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Ukrainian refugee kids face a challenge in German schools

December 15, 2022

How refugee children are educated in Germany depends on where they live. And that can have far-reaching consequences.

A child who fled Ukraine arrives for "Classroom for Ukraine" a school project launched by Arche as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues in Berlin, Germany
Educational scientists suggest Ukrainian children should join regular German school classes as soon as possibleImage: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

Anna Bobrakova is happy. "Mom, you can be proud of me, I got almost only ones," her son told her recently. In Germany, a one is the highest grade you can receive for schoolwork. Her sons are 15 and 12. Both attend a Berlin grammar school and have been assigned to "welcome classes" there, where children are initially taught separately because they don't speak German.

According to Bobrakova, who fled Ukraine with her sons immediately after the Russian invasion, the setup is working well. "I haven't had to push him once since the start," she says of her younger son. "He's enjoyed going to school every day." His brother is sometimes not so eager, even if he has very good grades. "I often tell my children that if they don't make an effort at German school, we'll have to go back to Ukraine. That helps."

A growing number of Ukrainians want to stay

After nine months in Berlin, the two boys don't want to go back to Ukraine. And they're not the only ones. "We know that 50% of war refugees now want to stay," says Natalia Roesler from the Federal Parents' Network of Migrant Organizations for Education & Participation (bbt). "Even beyond the period of two years."

Ukrainian refugees in Germany are entitled to "temporary protection" — their residence status is initially valid for one year, but can easily be extended twice by six months each time.

According to the Central Register of Foreigners (AZR), around 1.02 million Ukrainian refugees had registered with German authorities by November of this year. Around 35% of them are children and young people under the age of 18, and most of them are of elementary school age. They're required by law to go to school — just like German children.

Natalia Roesler from the bbt is happy about compulsory schooling. Initially, most refugees hoped to be able to return home quickly. "They were excited and sat on their suitcases, so to speak, and there wasn't much willingness to voluntarily send their children to a German school," says Roesler. Especially since it was possible for the children to continue their schooling in Ukraine online.

Kamila and Sophia learning to write
Kamila and Sophia attend 'Classroom for Ukraine' a primary school project in BerlinImage: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

The federal states decide on education matters

Around 201,000 Ukrainian children and teenagers are enrolled in German schools. Karin Prien, the education minister in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, has called this a "great achievement of integration."

Prien currently holds the rotating presidency of Germany's Conference of Education Ministers (KMK). In Germany, education is the responsibility of the 16 state governments and the KMK tries to streamline the rules and requirements as much as possible.

Currently, however, there are no nationwide guidelines on schooling refugee children. Whether they're integrated directly into regular German schools or first have to attend preparatory "welcome classes" depends on where they live. In some states, they can switch to regular classes once they've learned enough German. Elsewhere, Ukrainian students are taught separately in preparatory classes for up to a year.

That's difficult for many Ukrainians to understand, says Natalia Roesler. "It comes as a shock to some parents that there are 16 different systems in Germany."

Paintings showing Ukrainian and German flags surrounded by children who fled Ukraine
Many Ukrainian children are keen to adapt to life in GermanyImage: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

'Welcome classes' face criticism

In Ukraine, German is one of the foreign languages taught in schools. But few students had reached a proficiency allowing them to cope well in regular German schools straight away.

Still, Juliane Karakayali, professor of sociology at the Evangelische Hochschule Berlin, believes in immediate integration rather than preparatory classes. "Segregation of migrants within schools has more negative than positive effects in practice," she says. The "welcome classes" are a parallel system that is not integrated into the regular school system and stigmatizes students. In the absence of a fixed curriculum for those students, what children learn usually depends on the individual teachers.

Karakayali has been researching such preparatory classes since refugees came to Germany in high numbers in 2015-2016. She has found that even without the Ukrainian refugees, German schools were already stretched to the limit due to a blatant lack of teachers and space.

"Often these students are simply dumped somewhere and nobody cares about their future," she says. "The schools just don't want them to be an additional burden on regular school life."

classroom with refugee children in Dresden
Due to a lack or resources, refugee children of different ages and from different countries can end up in one 'welcome class'Image: Robert Michael/dpa/picture alliance

A study by the RWI Leibniz Institute for Economic Research supports the criticism. The report found that the educational success of refugee children of elementary school age deteriorates significantly if they attend a preparatory class instead of a regular class. Children from preparatory classes are also less likely to make the jump to a secondary school that prepares them for higher education.

"We have no guidelines as to what and how we should teach them," a 27-year-old elementary school teacher from Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany told DW.

Since the beginning of the current school year in September, she has been teaching Ukrainian children between the ages of six and 12 in a preparatory class. "At our school, we had a second preparatory class with children who spoke Arabic or Turkish. Unfortunately, because we didn't have enough teachers, we had to combine the classes."

The lessons have little to do with normal school teaching. "I communicate with hands and feet and Google translator," says the teacher, who wants to remain anonymous. "There are elementary language lessons in German and math, but the children's ages differ too much." So, she puts together material for individual students and asks them to work on them and show her the results.

Sarah is convinced that the children would learn much faster and much better if they were integrated into mainstream classes after a short preparation period of two to three weeks.

"Otherwise, the children keep themselves to themselves and only talk in their own language," she says. She also thinks it would be good to hire Ukrainian teachers and have them teach together with German teachers.

Ukrainian children go to school in Germany

Double standards

Germany is lacking 30,000 teachers. A task force set up by the KMK in March is working on ideas for how Ukrainian teachers can be trained up through intensive language courses and an adaptation qualification.

However, such a program would not be enough to put them on an equal footing with German teachers. In Ukraine, a bachelor's degree is enough to work as a teacher. But in Germany, teachers need to have a master's degree and to have completed an 18-month traineeship afterward.

Karakayali says that the 3,000 Ukrainian teachers currently employed by German schools are mainly employed as "additional educational staff" — with lower pay.

Finding a flexible solution to recruit more Ukrainian teachers would help refugee children also stay up to speed with the Ukrainian curriculum, says education expert Juliane Karakayali. It's still possible to take part in Ukrainian school lessons online, but as time goes by, fewer children are willing to take on additional lessons in the afternoon after their German school day is over.

This shows that many young Ukrainians have decided for themselves that they want to stay in Germany.

This article was originally written in German.

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