Cleavages and Coalitions. Comprehensive School Reforms in Norway and North Rhine-Westphalia/Germany (1954-1979)
Not peer reviewed
MetadataShow full item record
This study examines comprehensive school reforms in Norway and the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in the period from around 1954 to 1979 from a comparative-historical perspective. In both cases, great educational expansions took place during this period. However, in Norway, the expansion was connected to a prolongation of comprehensive schooling from seven to nine years and to the abolition of grading in lower secondary schooling, while in Germany multi-tiered parallel schooling from grade five persisted despite attempts at reform. The study examines potential reasons for this difference in historical outcomes. In doing so, it sheds light not only on the dynamics of school politics, but also contributes to the general understanding of the different cleavage structures and balances of power of the two societies.
The results and arguments of the study can be summarized in three steps. Firstly, it places the post-war reforms of primary and lower secondary schooling in the context of the long-term institutional development of the two countries’ school systems. It explores the history of comprehensive and other structural reforms, as well as the history of school political debates about state-church conflicts, centralization, language or women’s access to education. It is shown that the Norwegian trend towards comprehensivization dates back well into the 19th century, as does the German trend towards hierarchical differentiation of school types. This indicates that feedback effects of previous reforms play a role in both cases. At the same time, there are also great similarities between the two cases. In both Norway and Prussia/Rhineland-Westphalia, recurring debates led to reform phases of educational expansion, during which liberal and later social democratic reformers propagated comprehensive schooling, while many conservatives – especially in Germany, and less militantly also in Norway – opposed it. The post-war reform phase shaped the school system significantly in both cases and left important legacies, so it can be considered a particularly relevant critical juncture. Furthermore, in the second half of the 1970s there was a political trend reversal in both cases, forcing social democratic governments to relinquish their most far-reaching reform ideas. Despite a certain amount of path dependence, the development was open to the extent that more similar school political compromises could have come about if actors had made different choices.
Secondly, the thesis offers a detailed, comparative analysis of the material power resources and of the ideology and degree of ideological unity of the protagonists, consenters and antagonists of comprehensive school reforms. It is shown that the distribution of material power resources is relevant, for example in the sense that reform protagonists in Norway were somewhat stronger with regard to their membership numbers, election results and organizational unity. However, it also becomes clear that material power resources and interests are not the whole story. Ideology must be considered as an important additional factor. The analysis shows that actors were divided ideologically along a left/right-axis in both cases, indicating that conflicts over comprehensive schooling are an expression of the class cleavage. There are similarities between the ideologies of the major collective actors; for example, the main argument of reform protagonists was in both cases their quest for social equality and justice, while reform antagonists valued academic standards, selection based on competitive achievement and parental rights. At the same time, the arguments, which became hegemonic in the two cases, differ greatly. In Norway, the idea that parallel schooling, tracking and ability grouping contribute to an unacceptable reproduction of inequality became hegemonic. Teaching all students in the same classes, independent of their background and abilities, was also justified with the need to create a spirit of cooperation and to foster joy in learning. Even some representatives of the Norwegian Conservative Party consented to this kind of thinking and the party remained split over school politics, at least until the 1970s. In Germany, on the other hand, the hegemonic ideological argument was that learning is facilitated by supposedly homogenous ability groups and that students should therefore be divided into school types which are in accordance with their biological endowments. In particular, the legitimacy of the Gymnasium as the school type of high-achievers and future elites remained high. Several leading social democrats in NRW were influenced by this thinking and did not support comprehensive school reforms wholeheartedly, so the German Social Democratic Party was split on the issue.
Finally, the thesis emphasizes the importance of the unequal cleavage structures of Norway and NRW/Germany for the different cross-class coalitions, which came about in school politics. It spells out how the rural-urban cleavage, the center-periphery cleavage, the statechurch cleavage, the communist-socialist cleavage and the gender cleavage came to expression in school political debates in the two cases and how these affected the outcomes of attempts at comprehensive school reform. In the Norwegian case, the rural-urban and centerperiphery cleavages manifested themselves in emotional debates about centralization, Christian education and language. The state-church cleavage also played a role in debates about Christian private schooling and about the Christian preamble of the school law. The gender cleavage came to expression for example in debates about coeducation and equal curricula for boys and girls. Overall, the Labor Party mostly succeeded in handling these cleavages in a way which at least did not sabotage and sometimes even strengthened its comprehensive school reforms. In particular, it formed an alliance with the rural population, with the primary school teachers and with the women’s movement. However, potential alliances between the political center and the Conservative Party were weakened by disagreements over these issues.
In the case of NRW, on the other hand, the state-church cleavage was a major obstacle for the social democrats and their liberal allies. The Catholic rural population was integrated in a broad cross-class coalition under the umbrella of the Christian Democratic Union, for example over issues such as denominational schooling, Catholic private schooling and the centralization of “dwarf schools” so a potential reform alliance with the social democrats was out of the question. The state-church cleavage also split the teachers’ organizations and the women’s movement. Primary and lower secondary school teachers were split into social democratic and Christian currents, which made it easier for Gymnasium teachers to dominate politically. Catholic women’s and teachers’ organizations played an important role in Catholic private schooling for girls and stood in opposition to liberal and leftwing parts of the women’s movement with regard to topics such as coeducation, equal curricula for the sexes and comprehensive schooling. The gender cleavage therefore did not weaken the internal unity of the Christian democrats and their allies. Finally, the communist-socialist cleavage played an important role in NRW. Antagonists employed anti-communist arguments against comprehensive schooling regularly. The prevalence of anti-communism deepened the internal splits of the social democrats and the teachers’ organizations and thus weakened them considerably.