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Germany

Minister's Compulsory Kindergarten Year Proposal Draws Fire

German Family Affairs Minister Ursula Von der Leyen has stirred further debate by proposing that kindergarten attendance should be compulsory for every child in Germany for at least one year before school.

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The planned compulsory year hopes to improve language and social skills in children

Von der Leyen's proposed reform program for the improvement of family life in Germany is under fire again after she suggested that a compulsory kindergarten year would help the children of immigrant families improve their language, social skills and assimilate easier into German schools.

Germany's kindergartens are open to all children from the age of three to six with some providing care for even younger children. Attendance at a kindergarten is not compulsory at the moment but most German children spend at least two years in the system before starting school. The state provides the kindergartens and helps those families on social benefits to send their kids there while employed parents pay a fee in relation to how much they earn.

The problem, according to supporters of the compulsory year, is that mainly immigrant families decide against sending their children to kindergartens, relying on older children in the family and community to support and nurture the younger ones before they are of school age. The argument against this centers on the lack of language skills and cultural awareness that many children of immigrants face when attending a German school for the first time.

"I believe that it is very important for foreign children to go to kindergarten before they enroll in a school," Von der Leyen said in an interview in weekend tabloid Bild am Sonntag. "It improves linguistic knowledge and gives a grounding in group behavior."

Family affairs minister cut adrift by conservative colleagues

Ursula von der Leyen

Von der Leyen cannot rely on the support she expected

However, the Christian Union minister faces opposition to her proposal as the decision lies in the hands of the individual federal states. Despite Von der Leyen's assertion that "we are all united in the idea that all children should attend kindergarten," many ministers -- mostly from her own conservative party -- have voiced their opposition.

Fellow conservative Dieter Althaus, the state premier of Thuringia, rebuffed the idea. "We see no need for action," he told the Bild am Sonntag. "We have attendance of around 97 percent of children in the third year of kindergarten."

His counterpart in North Rhine-Westphalia Jürgen Rüttger agreed: "There is generally no need to introduce a compulsory kindergarten year." This view was also shared by Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Peter Harry Carstensen who said that the argument of a compulsory year was "not compelling at the moment" as 96 percent of all children visited a kindergarten for at least a year in his state.

Social Democrat Premier Harald Ringstorff said that the issue would not even be discussed in his state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

Negative responses also came from the ministers of Bavaria, Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Saxony.

State leaders see little need for compulsory year

Lese-Oma im Kindergarten

Most states boast a high percentage of attendance

Christian Wulff, the conservative prime minister in Lower Saxony, said that his state would be making it easier for children to attend kindergarten by abolishing parental responsibility for paying for the third year of kindergarten in an attempt to get the state's figures up to 100 percent but would not be introducing a compulsory year.

The only minister who came out in favor of the plan was Günther Oettinger, the conservative premier of Baden-Württemberg who said: "Compulsory kindergarten attendance in the last year before school enrolment makes sense. Thus we can make sure we can prepare all children in the last phase before school begins."

Christian values and childcare plans under fire

Von der Leyen has come under fire for a number of proposals of late including what many see as her "crusade" to promote Christian values in schools by involving the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches to participate in her "Alliance for Upbringing" initiative. The idea has angered Jewish and Muslim groups which say that the exclusion of other faiths in the development of guidelines on raising children is "hurtful."

Another proposal, to encourage fathers to take a more active role in childcare in a bid to make having children more attractive to working mothers, has also been criticized for being misplaced. Critics believe more should be done to boost the dramatically falling birth rate in Germany rather than setting up initiatives to provide for childcare.

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