1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Refugee kids in German schools

Carla Bleiker
October 15, 2015

A German teachers association says too many non-German speaking kids in the same classroom spell trouble. They call for an equal distribution of refugee students. But that's easier said than done.

Symbolbild Bildung Migranten Schule Lernen Lesen Schulbuch
Image: picture-alliance/Joker

It's no easy task to teach children who only speak Arabic or Turkish about the 16 German states or get them involved in a discussion about a Grimm's fairytale - in German. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the problem. But with at least 800,000 refugees expected to come to Germany this year, the issue is now more pressing than ever.

The German Philologist Association, whose members are teachers at the country 's high schools, highlighted on Thursday that if more than 30 percent of kids in a classroom don't speak good German, the quality of education suffers. That would be bad for those children who could actually achieve more, but also for migrant or refugee students who are struggling to integrate in Germany.

"If we want integration to succeed, then we mustn't have classrooms that are 100 percent refugee children," Heinz-Peter Meidinger, director of the German Philologist Association, told DW.

Heinz-Peter Meidinger. (Photo: http://www.dphv.de/aktuell/downloads.html)
Meidinger: We already have an uneven distributionImage: dphv.de/S. Kuhn

Keeping the right balance

That is not a scenario that occurs in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), according to Barbara Löcherbach. The spokeswoman for the NRW education ministry told DW that refugee children are distributed into regular classrooms right from the start. In addition to that, they attend language classes with other refugee children for around 18 hours a week.

"Children spend however long they need in these remedial classes," Löcherbach said. "That can be anywhere from three months to two years."

When these children from migrant or refugee families start going to regular classes "full time," it's still important to keep a balance between newcomers and children who have been in Germany for a long time (or were born here) and speak the language well, Meidinger said. Therefore, children shouldn't just be sent to the school nearest to their group facility, but be distributed in a more thoughtful way.

Equal distribution easier said than done

Ingo Matthias, a teacher for students from grades five through 12 in the city of Bremen, believes keeping a balance is a good idea in general.

"If the percentage of kids who speak very little or no German is too high, you can't compensate for that," Matthias told DW, meaning that too much class time is devoted to making sure everyone can catch up with their German.

Students from migrant families in a German language classroom. (Photo: Britta Pedersen)
"Welcome classes," intensive language courses, prep students from migrant families for their entry into the regular German school systemImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

But he also believes that the lofty idea of even distribution would be difficult to achieve in real life.

"Right now, the situation is completely chaotic, so you check which classes still have space for the new students," Matthias said. "The idea is fine, but it comes with lots of bureaucracy and I think it's hard to implement."

Another issue is the question of how to decide which schools or classrooms can cope with more non-German students - since the distinction between children from migrant families and those from German ones might not actually be the right one.

"We don't sort kids into neat little boxes," is how education ministry spokeswoman Barbara Löcherbach put it. And teachers on the ground have similar opinions.

Refugee parents need to learn German and accept norms and values

"Some of my students who come from migrant families are completely integrated," Angelika Ohl, an elementary school teacher from Bremen, told DW. "Their grammar might not be perfect, but their German is fine. They are culturally integrated."

Several students who are doing really well in Ohl's first grade come from Turkish families and one from a Syrian refugee family.

"Their parents are integrated in society, they are involved in school affairs - that's what makes the difference," Ohl said.

She believes the migrant/non-migrant distinction is not the right factor to determine how well her students do in school. It's about whether their families are open to the norms and values of the German education system. Students whose parents aren't interested in their children's school work are at a disadvantage, she said, adding that when the language barrier prevents her from speaking with parents there is hardly any room for improvement.

Turkish women in a German language class. (Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch, dpa)
Turkish women at a German class. Angelika Ohl says that a key to a child's integration is that the mother learns German.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Overwhelmed by 'inclusion'

Even when the "right" classroom to send refugee children to has been determined, the difficulties don't stop - it might already be full. Schools are already struggling with the concept of "inclusion," which means integrating students with mental or physical disabilities into regular classes. Inclusion classes should be smaller than classes that don't have students with disabilities, but with large numbers of refugee children coming in, that's not likely to happen, Matthias said.

"We teachers urgently need support, because we are already overwhelmed with inclusion," one teacher who did not want to reveal her name told DW. "Dealing with kids with disabilities and refugees without any additional help or guidance just won't work."

Ingo Matthias agrees that a full classroom with kids who have special needs and traumatized refugee children is less than ideal. But he says it might be necessary for a while.

"Alright, so we'll have classes with 31 kids in them, but the alternative would be that the children from refugee families cannot go to school," Matthias said. "And that's not a real alternative at all."