Untracked or off-track? Inequality of educational opportunities and comprehensive schools in Germany


Social inequalities in educational attainment are an inherent feature of modern societies. However, the degree to which individual educational outcomes are affected by social origin varies across institutional contexts (Blossfeld and Shavit 1993; Erikson and Jonsson 1996; Breen et al. 2009). The comparably strong educational inequalities existing in Germany are often attributed to the rigid structure of its school system, where students are channeled early on into distinct school tracks that define the boundaries of their future educational pathways. In recent years, a number of reforms have introduced elements of flexibility in the German tracking system, with the purported aim of reducing inequality of educational opportunities. Notably, the rise of comprehensive schools as an alternative to the traditional school tracks could open up new educational chances for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we know remarkably little about who gets access to comprehensive schools and what the consequences of attending such schools for students’ educational achievement and attainment are.

The aim of the proposed project is to investigate whether, for whom, and under which contextual conditions comprehensive schools can increase educational opportunities. In particular, the project intends firstly to examine which individual and institutional factors affect students’ chances of access to comprehensive schools, and secondly whether attending a comprehensive school enhances students’ chances of competence development and secondary-school attainment. In both research stages, particular attention will be given to the heterogeneity of the effects across different records of school performance and social background. The contribution of the project would therefore be two-fold. On a substantive level, the project aims at understanding whether comprehensive schools can keep the promise of reducing the stark inequalities of opportunity existing in the German educational system. On a theoretical level, it aims at deepening our understanding of the processes through which on the one hand the social selectivity of comprehensive schools and on the other hand their influence on students’ achievement and attainment, take place. The project will focus on students who entered comprehensive schools in 2010/11 by analyzing data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS). Starting cohorts 3 and 4 will be matched in order to obtain an extended panel from 5th to 13th grade.