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Education

German schools on sustainability, inclusion

The vice president of the German Commission for UNESCO sits down with DW to talk about the Education for All goals as well as where Germany's educational model has exceeded them or has yet to meet them.

Christoph Wulf is Vice President of the German Commission for UNESCO and spoke with DW about UNESCO's Millennium Development Goals and its Education for All program. As an anthropology and education professor at Berlin's Free University, he has insight into educational systems around the world and has seen where there are difficulties in implementing UNESCO's goals. In Germany, too, there is still much to do to meet the standards of the Education for All agenda.

DW: How are aspects of the human right to an education like equality and social justice anchored in UNESCO's Education for All agenda?

Christoph Wulf: The program is about introducing people to the worlds of writing, of culture and into society. The idea of educating everyone is a long-standing topic in European culture. It started with Comenius 400 years ago. Education was still tied up with the church at that point, but the fundamental thought behind it was that everyone should have a chance to learn all subjects. Today we have that in a more modern form. Education means preparing people for democracy and for the possibility of living in a democratic society. In this respect, learning to read, write and understand society are very important. Along the way, people learn to argue in different ways and develop different habits of thinking - all by learning how to read, write and speak. The biggest task is to create equal opportunity in the world. We cannot engineer equality, but we can improve people's opportunities.

Christoph Wulf headshot

Wulf is Vice President of the German Commission for UNESCO

Promoting basic literacy is one thing, but not everyone is treated equally around the world when it comes to access to educational - women, for example, in many poorer parts of the world.

The biggest educational problem relates to women and girls. But there has also been a lot of progress here. For example, in the Arab world - which was long problematic in this respect - there have been increased efforts to give girls equal or at least similar opportunities to boys.

That has also been an issue for a long time in Europe. Comenius supported education for everyone 400 years ago, but, with time, the focus shifted more and more to boys' education. Now we must really target women and girls' educational issues. That is such an important topic and such a major task that we never really reach the end of it.

Which of UNESCO's Education for All goals does Germany still need to work on? Which goals have we reached, and what do we still need to do?

A big topic today is being inclusive in education systems. That can mean integrating those with disabilities. The federal government supported UNESCO's 2009 convention on the topic, which was then ratified.

A student in a wheelchair sits in a classroom with other students

Wulf: Germany needs to work on inclusion of disabled students

In the European context, we have a very good and well-functioning special education system. But now we need to transfer those attributes over into a general school system. Children with physical or mental disabilities or even with behavioral problems need to be supported within the standard school system.

Offering support for each person - and offering the right kind of support - is also a human right, and the federal government still has much to do there. From Germany's UNESCO commission, we have formed an expert panel that can advise German states and help them in these areas.

Along with the problem of inclusion, we also have issues with providing equal opportunity to people of differing social status, which the most recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study showed.

Yes, we have a school system that emphasizes selectivity. There was a push to end that in the 1970s, but it did not work out so well. It is not so easy because a lot of groups have differing stances. Political groups play a role, and so do parents. Some of the more highly educated parents raise the objection that they do not want their children to be taught together with children who have been less successful in school. That creates tension. There is also the question about the job market that informs how people approach this question. But I think that there has been gradual progress. After all, I think it's safe to say that we're under pressure from the OECD and realize that our system is rather singular within Europe, which can have negative consequences.

You have worked in many places around the world. In which areas of education is Germany ahead of the pack?

Solar panels and a turbine in a green meadow

Sustainability plays a key role in German schools' curricula

On the one hand, we have the PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] research that shows Germany is not doing especially well. That drew a lot of political attention. So now we have a stronger orientation in our education system around goals like reading comprehension and mathematical skills as well as how well students do on tests. But that has also led to some disadvantages in that things that used to be very central but cannot easily be tested have now been pushed to the fringes of education, even though we still see them as very important. Let's take the question of political education, for instance, or of teaching social values and behavior. Those areas are more difficult to research when compared with more cognitive tasks.

Perhaps another important area where a lot is happening and where there's still a lot to come is that of education on sustainability issues - that is, on questions like: How should we use and work with natural resources? What kind of social justice should there be among generations? Do we have the right to be wasteful with the world's resources, or do we have an obligation to think about generations to come? There's a lot going on in that respect.

Germany's Commission for UNESCO has made sustainability one of its central topics in education. That subject includes criticism of the traditional consumerist mindset, and it is also about the search for new technologies and new forms of relating to the natural world. We have achieved a lot in this area and currently have well over 1,000 projects running. Many of these projects have won recognition because we want to show that this topic is important for us. I think that we are among the leaders in Europe when it comes to promoting these ideas and perspectives.

Interview: Gaby Reucher / gsw
Editor: Sean Sinico

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