Beating Them at Their Own Game:
The democratic school of Kapriole in Freiburg is one of about 100 free alternative schools in Germany, most of which are members of the Bundesverband der Freien Alternativschulen. An independent school with fees of 180 euros a month, it started in 1997 with six-year-olds and increased its age-range as they grew older. There are now 114 pupils between the ages of 6 and 16. Pupils of all ages are allowed to spend their days exactly as they see fit, playing, talking, working independently or taking part in activities and classes planned by adults.
The Kapriole does not believe in exams and tests but Freiburg is in Baden Württemberg, one of the most conservative states in Germany, and Baden Württemberg demands academic qualifications. The Kapriole has only managed to get permission to run its unusual curriculum as long as it leads in the end to the normal state examinations.
By 2006 a few of the first students were old enough to take the state examination. Six could have taken them, and three decided to do so; the others did not decide against them because of a lack of knowledge but because a lack of conviction. For the three candidates this meant a new way of working.
In Baden Württemberg the first state exam is taken at the age of fifteen, the next at sixteen and the last, the Abitur, at 18. Candidates at the first level have to do written exams in English, Maths and German and one oral presentation on a topic of their choice. The presentation has to be 30 minutes long, and is followed by questions from a panel of three examiners. Grades range from 1 to 6, with decimal subdivisions; 1 is the best and 6 the worst. Candidates who manage to have an average of 2.4 are allowed to take the second exam a year later, again English, Maths and German on a slightly higher level and this time including a presentation in English. Those with an average of 2.5 are allowed to take the Abitur after another two years.
In this first year two of the Kapriole's three candidates had been at the school for their entire education. Calle had played soccer all day for his first four years at school and for the next three years half of his time had been taken up with outdoor activities. Two years ago he had decided there was much he wanted to learn, as he had become strongly interested in politics. With the help of computers, staff and other pupils he started developing into an expert in a wide field of history and political systems, and became keen on learning languages (English and Italian).
Katta, too, enjoyed her time doing what she was interested in and was especially engaged in the social life of the school; she was an active member of committees, helping to run the school and always finding new ways of doing things. She was clear about wanting to take exams but was not always a steady worker. She definitely did not do her utmost for the official exams.
Jaska had been at a state school and had at first had a lot of difficulties in learning to take responsibility for herself. She had been used to consuming prepared lessons by teachers at the state school and had to adapt to a different style. However, by the time of the exam she had been working steadily for one year.
For the year preceding the exam the school offered a preparation class, which was attended by younger children as well as the actual candidates. They did maths regularly once a week for two hours and studied for the German and English exams just by working through previous papers. At first there was also practice once a week in the technique necessary for the oral presentation, but this soon became boring, and was dropped. It became obvious that even pupils who would not be taking the exams for another two years could cope easily.
The first part of the exam involved a teacher from a state school coming to the Kapriole to assess the presentations. The candidates were allowed to prepare for this exam for four mornings running, from Monday to Thursday, confined to one room with reference books and computers, under the permanent supervision of the examiner who watched them and took notes of their progress.
Two of the Kapriole staff were civil servants, and therefore had to be accepted as members of the panel, which meant that for the oral part of the exam there was only the one outside examiner.
Calle's presentation was about the United States political system, with all its advantages and disadvantages. At one point he actually corrected the outside examiner who knew less about the topic than he did, and his result was 1.0 , the highest you can get. The examiner said that that was the standard required for the Abitur.
Jaska talked about dangers, security and injuries in rock climbing and she ended with a 1.4 and Katta talked about fashion from the 1950s to the 1970s. They all made good impressions because they spoke absolutely freely without reciting anything they had prepared word for word, and after the first few minutes of tension conversed with the examiners unselfconsciously and naturally.
They took the written exams alongside the other candidates in a neighbouring state school. In English they scored 1.1, 1.2 and 1.8, and the results were similar in Maths and German. In the school where they took the exams they were the three top candidates.
Jaska, the Kapriole candidate who did least well, had only been in the school for three years. The Kapriole staff drew the conclusion that those who have been with them from the beginning of their schooling express themselves clearly both orally and in writing, whereas someone who has first spent some years in a traditional school may have difficulties. The strain and pressure of exams may have reminded Jaska of earlier bad experiences, so that her old anxieties reappeared.
It is of course not just the relative success of the three examination candidates that has led to this conclusion, but it has confirmed opinions that already existed. Because it seems to be difficult for older newcomers to make good use of the atmosphere of trust and freedom, the school now intends to avoid accepting new students who are older than ten. This is likely to be possible, because every place at the Kapriole is now taken, from the first year onwards.
It has always been obvious that children at the Kapriole have been self-confident, busy and happy. They have now proved, in the most conventional way of all, that they can also be successful.
More information about Kapriole can be found at www.kapriole-freiburg.de