The learning society: Schools in Germany


Two decades ago Germany lived through a shellshock. The world famous PISA study classed the country’s schools as merely average, while Finland took the pole position. This was an attack on a cornerstone of German self confidence: Formal qualification, proper diplomas, solid knowledge, hands-on experience, all documented relentlessly.

Many innovative ideas and great thinkers of education came from Germany, the US school system took its initial inspiration from the concepts of the kingdom of Prussia in the 18th century, and even the praised schools of Finland relied heavily on German experiences. It was, however, the educational system of the Eastern German Democratic Republic that served as a model for the Finnish concept. A system that Germany radically abandoned with the reunification, leaving only the West German concepts, which now suddenly appeared underperforming.

The PISA results were not the same in all parts of Germany. Education, like police or the tax office, are governed by the 16 German states. Federal interference is limited, although the education ministers of the states meet regularly to discuss policies and align concepts. The differences are quite essential, from teacher's education to the organisation of important exams. Generalisations are, as always, risky – but in the big picture the South of Germany, with states like Bavaria, relies more on old-fashioned, strongly guided knowledge transfer, while Northern states like North-Rhine Westphalia tend to experiment more with more modern ideas.

It's in those states that traditional structures of German education are being shaken up. Not always successful, sadly, because all too often poorly thought-through and nearly always underfunded. Money is a huge issue in German education. It might go against general perceptions of Germany as a wealthy, tidy and well-organized country, but decades of austerity have drained schools of resources. A lack of teachers, constant cuts to equipment and infrastructure and growing quality demands have taken their toll. The severity of these issues depends on the wealth of the state and the local authorities that oversee education. Lack of funding, however, is very likely the main driver of bad PISA results.

Segregated education: The three-tier school system

One of the traditional issues that are under scrutiny is the three-tier school system, segregating pupils at the end of year 4 of primary school. It’s the task of the primary school teacher, who spends the first four years of school with their class, to suggest moving forward to either Hauptschule (a secondary school that qualifies for further vocational education after it ends in year 10), Realschule (a secondary school that is supposed to qualify for work in administration and trade) or Gymnasium (where by means of an Abitur exam after year 12 the pupils can earn their access to university and higher education).

There are plenty of mixed-type schools and also possibilities to move from one secondary school to another, but the general sorting of kids at a very young age has caused problems and unfair conditions – especially with modern society demanding more versatility and mobility of workers in all fields.

Germany has a proud tradition of vocational education, making universities not always the best choice as a career start. Skilled crafts and trades are highly regulated and organized, with thorough three-year education for most career fields, even those that would not require formal education in the UK. This strict approach creates quality, reliability and stability on the one hand – but also privilege and a strong focus on the status quo. It’s hard to change a career path, once chosen. Lack of flexibility has always been a trait of the German economy.

A clear sign of this is the teacher’s education. Highly formalized, it sorts teachers in categories as well. Rather well earning in the higher education of the Gymnasium, teachers are paid rather poorly in primary schools and nurseries. Many argue that this puts the priorities upside down, with early years education being the most important for the future of children.

Most teachers in all levels of school are officially civil servants – Beamte, a privileged status of government employee featuring lifelong tenure with next to no risk of being sacked, but bound by an oath to the state or federal government and very limited in their personal mobility. They share this status with police officers and government officials. Payment is standardized, career paths as well, which does not always work in favour of innovation and creativity. Status Quo and a certain level of complacency are common side effects.

Change is happening, though. German schools are now allowed to employ experts without the status of Beamter, opening the education system for experts with more practical background. Sadly, this also means that many of the most eager and innovative teachers are paid less and have less secure contracts than their less active counterparts.

Uniforms, by the way, are not common in Germany. Neither is school food. Although there is a growing number of schools that have afternoon offers, in most cases the school day ends at latest 13.30, letting the children go home for lunch and a more or less free afternoon. For parents, this can be a challenge. School times don’t correspond with the work times of adults, making it difficult to have families with two earners. For me, that meant going home to an empty house with my own key until my mom came home from work after 5pm – and eating lunch at the house of friends.

Despite all these shortcomings of a very complex educational system, Germany manages to deliver good education for all of its citizens absolutely free of charge, even in university and still the basis for the quality of products “made in Germany”.

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