German study finds link between social background, educational success | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.03.2012
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German study finds link between social background, educational success

Poor children have little chance of an academic career, according to the results of a new study from the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The think tank looked at the link between social background and education in German schools.

The children of teachers, doctors and researchers are much more likely to pursue an academic career than children from so-called "educationally disadvantaged" backgrounds, where reading, musical study or museum visits aren't part of family life.

And in the German states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, children of academic families are six times more likely to finish high school than children from a lower social class; in Berlin, Hamburg, Hesse and Saxony, this figure drops to 2.5 percent. These results are found in the latest report from the German think tank Bertelsmann-Stiftung and the Institute for Research in Education Development in Dortmund.

Education researcher Wolff-Dietrich Webler, a professor at Norway's University of Bergen, says these differences can be attributed to the fact that the German education system is tied to social class. Webler, who has also studied the issue, says children from educated middle-class families tend to encounter material in school that is already familiar to them from exposure at home.

"Children from other [lower] social classes are much less likely to find their values and way of life represented at school," said Webler, speaking with DW.

A set of common criteria

Webler says the Bertelsmann study was able to compare the school systems in the different states, because in the end, "they should [all] provide the same thing."

"They must encourage children and help prepare them for society and the job market," he said.

A student in a wheelchair sits with other students

The study found that progress had been made in including all students

The study used four criteria to determine the educational equality of German schools: integration capacity, educational mobility, skills development and the completion rate of secondary education.

Integration capacity measures the ability of the school system to include pupils with physical or mental disabilities in regular classroom lessons. Joint study between children with and without learning disabilities, known as inclusion, is said to keep education pathways open and improves a pupil's chance of obtaining a higher level of completion in the school system. The study noted that while progress in this area had been made in western Germany, the east was still lagging behind.

Educational mobility was a central issue by which the German school system was tested in the study. In Germany, secondary education is split into streams which prepare students for different futures, including university education or vocational training.

The study looked at the relative ease or difficultly for students to switch to a higher level of schooling, or, in the opposite case, how fast a student could be re-categorized into a lower level of schooling if his or her academic performance didn't meet expectations.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the difference is particularly striking: for every student who manages to move up to a higher level, more than eight are headed in the opposite direction. On a national level, this comes out to one student moving up versus more than four moving down. Overall, the study found that the German school system is much more likely to see students move down to a lower level of education than go in the opposite direction.

Schools must motivate, engage children: Webler

Regional differences were also evident in reading skills, which were found to be linked to social origin. The study found that it is much more difficult for socially disadvantaged students in Bremen to read and understand a complex text than for students of the same peer group in Brandenburg.

And while schools in the northern city state of Hamburg scored above average in terms of educational mobility and the completion rate of secondary education, when it came to skills development it ranked below average.

There were also differences between the states when it came to the completion of secondary education. While in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) 54 percent of students go on to higher education, that number is only at 46 percent on a nationwide level. In NRW, 6.5 percent of students don't finish school and 2.5 percent must repeat one or more grades; across Germany, those figures are at 7 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

The spines of a number of old books

Webler says schools must do more to engage students

Even the number of students who choose to drop out varies greatly from region to region. Of the roughly 60,000 students who leave school without a diploma every year, the number is statistically higher in the eastern states rather than in states such as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg or Lower Saxony.

Webler puts the blame for the most part on the schools, and not the students. He says aside from cases where students have real deficiencies in their school performance, it's usually the schools that aren't doing enough to interest students in their classes.

"If schools aren't able to motivate and engage children, than the lessons will just pass them by," he said.

No state is number one

Overall, the Bertelsmann study found that the German school system still has a way to go before it can provide equal opportunities for all, concluding that social background and parental income are more of a deciding factor when it comes to a child's education than actual school performance.

Though some German states were able to achieve top marks in many categories, no state was able to meet all the criteria set out by the study, just as no state was ranked dead last.

Author: Matthias von Hellfeld / cmk
Editor: Neil King

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