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In the German city-state of Bremen, the city government has recently shown that it is possible to agree on cross-party educational reforms and implement them over a longer period and elections. For the last ten years, the Bremen education system has been reformed and has received good marks from teachers and parents. But how did this reform package, the Bremen consensus on education, become possible?

When Mustafa Güngör, the education policy spokesman for the SPD faction in Bremen, is asked what the beginning of a ten-year reform project was, he begins to explain the former structure of the Bremen education system: “In each of the sixteen federal states we have our own education system. By 2008, Bremen had managed to unite all sixteen approaches.” The confusion of approaches has led to sometimes absurd structures: In addition to the four-year primary school, there was also the six-year primary school. The fifth graders were overwhelmed by the choice between comprehensive school, lower secondary school classes, secondary school classes and the grammar school.

In addition to the complex school structure, Bremen also faces the modern challenges of a large city: Some districts of Bremen have a high concentration of children who grow up in poverty and with educationally disadvantaged and unemployed parents. With these conditions, Bremen has always been at the bottom of the national and international educational rankings since the beginning of PISA.

Working together

In 2007, the SPD, CDU and the Greens set up a cross-party committee to fight the negative stigma and to move up the education rankings, which was to evaluate the weaknesses of Bremen’s education system and develop proposals for solutions within a year. Together with education experts, nineteen suggestions for improvement were developed for the Bremen school system:

– No. 1: Developing the characteristics of a good school

– No. 2: Language proficiency assessment and language promotion before compulsory schooling

– No. 3: Cooperation between the elementary and pre-primary sectors

– No. 4: Making school enrolment more flexible

– No. 5: Strengthening the primary school

– No. 6: Dealing with heterogeneity – promoting professional solutions

– No. 7: Language promotion and support for migrants

– No. 8: Promotion of particularly gifted pupils

– No. 9: Developing Team Schools

– No. 10: Adapting performance structures – Providing incentives

– No. 11: Procedural recommendations for the further development of special educational support

– No. 12: Reducing systemic complexity – secondary school and grammar school

– No. 13: Development and transformation processes

– N r. 14: The transition after the 4th grade

– No. 15: Individual educational pathways in the types of schools

– No. 16: Longer cooperative learning

– No. 17: Expansion of all-day schools

– No. 18: Development priorities in vocational education and training

– No. 19: Networking of school and district

Where previously the CDU and SPD mainly pursued their party-political goals (maintaining the exclusive high school for the CDU and establishing inclusive lessons for the SPD), structural measures were discussed here that were not yet ideologically hardened in political discourse.

With the common objective of improving the education system, fourteen of the nineteen recommendations were adopted unanimously in committee. With the mutual concessions that the grammar school would remain and that inclusion would be promoted in all schools, nothing stood in the way of Bremen’s educational consensus, also known as educational peace.

The core of the education consensus, which SPD, CDU and Greens reached in 2008, was the resolution of a ten-year school reform, which would be evaluated after eight years. This led to a complete restructuring of the Bremen education system, in particular the reduction of school types. After the four-year primary school, all school types but the Gymnasium were merged into the newly established “Oberschule”. In order to improve the reputation of the high school, pupils can now complete it with an Abitur. The number of support centres was gradually reduced to three and inclusive teaching was made possible by specialists from the newly created “Centre for Supporting Pedagogy” (ZUP).

What was previously difficult to imagine became reality: The proposals of the Bremen Consensus on Education were implemented over ten years, including its evaluation. Is this a successful model for the whole of Germany?

“Not quite”

“Not quite,” says the education spokesman of the CDU, Thomas von Bruch. Although the new structure is basically defined as a “sustainable and open framework for modernisation”, the performance of pupils in the Bremen area has not improved significantly over the past ten years. The socio-economically disadvantaged pupils also continue to lose out, especially in schools where many of their fellow pupils come from the same social milieu. There is also a lack of equipment and teachers.

Mustafa Güngör sees this as a task that goes beyond the education system. “School can only cushion, not compensate for factors such as poverty and the lack of education at home.”

These statements are particularly harsh because five of the seven political goals of this reform explicitly aimed at raising the educational level of the most precarious.

Structural reform is not everything

So, what went wrong with the reform, which had everything: a cross-party consensus, scientific support and above all, time?

Taking a closer look at the reform, it quickly becomes apparent that these are above all structural measures that have been implemented here. The smallest unit that is handled is the school. School types are combined and prepared for inclusive lessons. The Abitur is made possible at secondary school, the Gymnasium is in reality not affected.

By comparison, in the last ten years the city-state of Hamburg has been primarily concerned with reforms that have a direct impact on the classroom. More money is spent to achieve smaller class sizes, an education index has been put into place, more time for mathematics and German lessons has been made available. These measures are framed by continuous educational monitoring. Ten years ago, all German city states were close together in the national education rankings, at the lower end of the performance field. To this day, Berlin and Bremen are still at the bottom of the list, but Hamburg has moved into midfield.

A culture of looking into the classroom has become a success factor in Hamburg. Things that many teachers from elsewhere view with incomprehension and aversion have their permanent place in Hamburg. Equipped with a lot of leeway, teachers and schools take on more responsibility and focus the whole school more specifically on their students.

The potential of educational peace

Why is the educational peace after the Bremen school nevertheless the right approach and what is needed for it to function?

The educational peace is a necessary, not a sufficient condition, von Bruch also believes, thus showing how the educational discourse in the city state has become more professional. Güngör believes that the structural debates in particular have eased. These had often degenerated before the educational peace and had cost time and nerves.

Kai Maaz, Director of the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) estimates that major reforms will take more than ten years to take full effect. Within a smaller time frame, “changes that can be proven empirically are certainly utopian”.

Nevertheless, according to Maaz, a consensus on education only makes sense if it does not result in standstill. Schools must still have the freedom to react to social changes and scientific progress.

In addition, the value and benefits of data collection are still seen too little in politics at present. “If a reform process is accompanied scientifically over a period of ten years, the potential for improvement that still exists cannot only be reached after ten years but can be continuously improved.

In this sense, Bremen has caught up in the meantime. Funding for the “Institute for Quality Development”, which has been planned by the Conference of Education Ministers since 2003, has now been secured. It is meant to continuously develop the educational standards to be examined and carry out the educational monitoring in Bremen.

In addition to scrutiny by external institutes, however, a new form of contact between authorities and schools seems to have developed. Even if no directorate wants to talk openly about the developments of recent years, the work of the current senator is praised behind closed doors. Hierarchies have been dismantled, the focus is more on working together to create good schools. The Senator is not blamed for the current shortage of teaching staff: “Ten years ago, they simply could not count.”

The evaluation also confirms a good relationship between the authorities and the school.

“The cooperation between the schools and the relevant school authorities is characterised by mutual trust. The school management certifies a high level of support and support for the school inspectorate.

They perceive it less as a supervisory body but rather as an advisory partner, although the school supervisory authority also claims a supervisory function for itself”.

Politicians are now preparing the next educational consensus. They want to learn from their own mistakes and take Hamburg as an example. The positive attitude between schools and the authorities can only help here.


Hartong, S. & Nikolai, R. (2016). Schulstrukturreform in Bremen: Promotoren und Hindernisse auf dem Weg zu einem inklusiveren Schulsystem. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, Beiheft 62, 105–123.