially a socialist attitude toward work, was a major objective.

The final stage of polytechnical schooling comprised grades seven through ten. Polytechnical instruction included courses in technical drawing, socialist production, and productive work. The pupil spent one day per week in practical training, working alongside regular employees at a nearby factory or agricultural cooperative. About 14 percent of the curriculum was devoted to polytechnical instruction during this stage. Science education formed about 22 percent of instruction time, and courses covered biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Mathematics consumed roughly 15 percent of the classroom period; the Russian language, 9 percent; and German art, literature, language, and history, about 34 percent. A second foreign language, generally English, was introduced at the upper grade levels.

The polytechnical curriculum gradually accorded a prominent role to science and technology, reflecting the regime's need for technically trained individuals. Throughout the entire educational program, the regime emphasized instruction in "socialist values." The curriculum balanced scientific knowledge with ideological instruction to produce "a scientific view of life" according to Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Theory was related to practice through polytechnical training, and the child was expected to grasp a basic understanding of productive relationships.

The educational system's major goal was producing technically qualified personnel to fill the manpower needs of the economy. The government guaranteed employment to those who completed the mandatory ten-year program. Ostensibly the student was free to choose his or her occupation, but career choices were often guided by government plans and policies.

In 1985 there were 5,864 general polytechnical schools with a total student population of 2.1 million. The average class size was twenty students. Educators and specialists developed the curriculum, textbooks, and teacher manuals, which, however, were closely controlled and had to be approved by the appropriate authorities. The Politburo of the SED made most policy decisions regarding the educational system. The main task of the Ministry of Education, which oversees the kindergartens and polytechnical schools, was making certain that SED policies were implemented and that instructional materials reflected the proper philosophical orientation.

Upon completion of the compulsory ten-year education, the student had essentially three options. The most frequently chosen option was to begin a two-year period of vocational training. In 1985 about 86 percent of those who had completed their ten-year course of study began some kind of vocational training. During vocational training, the student became an apprentice, usually at a local or state enterprise. Students received eighteen months of training in selected vocations and specialized in the final six months. In 1985 approximately 6 percent of those who had completed their polytechnical education entered a three-year program of vocational training. This program led to the Abitur, or end-of-school examination. Passing the Abitur enabled the student to apply to a technical institute or university, although this route to higher education was considered very difficult. In 1985 East Germany had a total of 963 vocational schools; 719 were connected with industries, and another 244 were municipal vocational schools. Vocational schools served 377,567 students.

A final option was the extended polytechnical education, which prepared only a minority of students for higher education. In 1984 approximately 8.3 percent of those completing their general schooling continued in extended polytechnical programs. In the past, children were selected for extended schooling after the eighth grade, but as of the early 1980s the selection was generally made after the tenth grade. In effect the extended schooling was a college preparatory program. The curriculum continued the general education provided at the lower grades, but instruction was more intensive and geared specifically to university entry. The extended schools had instruction through grade twelve. A thirteenth year was spent in practical training. This year was meant to instill in the student an appreciation of labor and to prevent an elitist attitude from emerging among those who went on for higher education.

After passing the Abitur examination and completing a year of practical training, the student could apply to either a university or a technical institute. Applicants were judged primarily on their scholastic achievements and political attitudes. In the past, applicants from working-class backgrounds were given priority for positions at the university and institutes. A Workers' and Peasants' Faculty was established at each university to help prepare the prospective student for entry into universities. During the 1950s, the proportion of students of working-class origin steadily increased and was over 50 percent around 1960. The proportion declined, however, during the 1960s, and by the end of the decade working-class students constituted roughly 38 percent of the university population. The special faculties were closed in the late 1960s. Under Honecker, there was a renewed effort to attract working-class students to the universities, but no figures were available on the proportion of such students at institutions of higher learning in the late 1970s or mid-1980s.

In 1985 East Germany had 54 universities and colleges, with a total enrollment of 129,628 students. Women made up about 50 percent of the student population. Courses in engineering and technology headed the list of popular subjects. Medicine, economics, and education were also popular choices. There were 239 technical institutions, with a total student population of 162,221. About 61 percent of the students studied full time, while the remainder enrolled in correspondence study or took evening classes. The three most popular fields of study at the institutes were medicine and health, engineering and technology, and economics. Courses at the university and technical institutes consisted primarily of lectures and examinations. Completion of the program led to a diploma or license, depending on the field of study.

As of the mid-1980s, higher education was very inexpensive, and many of the textbooks were provided free of charge. Full or partial financial assistance in the form of scholarships was available for most students, and living expenses were generally minimal because most students continued to live at home during their courses of study. Germans have a high regard for education, and the regime has generally supported young people who have wanted to upgrade their level of skills through further training or education. Ironically education has become one way in which young people seek to achieve social recognition. Higher education has also produced a generation that is oftentimes overqualified for available jobs. The government began restricting the number of positions available at the universities and technical institutes during the late 1960s, making competition for entry extremely stiff.

Data as of July 1987

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