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Germany ill-prepared for student influx

Dagmar Breitenbach
July 12, 2017

A new German study has predicted a massive rise in students due to an influx of migrant children and consistently rising birth rates. The authors warn that Germany is woefully unprepared for the future.

School children on the way to school
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Forget estimates that predicted a slump in the number of students at German schools in the near future - according to a new study by Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation, the opposite is more likely to be the case.

With a record wave of retirements, not nearly enough new teachers, a surge in students and a shortage of adequate classrooms, politicians have their jobs cut out for them. Lawmakers must urgently revise their school and education planning fast, says Dirk Zorn, senior project manager with the Bertelsmann foundation.

'Dramatic demographic development'

 "The influx of people coming to live in Germany is greater than the number of people who leave the country," the co-author of the study told DW.

According to the survey, published on Wednesday, German schools can expect more than 1 million extra students to have arrived by 2025 compared to the numbers predicted in 2013 by the Standing Committee of the German Ministers of Culture (KMK).

Infographic: Predicted German student numbers
If the foundation's estimates prove to be correct, Germany must cope with many more students than expected

Germany's birth rate - one of the lowest in the world for decades - has been rising over the past five years. This, plus the influx of migrants are the main reasons for the surge in students expected to hit the schools in about eight years' time, Zorn says, adding that this is a "dramatic demographic development."

In the 2015/2016 school year, about 7.9 million students sat in German classrooms across the country.

For 2025, only a few years down the road, the Bertelsmann study foresees 8.3 million students, significantly more than previously estimated by the KMK, which serves as an instrument for the coordination and development of education.

The development may not have been foreseeable four years ago by the KMK, but it is high time the body updated its plans to ensure measures like renovating and building schools and training teachers are fast-tracked, says Zorn.

Ill-prepared for the future

Schools were previously told to expect a decrease in the number of students, making them ill-prepared for the exact opposite, the study warns. Bertelsmann's findings indicate that the federal states will have to invest an estimated 4.7 billion euros ($5.3 billion) per year to avoid a "dramatic shortage" of teaching staff and classrooms in schools that even today are often in utter disrepair despite many cities' best efforts.

"The era of declining student numbers is over," Zorn says. 

Developments are bound to differ nationwide, according to the Bertelsmann study, with larger cities seeing a steeper rise than more rural areas.  

The number of children in elementary school is expected to rise from 2.8 million in 2015 to about 3.2 million in 2030. Eight years from today, German primary schools could be missing as many as 24,000 teachers, a development that is expected to spill over to high schools already grappling with a wave of retirement and a lack of young teachers.

A photo of a door to a German delivery room showing a stork and baby
The Federal Statistical Office estimates 1.6 children are currently born for every one woman in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's an optimistic estimate, says Udo Beckmann, chairman of the Berlin-based VBE teachers' association, adding that politicians have sugarcoated Germany's teacher shortage for far too long. "And now it turns out the KMK has been operating with incorrect numbers," he says.

It's one thing to be pleased at the country's rising birth rates - but six years down the road, that means there will be a need for more teachers, Beckmann argues. Longer school days, integrating students with disabilities and migrant children are new challenges, he says. "School is changing."

The authors concede that their figures do not claim to be accurate predictions of future developments. Instead, the foundation hopes the study will trigger a re-evaluation of current education plans: "Predictions are necessary to make political decisions."