Refugees at German Schools
Ideas on Integration

Many schools in Germany are still struggling with the task of integrating refugees. In our interview, migration researcher Aladin El-Mafaalani explains why this is, and what could be improved.

Mr El-Mafaalani, what marks would you give the German school system currently for its integration of migrants?

I would give the school system a C+ in the case of migrants with legally positive framework conditions.
And what mark for the integration of refugees?

We have to make distinctions here. In the case of groups with good prospects of being given the right to stay, I would also give a C. For those from so-called safe country of origin the mark would be between D and F.
Why such a bad mark?

Frequently, no check is kept on whether these children and young adults really attend school. And of course their interest in school weakens when they know that they have to leave Germany again. The same applies to criminality: people with poor prospects of being given a right to stay become criminal on a more than average basis because they know that they really have nothing to lose. Among refugees with good prospects of staying here, by contrast, the crime level is below average.
And what about the integration of minors with goods prospect of staying?

There are a lot of ideas and concepts in Germany in the meantime. As soon as young refugees are passed on to a local authority, they have to attend school if they are six years old. The question that arises is: a remedial class or can they go into a mainstream class right away? Does the child need psychological care? What about his or her knowledge of the language? These are just some of the questions that have to be raised. That was in no way the case just a few years ago, and the result is obvious: many young refugees who are here only two years speak better German meantime than many migrants who have been here for decades.

Are the schools and teaching staff well prepared?

That depends on where the school is. There is actually no comprehensive framework for each and every school. Schools in conurbations and large cities mostly have – but not always – more experience with non-German pupils. In the country, by contrast, a lot of helpless experimenting is done. The teachers there have little experience with children who don’t speak German. So policy must support the local communities with little experience in particular. There are simply less structures in place in rural areas. For example, there is often a lack of counselling, adult education centres, associations, etc.
Would you think it advisable to accommodate refuges in large cities and conurbations only?

Well, things are also not great in some large cities, and in many rural districts they are good. That depends mainly on the concrete experience schools have with migration. So it would be good to promote cooperation between different communities so that they can exchange ideas and support each other.
How are teachers and school staff prepared?

A considerable amount of further training courses for teachers are now on offer by the trade unions of pedagogical professions, although there is also a lack of trainers in some places. Needless to say, this will all take time, given that Germany was quite uncoordinated at the beginning when it came to the integration of refugees into the school system. Remember, in the 1980s, for example, when a lot of Lebanese came to Germany, there was no compulsory education for them and rarely any language classes. Formerly, children who did not speak German were often sent directly to special needs schools. Subsequently, integration did not proceed very well. The fact that things are different today is already bearing fruits: teachers report that refugee children are highly motivated. If the teaching staff is over-taxed, then not necessarily because of the pupils, but rather because of the many innovations resulting from ever new reforms of the curricula and educational concepts, as well as the inclusion of handicapped pupils.

In some countries of origin, the situation has been precarious for so long that many of the refugees have scarcely had any schooling or higher education. Is the German school system flexible enough to take in these people?

Currently, there is no specific concept for this. But in the all-day schools, which are to be found in all federal sates meantime, social workers, school psychologists and special needs teachers can help the pupils better than in the past. I was very moved by the story of a 13-year-old boy who had not attended school for several years. On the basis of his school knowledge, he would have been put into second or third grade. He was actually put into seventh grade, continued learning German and, to support him, had his mother tongue, Arabic, recognised as his second foreign language. Today the pedagogues try to view each child individually and give some thought to whether a special school is really necessary. Refugee children should attend school as quickly as possible, and also be placed in mainstream classes as quickly as possible.
Has integration not also got to do with the parents of young refugees having private contact with German parents, and with how all school pupils treat one another?

Naturally, what happens outside of school hours plays a big role. At some point, almost every refugee has contact with honorary helpers – and the contact is close and good. So in my view, contact between the parents is not all that important.
Traumatised or anxious children are a special case. How are they treated?

As a rule, whether or not a young refugee is traumatised is usually noticed before the first day at school. In the schools themselves, there is a psychological service, but only rarely is therapy needed. Usually a functioning everyday life is sufficient: a structured daily routine, contacts and the possibility of experiencing approval and acceptance. Often teachers use the concept of traumatisation to explain all sorts of problematic behaviour in children – perhaps also because they themselves are over-extended. Traumatisation is often a prejudice. In many cases, the greater stress factor for refugees is the long wait before being able to lead a more or less normal life.

Prof. Dr. Aladin El-Mafaalani is a teacher at the Fachhhochschule Münster and does research on the themes of migration, integration, education and youth. He is, among others things, a member of the Council for Migration, a federal association of more than 130 scientists. That council sees critically accompanying policies related to migration and integration as its major task.