German Education Failures Linked to Social Background | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.11.2005
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German Education Failures Linked to Social Background

The latest PISA educational study results released in Germany Thursday, confirmed what had already been suspected for long: the success of children at school is closely linked to their social status.


The latest PISA study has again uncovered major deficits

The most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) study indicates that children from more affluent backgrounds have between four and six times as much chance of passing their final school exams and making it to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

The results have sparked shock and embarrassment among German officials across the political spectrum as it once again showed that the connection between social origin and educational competence is still too high.

Edelgard Bulmahn, current minister of education and her designated successor Annette Schavan both demanded that steps should be taken to ensure that school success no longer hinges on social standing.

“The chances of getting a good high school education are as much as six times higher for children from economically sound backgrounds than those from families in poorer social standings,” Bulmahn criticized.

Schavan echoed the incumbent education minister’s opinion. “We take a very dim view of the connection between social origin and achievement at school. It is something that must be addressed,” she said in an interview with German broadcaster N-TV.

Claudia Roth, leader of the Green party, called the latest PISA study another “slap in the face" for the German education system while outgoing Social Democrat chief Franz Müntefering admitted: “The state of education in Germany is not good.”

Poor migrant children particulary affected

Ganztagsschule in Berlin p178

Children from poor families face an uphill struggle for a good education.

While German politicians bemoan the state of affairs, the country's president Horst Köhler this week assessed the situation first hand by paying a visit to a school in Cologne.

One the most damaging conclusions of the latest study is that children from migrant backgrounds are particularly likely to underperform and also fail to integrate properly in society if their parents come from a lower social class and fail to support them adequately.

"It's shameful for me that Germany -- despite knowing that education for us is the key for our children getting jobs and a good future -- has such big problems in certain areas of its education system," Köhler said.

But, at the same time there are efforts underway to buck the trend and break the vicious cyle of poorer social and economic backgrounds leading to poorer school performance.

The Tiefentalstrasse School in the Cologne suburb of Mülheim, which Köhler visited, attempts to give migrant children an equal chance. Around one third of the areas inhabitants are foreigners, half of which are Turkish. Only about half of the 270 children who attend the school have German parents.

Mixed culture school addressing the problems

Ausländer in Kreuzberg

Mixed culture schools have the added problem of the language barrier.

Principal Ursula Stumpf believes that integration helps the children settle at school and feel comfortable to learn regardless of their economic background. She has found that a good grasp of the German language is the first step to making children of migrants feel better about themselves and make them ready to learn.

"In many families the mother tongue is spoken. This is okay. However, the medium of instruction at school is German. And if the children do not understand what the teacher or their class-mates say, I can imagine that they can get angry because they really want to understand everything."

Sponsored language courses bridging the divide

The language barrier is something the school is hoping to breach through with extra-curricular language classes. Many parents themselves have a basic grasp of German or little education themselves and therefore cannot help their children at home. And as many come from deprived backgrounds, the school is offering the classes for free after securing financial support from sponsors such as Mercator, the European network for regional or minority languages and education.


Children at the Cologne school are enthusiastic language learners.

"The children want to be integrated into normal school life,” said language teacher Lina Wienold. “This is because they want to speak like the German children and so the motivation is high.”

Mercator chairperson Annabel von Klenck said: "This project is a big success. Nobody has talked about federalism, nobody has talked about policy. Nobody has talked a lot about money. Enough sponsors have been found. This functions fantastically."

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