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Pupils at a private grammar school (Photo: Oliver Berg )
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Immigrants remain isolated

Anna Peters / nh
July 21, 2013

The choice of school for children in Germany depends increasingly on their social and ethnic background. But this kind of social separation comes with disadvantages for migrants, a recent study suggests.


It's a trend that has been growing in Germany over the years – despite the country's attempts at integration: 'segregated education' is on the rise – in particular in poorer neighborhoods in the country's big cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin, which have large immigrant populations.

In many schools in those neighborhoods, more pupils speak Turkish at home than German. German families living in those areas prefer sending their children to better schools in other neighborhoods – far away from what local politicians call ‘social hotspots'.

Improving learning conditions

'Segregated education' means the separation of pupils according to their social status and ethnic origin. The separation happens after pupils have completed elementary school.

The research department with the Advisory Council of German Foundations for Integration and Migration (SVR) has just published a study examining the development: "Pupils in classes with a large share of migrants are more often faced with disadvantages in terms of learning and working conditions," said Jan Schneider, the head of SVR's research department.

Reinhold Pfeifer, headmaster at Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School in Bonn (Photo: courtesy of Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School)
Reinhold Pfeifer, headmaster at Bonn's Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive SchoolImage: Bertolt-Brecht-Gesamtschule

Rather than focusing on why segregation happens the researchers explored options how schools and authorities can deal with the phenomenon. The SVR advises against political measures that would force parents who speak German at home to send their children to schools attended by children with a migratory background.

According to the study, that would only provoke "considerable political and social resistance." That's why SVR has looked into other options to improve learning conditions for boys and girls at schools that are being avoided by German-only parents.

Graduation possible if language skills are improved

Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School is located in a neighborhood of Bonn which is not one of the affluent areas of the former capital. More than a third of pupils there have a migratory background. Some of them have not been in Germany for long; others were born there, but at home don't speak German with their parents.

Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School in Bonn (Photo: courtesy of Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School)
Bonn's Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School offers international classesImage: Bertolt-Brecht-Gesamtschule

Headmaster Reinhold Pfeifer sets a special focus on improving his pupils' language skills. He knows that a perfect knowledge of German is vital to make it through to the ‘Abitur', Germany's highest school degree. Pfeifer and his colleagues challenge the pupils from a young age: "What we do is that each German class is given by two colleagues so that one can always select a few children for special learning groups. We either give them remedial teaching, or – when we're dealing with good pupils – we give them some extra work."

Apart from a special focus on German language skills, Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School also offers so-called international classes. "They are classes where we group children between the ages of 14 to 16 who would normally attend different levels, but who are grouped in the international class because they don't speak any German at all." The purpose of those separate classes is to train the pupils' German language skills in a way that after two or three years, they can be integrated into the traditional school system. The curriculum for those international classes includes up to 12 lessons of German per week.

Education expert Diana Sahrai from Duisburg-Essen University also examines the phenomenon of segregated education. She welcomes the special focus on language skills set by the school in Bonn. But Sahrai remains skeptical as far as setting up separate classes for children with a limited knowledge of German is concerned: "If those classes go on for longer than one or two years, the pupils who don't speak any German remain isolated and will find it even harder to get in touch with other pupils who speak German. And that in turn means that they fall even more behind in terms of learning German.”

But headmaster Reinhold Pfeifer in Bonn says separating pupils temporarily doesn't come with any disadvantages: "After a while, the children reach such a high level that many of them even pass the Abitur." And that's what counts, he believes.

Open up to cultural diversity

The SVR researchers offer a number of recommendations to schools and authorities to improve the chances of children in disadvantaged neighborhoods: "A key role is that schools open up towards cultural diversity," stressed Jan Schneider, head of research. That means schools and education authorities ought to perceive the children's cultural and social diversity as enriching, rather than cumbersome.

In concrete terms, the study suggests that teachers ought to receive additional training to improve sensitivity towards their pupils' diversity. In addition, teaching German ought to happen outside traditional German classes, too. And, the researchers suggest, collaboration with parents ought to be improved with the help of multilingual parents' evenings or multilingual leaflets. But of course all those measures require time and money, and a willingness on both sides to work together.

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