Inclusion at German Schools Together instead of Alone

Together instead of alone; © Photo: UNESCO/Alexandra Galentro
Together instead of alone | Photo (detail): UNESCO/Alexandra Galentro

Germany is on the way to inclusive schools in which children with and without disabilities sit in the same classroom. A system that can benefit school children with immigrant backgrounds, from socially disadvantaged families and the intellectually gifted. The goal: the education of all children should be fostered equally.

Kevin stuck out already in kindergarten. He could hardly sit still, did not obey the rules and fought with the other children. He spoke little, and then usually in incomplete sentences. When it was time for him to go to school, his path was already mapped out: while other children in the same age group entered elementary school, Kevin was sent to the special school. He never graduated – like nearly 80 percent of the children in this type of school. The German school system wrote stories like this one for decades. No other country in Europe has special schools. Regarded as the fourth pillar of the German school system, there exist such schools for children with “disabilities” and learning difficulties, for the blind, the deaf, the mentally handicapped and children with social disorders.

Success at an early age is decisive

The German school system still segregates certain children, but negative educational careers such as Kevin’s have become fewer. This is because of the 2006 Disability Rights Convention of the United Nations. It commits Germany to an integrative and inclusive school system. “As a consequence, all children, the quick and the slow learners, the straight-A pupils and the handicapped, sit in the same classroom and are equally encouraged”, says the former Minister of Cultural Affairs for Lower Saxony and coordinator of the expert panel on “Network Education”, Professor Rolf Wernstedt. In practice this means that children with disabilities may no longer be excluded from the normal school system.

This also increases the opportunities for immigrant children who begin school with learning and language problems. Above all, after kindergarten, elementary schools assume a social balancing function. Education experts agree that the success in early years is decisive. Yet more money per pupil still flows into secondary schools than into early education.

No chance for the losers of the educational system?

The federal government and the state ministries of cultural affairs, which according to the federalist structure of the German republic have the say in educational issues, have been carrying on the debate over equality in education since the 1970s. The results of the first PISA Comparative Study in 2001 gave the debate a new boost. The shock was considerable: German school children scored only the average. In addition, experts certified that in almost no other country were background and educational success so closely bound up with one another as in Germany, with its four-tier system of special schools, secondary general schools, intermediate secondary schools and academic high schools. Especially children form socially disadvantaged backgrounds have worse opportunities. The Federal Ministry of Education estimates that more than a quarter of children under the age of 18 grow up in a social, financial or cultural risk situation.

Numerous support programs, prize-worthy projects

Although the number of young people who leave school without graduating has slightly decreased, 6.5 percent of each entering class are still affected – and according to the statistics of the Federal Statistical Office, 57 percent of them are from special schools. But there have also been positive developments for the approximately eleven million school children in Germany. Numerous support programs look after disadvantaged pupils, including the federally funded “Alliance for education” that helps with holiday activities, musical and theatrical productions and mentoring programs. In addition, there are programs to ease the difficult transition from school to the work world.

There are now also many exemplary projects: for example, since 2009 the Bertelsmann Foundation has honored successful concepts for inclusive school with the Jakob Muth Prize. One of the prize winners was the Heinrich Zille School in Berlin, which has been promoting inclusion for two decades. The open day school has about 400 pupils and focuses on the creative-artistic field. Among the prize winners in 2012 was the Langbargheide Elementary School in the Hamburg district of Lurup. About 80 percent of its pupils are of non-German origin, less than one percent of the parents have an academic degree, and more than a third receive Hartz IV welfare benefits. Thanks to intensive encouragement of all the children, the school has succeeded in balancing out in many cases the learning lags.

The formula: raise everyone’s potential

Since PISA, empirical research has dealt intensively with the issue of educational opportunity. A new study by the Berlin Centre for Social Research recently refuted for the first time studies according to which teachers recommend for high school fewer immigrant pupils with the same performance and from the same social background as non-immigrant pupils. This is at least a glimmer of hope. Inclusive schools, which encourage the education of children independently of the background and disabilities of the individual, could eliminate some inequalities. Yet the path is bumpy because money and personnel are lacking for the professional realization of the idea. Nevertheless, the formula for a successful school system is no longer “pass on downwards” but rather “raise everyone’s potential”. Children like Kevin can no longer be shunted off.