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German schools see rise in violence

May 4, 2024

Frustrated students and teachers are forced to put up with dilapidated buildings and increasing violence in schools, putting a strain on Germany's education system.

two boys fighting in a schoolyard, two teenagers are trying to separate them
German schools have seen a rise in violence in recent yearsImage: imagebroker/IMAGO

Germany's schools have had a lot of bad news in recent months. 

In December, the PISA education ranking showed German pupils falling behind in mathematics and reading. The 2024 Youth Study showed a digitalization deficit in schools, with students saying they don't feel prepared to find a job and manage the challenges of real life.

And a survey conducted in April, known as the Schulbarometer (school barometer), had one in two teachers reporting that they had witnessed psychological or physical violence from pupils.

"We're seeing a snapshot of a sick system," said Dagmar Wolf, a former teacher and head of education research at the Robert Bosch Foundation, which contacted more than 1,600 teachers for the survey. "We're talking about bullying, we're talking about vandalism, but also about physical altercations, some of which of course go beyond the schoolyard," she told DW.

"We have even received reports of parents getting involved. It's more of an exception, but it's not as if it doesn't happen."

Violence in elementary school

The Berlin education minister recently had to send a letter to 800 schools warning them that a false report was going viral on TikTok, urging participation in a "National Rape Day."

Geopolitical crises and wars are also having an impact. According to Wolf, school administrators have seen violence among students linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

This isn't only a problem in secondary schools. Even elementary schools, with students aged 6 to 10, have seen an increase in reports of bullying and scuffles.

two girls using their smarphones during anti-cyberbullying training
Smartphones and social media have changed the way children communicateImage: SZ Photo/picture-alliance

Wolf said Germany is a divided country when it comes to education. The 3,000 top-tier secondary schools do not face the same problems as the schools mainly attended by children and young people with migrant roots or from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Integrating refugees has become a Herculean task for all schools in Germany. "In the past two years, we have integrated more than 200,000 children fleeing Russia's war in Ukraine into our education system. And at least as many from other countries where there is either great economic hardship or where there is war or civil war. Of course, that makes the situation even in elementary schools much more difficult than it was 10 years ago," said Wolf.

Smartphones, COVID-19 caused dramatic change

Torsten Müller (who did not wish to share his real name) is a social worker at a comprehensive school in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He said the situation has changed dramatically over the past few years, and blamed smartphones and social media use for the increase in stress, exhaustion, self-doubt and listlessness.

"This has changed communication," he said. "Young people talk more about each other than to each other, and misunderstandings arise. And then we are still dealing with the after-effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought a significant increase in mental illness."

The months-long closure of schools is sometimes considered the biggest mistake made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. German pupils had to stay at home for more than 180 days, far longer than in many European countries.

Young people suffer in the pandemic

Müller also said many young people today tend to resort to violence instead of just arguing. The school that Müller works at has introduced de-escalation training to curb the problem.

"We show students how arguments arise in the first place and what they can do as a group or as an individual to avoid getting into this situation," he said. "We show how bullying works, and find that every second or third pupil has experienced this firsthand. We then use exercises to develop a joint strategy to combat it."

More psychologists, social workers needed

Smaller classes, more teachers, a good support system with social workers and psychologists — that's what Müller proposes in order to get Germany's schools back on track.

But Stefan Düll, the president of the German Teachers' Association, has called for even more. "We need lots of people who can teach German," he said. "In addition to psychologists, administrative assistants and youth workers. But we can no longer recruit so easily. The need is getting greater and greater, but the workforce is shrinking. The whole system can no longer function like this."

That has caused growing frustration among teachers, who are increasingly finding themselves mediating conflicts instead of teaching. According to the "school barometer" survey, one in three teachers often feels emotionally exhausted, and 27% said they have thought about quitting. They all said their biggest challenge is students' behavior.

The head of a secondary school in Bavaria told DW that he advocates a zero-tolerance policy. "At a certain point we enter the realm of criminal law," he said. "We need to report to the police also as a bit of a deterrent. In the case of cyberbullying, too, many school principals hand the cases over to the police."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.