A Berlin school that hit the headlines earlier this year for banning Turkish and other languages and making students speak only German on its premises has been awarded a national prize.
Pupils from immigrant families are required to work and speak in German only
The German National Prize was awarded to the Herbert Hoover secondary school in the immigrant-dominated district of Wedding in Berlin on Tuesday. The 75,000 euro ($94,000) prize was awarded by the National German Foundation, which has as its aims the promotion of a discussion on the pressing questions facing Germany today and in the future.
Richard Schröder, head of the foundation, said in a radio interview that the voluntary agreement by parents, teachers and the 370 students of the school was an important step towards securing a positive future and way of life for the students, 90 percent of whom have a mother tongue other than German.
The ban on languages such as Turkish, Arabic, Urdu and others had unleashed a heated public debate about foreigner integration in German society with some politicians arguing the move was counterproductive and discriminatory toward foreigners.
School authorities, however, claim their students' command of German has improved markedly over the past few months.
Until about six months ago, the schoolyard of Herbert Hoover School had distinctively Babel-like characteristics, with many students choosing to communicate in their native tongues. Ninety percent of the school's students have immigrant parents. Turks make up the majority, followed by smaller groups of Arabs, Croats, Russians and Pakistanis.
Since September of last year, however, they were not allowed to use their native languages at school after the establishment of a new rule in the school's code of conduct, which was agreed upon by parents' representatives and school authorities. School director Jutta Steinkamp said her pupils' command of German improved substantially.
Teachers say that the emphasis on German helps kids integrate.
"We have introduced this ban to enable our students to take part in German society through speaking and understanding the language properly," Steinkamp said. "Knowing the language is a precondition for successful integration and we've been making much progress in the past few months with regard to our students' language skills."
But some politicians wanted the school's ban on languages other than German to itself be banned. Members of the Left Party and the environmentalist Greens accused Berlin's school authorities of discriminating against immigrants.
"I think this is an inappropriate means because it says that foreign languages are not welcome at this school," said Özcan Mutlu, of Turkish origin himself and the Green's spokesman for education.
"It's unbelievable that parents who are aiming to register their children at this school have to sign papers that basically ban their children from speaking their own language. The goal behind all this may be correct but the way towards achieving it isn’t."
School admissions up
Some students believe the ban is good for their future prospects.
The Herbert Hoover School has seen the number of applications rise by 20 percent in recent months, and it enjoys nationwide support from teachers' associations. Some students believe the ban may be good for their future.
"I find this quite all right," said one student, born of Turkish immigrants, "because in later life we'll need German much more than Turkish. If you want to learn a profession and earn a living, knowing German is absolutely necessary."
In spite of the criticism, school authorities all over Germany are now thinking of adopting the school's model. They hope it might help fight rising unemployment and poverty among Turks and other immigrant groups.
According to a recent survey, the risk of immigrant pupils leaving school without a diploma is three times higher than for native German pupils. The prime reason, the report says: a lack of basic language skills.