Best Practice

Gradually then suddenly: Educational inequality in secondary schools

Many teachers know all too well the cost of educational inequality in the UK, but a similar battle is raging in Germany between the have and have nots. Writing from Berlin, teacher David Kazamias explains

The 2018 PISA rankings and its latest “education at a glance” indicators (2021) confirm what many in education already knew: that in many modern social democratic countries educational inequality is on the rise.

And while shocking levels of inequality in the UK have been well documented, especially by this journal, many will have been surprised to learn that Germany suffers from a similar chasm in educational outcomes.

How do the UK and Germany’s school systems generate such extreme levels of educational inequality? An apt response can be taken from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, where upon being asked how he became bankrupt, the war veteran Mike replies: “Two ways (...) gradually and then suddenly.”

The Prussian Tradition

Educational inequality was baked into the fabric of secondary schools at their inception. The Prussian tripartite system was a three-tiered model of education which offered three streams of differentiated schooling. Although male pupils were separated on the basis of class, and females excluded completely, this was still reformist and progressive for 19th century Europe. And this became the dominant structure for most European states at the start of the 20th century.

What was reformist then seems antiquated and elitist now. Yet many countries are still operating under this same Prussian model, or some maladaptive form.

As Melissa Benn (2011) observed in School Wars: “Class stratification remains the default position, even in the 21st century.”

Germany remains doggedly faithful to its Prussian history. Its system stratifies its students into either a hauptschule, realschule, or gymnasium. There has been a recent push towards a bipartite system as many critics see the hauptschule as unsuccessful and at times abject. But whether two-tiered or three, segregation is still the backbone of the system (Federkov, 2007).

The UK implemented significant educational changes during the post-war years. Despite decades of resistance, a tripartite system was implemented with the Education Act 1944. This introduced the comprehensive, which was to be sandwiched between the technical and the grammar schools. Our powerful independent fee-paying schools, of course, were left unscathed (West, 2018).

Attempts at reform

In the UK, Rab Butler’s 1944 reforms were a watershed moment and were the genesis of the comprehensive, which, through future successive Labour governments, became the clear forerunner of the three. The technical schools died a sudden death and grammar schools, which remain a subject of controversy, have seen a huge decline since the 1960s.

The vision of the comprehensive school is embedded in its etymology: comprehendere meaning to “unite” and “seize together”. It was a move towards, in Butler’s words, “dignity”.

And Germany had a similar response. The gesamtschule, first introduced in the 1960s, has been embraced by most left-leaning parties ever since (gesamt comes from the verb -sammeln, “to gather”, “to come together”.) It was intended as a solution to, and a democratisation of, the hierarchical school system.

By attempting to disrupt the legacy of separation, and provide a broadly equal education for all, the comprehensive and the gesamtschule offer a similar solution for tackling issues of inequality. From a historical perspective the comprehensive vision seems like the next logical step in a modern progressive state, for students to no longer be segregated on grounds of class (or for class to be dressed up as merit) but to be educated together instead.

And yet, if we are to see the comprehensive and the gesamtschule as responses to structural and educational inequality, it would not be unfair to say that both are enduring the same miserable fate.

The true cost

Neither the comprehensive nor the gesamtschule are able to thrive when rival systems co-exist alongside them that undermine the road to social cohesion. These rival systems are, in Germany’s case, the gymnasium, and independent fee-paying and grammar schools in the UK. These alternative school forms are not assets to any vision of a fully functioning, fully equipped state system – they are instead violent disruptions.

These elite institutions often claim to produce better results, keep standards high, offer more choice, and enable greater social mobility. This may be true in some cases – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – but it is still besides the point. Results should be secondary to this debate. These school structures are undeniably classist; and class is often, if not always, bound up with race and migration.

Also disconcerting is the amount of resources these elite institutions hoover up. Fee-paying independent schools are listed as charities with tax exemptions and with average fees of £13,600 (90 per cent higher than the amount allocated to state-school pupils) (Sibieta, 2021; see also SecEd, 2021).

And although the UK boasts high percentages for its public spending, these are misleading figures. When removing public-private transfers (over which there has been much controversy) the UK cuts below average in many cases. When combining this dubious public spending with the high regional inequalities that the UK generates (some of the highest among OECD countries) then a sombre picture is painted.

Germany is generally more equitable with its resources. But the gymnasien still get the lion’s share of the government’s funding. Germany’s largest state, Nordrhein-Westfalen, has only 358 gesamtschulen in comparison to 624 gymnasien, 393 realschulen and 197 hauptschulen. The distribution of capital is more equitable but the game is still rigged in favour of the Prussian model (Klemm, 2021).

The common argument that these elitist institutions give more back to society than they take does not stand up to scrutiny. Their existence comes at a great financial, material and ethical cost. Their educational success is not an ode to the school structures themselves; it is an ode to separation and selection, and it is a reiteration of the Matthew principle (the rich will get richer; the poor will get poorer).

Why things won’t change

The issue is the same in both cases, in order for either the comprehensive or the gesamtschule to be successful, their competing systems either need to fail or be abolished. But failure will not come easily because they wield too much power and capital, and they will not be abolished for the exact same reasons.

But although the road is not easy, it does seem clearer in Germany. The tripartite model is gradually moving to a bipartite model. The gesamtschule increasingly broadens its appeal. The last piece in the puzzle will be the abolition of the gymnasium.

The UK is much more complex. The creation of academies has led to an obfuscation of a true comprehensive vision. This obscuring of the idea of equitable schooling – academies offering “choice” – is a strategic front for privatising state education. We have private schools calling themselves public schools; we have private schools calling themselves grammar schools; and now we have partially state-funded businesses claiming to be state schools (Benn, 2011). Venture capital has entered our schools and seems here to stay.


In both countries, the prospect of an educational overhaul seems dim. The discourse is so polarised that it is often either more of the same (Germany) or majority governments enforcing their will (UK).

Ultimately, there needs to be a modern bi-partisan agreement which has some element of permanence. But to invoke former UK prime minister James Callaghan’s words from his 1976 Ruskin speech, before any cross-party agreement is possible we need an end to “those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are simply seeking to defend old privileges and inequalities”.

  • David Kazamias is head of English at a secondary school in Wedding, Berlin in Germany. For his previous SecEd articles, visit

Further information & research

  • Benn: School Wars: The battle for Britain’s education, Verso Books, 2011.
  • Klemm: Alle Jahre wieder: zur Konstanz sozialer Ungleichheit in und durch Deutschlands Schulen, DGB-Expertise, 2021.
  • Fedorkov: die Geschichte, Konzept und Probleme eines Schulmodells, 2007.
  • OECD: PISA 2018 Results:
  • OECD: Education at a Glance, September 2021:
  • SecEd: 'Sticks in the throat': Private schools spend at least £6,800 more per-pupil, October 2021:
  • Sibieta: The growing gap between state school and private school spending, IFS, October 2021:
  • West: A short history of comprehensive education in England, LSE Research Online, 2018.