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A new government report released Thursday demands reforms to the pre-school education system, among them improving the training of teachers in kindergartens -- a situation that's badly in need of change in Germany.
Critics say kindergarten kids should be doing more than coloring
In recent years, there's been a growing realization in Germany that kindergarten isn't just a place for children to romp and play, but also where they begin to learn the ropes of reading, writing and arithmetic-- skills that are usually associated with school-age kids.
A slew of international studies have made it clear that the early childhood years are optimal for kids to learn basic skills thanks to their inherent curiosity and help them perform better when they enter primary schools at the age of six.
It's little wonder then that the new children and youth report issued by the German government on Thursday recommends allowing kids as young as two to enter kindergarten, and changing the way kindergartens and schools are traditionally viewed in Germany.
"In future schools must provide for more supervision and upbringing, while kindergartens and day-care centers should increase their focus on education," Thomas Rauschenbach, director of the German Youth Institute (DIJ) and head of the seven-member commission that drew up the report for the German government told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "All children profit from it by the time they complete two years," Rauschenbach added.
Teacher training the weak link
Growing awareness of the importance of early childhood education has in turn focused attention on the role of kindergarten teachers -- and revealed it to be the weak link in Germany's education system.
That's because, unlike in most other EU countries, kindergarten teachers in Germany only need to complete a three-year training program to work as an early child educator, and not the full post-secondary education required from primary school teachers.
Critics point out that the lack of sufficient training leaves kindergarten teachers unequipped to provide children with intellectually-stimulating games and basic playful lessons in natural science, mathematics and reading. "The teachers at our kindergartens still see themselves first and foremost as babysitters," one Frankfurt mother recently told the weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
The latest children and youth report recommends training kindergarten teachers to university level to ensure better preparation for their twin roles of educators and supervisors.
No solutions in sight
The training of kindergarten teachers has been a subject of debate and criticism for several years in Germany with several experts, social scientists and even the Green party and the teachers' union pushing to raise the qualification barriers for hiring new teachers.
There are signs that things are gradually changing thanks to a few initiatives by some universities to offer new specialized study courses on "pre-school education training" that trains teachers to work with children right from birth until the age of six. But there aren't many takers because the courses are rarely state-funded and thus cost money.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that matters of education in Germany are regulated at state level with different states sometimes pursuing conflicting policies. Education ministers from the 16 federal states did agree on a common framework last year to improve the education levels of kindergarten teachers in order to better promote young children, but so far nothing concrete has come of it.
Germany lags behind in European comparison
Even as politicians fail to resolve the problem, a look at other European nations shows that Germany is already a laggard in the field -- a fact that explains its disastrous performance on the PISA test.
Children at "nursery schools" in Britain and "ecoles maternelles" in France are already groomed playfully in dealing with numbers and the alphabet, while Belgium, Italy and Holland have clearly defined what children should be able to do at the end of their pre-school period -- count and even read.
Even in Hungary and Norway, the curriculum for kindergartens invites children and parents to choose between specializing in different topics, with the emphasis being on music, playing instruments and reading notes.