German school system still holds back children of migrants, experts say

The way that Germany's school system is structured puts students with a migration history at a disadvantage. [EPA-EFE | Sascha Steinbach]

This article is part of our special report Where is discrimination in Europe?.

In Germany, how well a child does in school is closely linked to their parental background, with immigrants and their children particularly affected by structural inequalities. Opposition politicians are calling for reforms, but experts fear there is a lack of political will for the necessary overhaul.

Inequality in Germany’s educational system is a well-documented problem. For decades, studies have confirmed that students from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds consistently outperform their peers even when displaying the same cognitive abilities.

These children are more likely to be recommended for the highest tracks in the country’s education system and more likely to attend university. 

Published in January, the government’s latest Education Report for 2020 stated that “social background not only shapes the transition to secondary school, but also plays an important role in the subsequent school career.”

Earlier this month, during a debate on the report in the German parliament, opposition politicians from the Greens, the far-left Die Linke and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) demanded reforms to address structural inequality in the country’s education system.

However, experts say the political will is lacking for the kind of overhaul necessary to make real change.

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Focus on migration 

The problems are especially apparent among students with a so-called “migration background,” a statistical category indicating those with at least one parent not born with German citizenship. According to the report, children with a migration background are four times more likely to be simultaneously impacted by social, financial, and education-related risk factors.

This makes for a uniquely challenging situation.

“It gets difficult when risk situations accumulate and when discrimination and racism are added to the mix,” the migrant umbrella organisation BV-NeMO told EURACTIV. 

In the 30 to 35 age bracket, just 18.7% of those with a migration background born in Germany have attained a university degree. Among those with two German born parents, that figure rises to 29.6%. 

Structural inequalities vary depending upon where a student’s family is from, the report notes. Those from the western and northern EU countries were far more likely to have a university degree than those with backgrounds rooted in Eastern Europe or Turkey. 

Structural disadvantages

“Social disadvantages and migration have historically been closely coupled in Germany,” Albert Scherr, director of Freiburg University’s Institute for Sociology, told EURACTIV.

Scherr said the disadvantages were also compounded by the way the German education system is structured. “The question is whether schools compensate more or less” for possible disadvantages, Scherr said, pointing to two elements of the German system that make compensation less likely than elsewhere.

Firstly, Germany separates students by educational ability, a process often referred to as tracking. While other countries typically start tracking students between their sixth and tenth years in school, many states in Germany begin this process after fourth grade.

“Education research shows four years [in school] is way too early,” Scherr said. 

Klaus Kohlmeyer, Managing Director of BQN Berlin, an association that works to encourage the societal participation of people with a migration background, agrees.  “The early selection process and the permanent pressure to be evaluated and graded humiliate children and young people instead of strengthening them,” he told EURACTIV. 

Secondly, Germany’s public schools usually only run until the early afternoon, which delegates part of the student’s education to parents who may be better or worse positioned to support their children, Scherr said. 

The situation becomes even more difficult if language learning is thrown into the mix.  “Language support is underdeveloped in Germany,” Scherr said, adding that the system is not designed for students who do not speak German as their first language. 

Teachers also have a role to play, he added. “There is still a strong attitude among German teachers that it’s all down to the families … but it is not attributable to me. It’s a question of fate, because I can’t fight the family,” Scherr said.

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‘Won’t win an election’

Education policy is a matter left to Germany’s 16 federal states, resulting in a patchwork education system across the country.

Some states, such as Berlin, have made changes to these traditional structures, for example tracking students into separate schools only after sixth grade.  The city also has an expansive system of integrated comprehensive schools, which keep all students together regardless of academic ability. 

Scherr would prefer tracking to come even later than that, after the 10th grade, while Kohlmeyer wants schools to do away with selecting students for different career paths entirely. 

However, Scherr fears that there is little political will to make the kind of drastic reforms needed.

“Every politician knows that if they were to seek substantial change in the education system now, a large number of … middle-class parents would turn against them. No one seriously touches that because everyone knows it won’t win an election,” he said.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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