A desperate S.O.S. from the teachers and staff of an unruly Berlin school set the ball rolling: they wanted the school closed before things got fully out of control. Today there’s a police picket inside the school. The matter did not rest there but was discussed in parliament, polemised and politicized, and now the government has announced plans of holding a major ‘integration summit’ before the summer break.
Police in front of the Rütli school in Berlin
The Rütli secondary school is in an area of Berlin called Neukölln., whose residents are mostly of Turkish or Arabic origin. In other words, it is a typical German Hauptschule or secondary school in a typical Ausländerviertel or foreigner-infested area. The problems of the Rütli school are increasing violence, total lack of discipline and general student apathy. 80 percent of the Rütli pupils do not speak German at home. The pupils themselves are under no illusions regarding their future chances of getting a traineeship, let alone a job, even if they do choose to complete their graduation from such a school – constituting the third and lowest tier of Germany’s three-tiered school system. Children of foreigners with low proficiency in German – parents as well as children – none or little academic encouragement and support at home, confronted with an exemplary democratic system lenient to a degree to juvenile offenders, and ultimately with no hopes for the future: it is a wonder that the other fifty ‘Rütli’-‘s in Berlin, not to speak of the 1,000 Rütli’s spread all over the country, have not imploded or exploded before – in the sense of becoming an issue.
The first among these is that Germany is not a ‘land of immigration’. There are 14 million people ‘with an immigrant background’ living in Germany today. Half of them already have German nationality. Another quarter have permanent stay permits or the legal right to get one.
This situation did not arise in a day. First there were the Gastarbeiter or guest workers in the 50s and the 60s, who in effect made the German ‘economic miracle’ possible. Since then millions have followed: spouse, children or relatives of the guest workers in terms of the liberal German Familienzusammenführunggesetz or laws to facilitate the union of separated family members; Spätaussiedler or late settlers from the Communist East who are persons of German origin, in effect; lastly, there are the latter-day asylum-seekers from various Asian and African countries. Labour migration within the EU – especially from the East to the West - has already become an issue, long before it has a chance of becoming a problem. Otherwise, from Ukraine to the Balkans, Germany remains an attractive destination – unfortunately also for criminals.
German politics and politicians famously neglected this ongoing process for decades – until 9/11, when Germany seemed to wake up together with the rest of the Western world. After all, discussing the issues of terrorism, Islam and the ‘battle of civilizations’ was a convenient way of forgetting nagging problems nearer at hand and nearer at home.
Under a burning glass
It’s not as if each of Germany’s immigrant groups did not receive their share of media attention – especially in the yellow press – mainly according to the election schedule and the demands of political expediency. What the Rütli incident did was to bring the whole thing into focus – as if under a burning glass – but that is something in the very nature of a German Hauptschule or secondary school.
If the 2000 OECD PISA or Program for International student Assessment study revealed that German pupils were bad to middling, the latest PISA study (2006) has accused the German education system of inequality, especially with regard to the children of immigrants and manual workers. Such children, mostly non-German by origin but also their German counterparts – together with the so-called ‘Russians’ – tend to gravitate, or some say are sifted out far too early, to the Hauptschule, which is considered to be the last resort for under-achievers, even lower than the other form of secondary schools in Germany, the Realschule.
Bickering goes on
And yet the bickering goes on, both as regards the problem and its solution. Last weekend the Bavarian chief minister Edmund Stoiber (CSU) thundered that the stay permits of those foreigners who ‘declined integration’ may not be renewed, there might even be fines or cuts in social benefits. In any case, Bavaria intends to test children’s knowledge of German before admitting them to a primary school – and more to the effect.
Meanwhile, Justice Minster Brigitte Zypries (SPD) and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) have been at loggerheads – within the coalition government – on the issue of ‘integration’. As Zypries put it: she can’t be expected to make a statutory offence of ‘non-integration’!
At least all Germans – politicians as well as the general public – seem to agree on one point: the only possible remedy for the whole problem is the German language itself. The children of foreigners have to learn German and all will be well.
The viewpoint is again a bit naïve, but it’s not as if the Germans have not done a fair amount for ‘integration’ on that score. To give but two examples, the state of Hessen arranged for 70,000 school students to attend 6,200 special German language courses in 2004-5 alone. It is providing 965 new teachers and 40 million euros for the same purpose this year.
The Bundesagentur für Arbeit or Federal Employment Agency has also been complaining about the costs of finding viable employment for Hauptschule and Realschule graduates. It spends more than 6 billion euros every year just to provide special coaching to this particular class of clientele – which could mean spending 120,000 euro in one year for the special training of a single youth – unemployable, in the end.
Facts of life
Two facts remain: the Germans are living longer and are having fewer children. In a certain sense, these ‘foreign’ children represent their future (pensions, if nothing else).
Secondly, ‘integration’ can and must begin with a reform of the school system.
The same paradox awaits Europe as a whole: Europe has more immigrants than any other continent on earth, 64 million, to be exact. And yet Europe’s population will be down by another 50 million by 2050. So is immigration a peril or a promise?
And there’s globalization knocking at the door!