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Education for all

Germany: The struggle for educational equality

Politicians were rattled by Germany's low ranking in an international comparative study of education 10 years ago. Despite reform efforts aimed at promoting equal opportunity, many children remain left out by the system.

Manfred Prenzel is an educational researcher and consultant to the government - which means he is usually the bearer of bad news. In early March, he announced to politicians that Germany has a big problem with equality.

"Depending on where pupils live in Germany, they enjoy widely divergent levels of educational support. Their achievement levels, when measured for each birth year, vary by up to one and a half years of schooling," Prenzel said.

In other words, it can turn into a significant disadvantage for a young person who grows up in states like Bremen or Schleswig-Holstein and not in Bavaria or Saxony, where educational achievement is higher. Policies relating to schools are left largely to the state politicians, and education often comes down to their own drive and finances. That creates something like a caste system in which a diploma from Baden-Württemberg is worth more than one from Berlin.

A family's social standing and the school they select are also important factors in the child's education. The Bertelsmann Foundation recently published a study clearly demonstrating that children from families with little education, an immigrant background or in difficult neighborhoods often do worse in school compared with middle-class students from educated families.

The report is disheartening and almost scandalous given that it shows how little has changed since the beginning of a reform process one decade ago aimed at addressing exactly these problems.

A scene in Karlsruhe's Europa School

Schools are trying new approaches that aim to integrate students better into lessons

PISA shock

Many used to think of the German school system as very strong. The teacher-focused approach and early tracking of students into academic and vocational paths were seldom called into question. Then came the first edition of the PISA study in 2001, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It came as a shock, showing alarmingly bad marks for German schools.

In every subject - reading, mathematics and natural science - the 15-year-old students tested in Germany were below the average of leading industrial nations.

One point drew particular concern: In no other country did social class have such an influence on school success as in Germany. And in no other country did children from immigrant families show such poor academic achievement. Educational equality seemed to be a disaster.

Reforms have been introduced across the country since then. The shape they have taken varies from state to state, but the goals of sending more young people to university and leveling out the educational playing field are shared. Education is now an issue even before kids start school. Kids are enrolled in the system at five years of age, and despite initial resistance, some of the country's first all-day schools have been introduced.

The teaching style is trending toward an interdisciplinary approach and project-oriented tasks as well as toward a greater focus on individual pupils. Many young students are now tracked into the academic or vocational systems later than in the fourth grade, which used to be the case.

Some progress has been made. Fifteen-year-olds now score near the average in the OECD's tests, and they are well above the average in mathematics and natural sciences. The number of university-eligible students has also risen. But educational equality remains far off.

A classroom in Germany

Students from immigrant families continue to face particular difficulties in Germany

Educational jungle

Some things have not changed. Qualified personnel is still lacking, as are the necessary finances. And competition still rules the German way of thinking about education. Just as states compete with each other for educational success, so do districts, towns and municipalities. That leads to a system in which educational institutions strive not to resemble one another, but to set themselves apart.

Some schools put music and art in the foreground others technology and science. One institution might offer extra German language training for children from immigrant families, while another focuses on offering Russian or Chinese. And sometimes it's just about creating a feeling of security at school - in contrast to what many pupils face when they leave.

Those with the resources to get an overview of the system can find the optimal place for their children, but those who don't are often left with the short end of the stick.

Author: Silke Bartlick / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

Silke Bartlick is a correspondent in DW's Berlin studio and has worked for years on topics relating to educational and cultural policy.

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