An insight into one of Germany’s most popular schools, the model behind it and what it takes to build and maintain a successful school


In 2011, the IGS Göttingen, the Georg- Christoph- Lichtenberg – Comprehensive School located in Göttingen – Geismar, won the esteemed German School Prize (Deutscher Schulpreis). More than 35 years after its founding, it finally received the recognition it deserved from the government. Prof. Veit of the University of Göttingen argues that its success is due to the long-term application and enhancement of scientific pedagogical knowledge and models. How these models enabled the school to stay on top for so long, and what else it took, will be discussed in the following article.

 The model behind it

 Long before it received the School Prize the IGS had been well-known in the region and very popular among pupils, parents, teachers and within the business community. Their attraction can be attributed to what are known as the three pillars of the school, namely: methodological competence, variety of subjects and the quality of social interactions.

In practice, this means that teaching here follows a student focused, individualized approach. The setting is such that students learn to take responsibility for and to cooperate with other members of the school community. An interdisciplinary approach allows for a more diverse set of subjects than in other schools, but also puts emphasis on social and real-world competencies like working in a team.

Using the potential of heterogeneity

 What sounds fairly challenging already to put into action for groups that are selected in order to be as homogeneous as possible, is achieved at the IGS consciously by focussing on the potential that working in heterogeneous groups offers.

The IGS Göttingen is organized according to the comprehensive school model of Niedersachsen, Germany. After four years of elementary school, the students are not split up into different schools based on their elementary school marks, as is common in Germany.  They move from grade five to ten together.

The most important formula for the IG in doing this is 65-25-10-X: The school is modelled mirroring the societal make up of Göttingen, where approximately 65 % of kids receive recommendations to go to higher education institutions, 25% to middle schools, 10 % to the lower education level and a few percent are physically or psychologically disabled and would usually go to special schools. This diverse mixture of kids is then organized in a heterogenous “Team-Kleingruppen” (team-smallgroup) model, where children from a diverse set of backgrounds and with a wide variety of abilities are put together in groups of different sizes. The smallest being the students working on one table, the next bigger one working in one room and one in one year etc..

 And it works! The success of this concept has been measured multiple times. A serious number of kids that weren’t deemed fit to finish high school at the start of their school careers at the IGS do pass it when leaving the school. The kids deemed fit from the beginning do so in even higher numbers than their peers from neighbouring schools, where only the kids with the highest elementary school grades go to.

 Learning and preparing for the life of tomorrow

 It’s not only the numbers and scientific measurements that proof the IGS’s success, it’s also the more tangible results that continue to impress. When listening to teenagers in their last years at the IGS, listeners cannot repress being impressed by the worldliness off their answers to questions about their school. They stress that the school offers them a unique environment so that they can learn how to work towards a common goal with people from different backgrounds. And how this helped them to understand the value of diverse societies and the potential that lies within them.

The importance of this awareness of the next generation cannot be overstated as numerous authors like Markus Hengstschläger argue. He affirms that the need for a homogeneous workforce will cease to exist and that we as a society need to foster creativity and diverse talents. Or as the former principal, Wolfgang Vogelsaenger puts it, he doesn’t know what the students of today need to know for their jobs and their roles in society in the future, but what he knows is that social competences, like cooperation, self-reliance, creativity, curiosity, and empathy are competences that will always be needed and are highly necessary for the next generation to successfully shape their own and the worlds future. He sees his role and the school’s role in providing students with an environment that nurtures these competences.

 Model follows vision

 So why doesn’t every school follow their example and work that way, if it offers so much potential? Probably, because behind everything that looks easy, lies a lot of hard and persistent work. What might sound self-evident and easy from hindsight, was not, literally, build in one day.

At the start there was a lot of hard pre- work by a committed group of people from various backgrounds. Already years before the school was finally founded in the mid 1970s, a group of committed teachers, parents, architects, politicians and scientists from the university of Göttingen got together to think about an alternative for the, in their eyes, ailing school system.

Different school models in other countries as well as successful schools in Germany were visited, best practices were analyzed and distilled to their essence. Their discoveries were put into a holistic concept that forms the basis of the IGS’s vision for their school, with small adaptions, until today.

 The importance of this, first a comprehensive concept and vision, then a holistic model for a school, created by a diverse set of experts, Vogelsaenger never tires to point out. All the school’s structures were built to fit that vision. Most other schools, he claims, don’t even have a vision or underlying holistic concept for their school (-culture), so how should they, asks Vogelsaenger, manage to build an elaborate model for their school at all. But without that, no practice of purposeful teaching and working together can be introduced to and sustained within a school culture, he claims.

 Having such a vision, such a concept and model everyone aligns to, also helps going and pushing forward, when times are more difficult. It helps to guide the way. Because, even though the IGS’s modelproved to be successful over time and is still state of the art, the IGS is not a perpetuum mobile. It’s a model dependent on each individual taking responsibility for the group and the success of the school and its community. Cooperation, respect and engagement only exist in schools, when teachers, parents and older students are role models for the same set of values. And when these values are clearly stated in the vision and understanding of the school, implicitly and explicitly.

 “The system prevents us from changing anything”

 One of the most heart excuses from stakeholders in the system is: “The system prevents us from changing anything”. And it often is indeed the case that there is little support from outside for new ideas. The surrounding environment might not be favourable to change, the situation is not perfect, the timing not right, stakeholders critical and funding scarce. That that does not mean, it’s not possible, the IGS has proven. 

 As it is often the case with new ideas and change, not everyone was or even is happy about the IGS, its foundation and its work since then. Using a political window of opportunity and deciding to believe in their vision and push through, regardless of the barriers, following their guiding light, in form of the vision of the school, over and over again, proved to be successful, at least in this case.

 What can we learn form that?

 Wolfgang Vogelsaenger, long time principal of the IGS has his own thoughts about what it takes to build a successful school. On top of the point that it is important to first have a vision, a thorough concept of where to go, before starting to build a model, for him, the responsibility for quality education lies within the schools themselves. And therefore, he is not willing to do things that don’t serve that purpose, only because politicians tell him to do so. Change, only for the sake of change, he cautions against. He emphasizes, that what works well should be maintained and protected against what he regards as useless reforms. This leaves time and energy for individual schools (and their teams and community) to actually focus on what serves education, using all the legislative and political loopholes and freedoms given to them.

 The school’s convictions hold that the best learning happens when students feel secure and at home at school, have clear attachment figures, are stimulated in various ways and their natural curiosity is not only tolerated but actively fostered. The goal is not just to learn content by heart, but to learn something in such a way as to truly understand and be able to apply it to the real world.