Germany’s nasty secret inside its education system: social selection

According to the results of the PISA reports, in no other OECD country is the socio-economic background of students as crucial to their success at school as in Germany.


By Lidia Conde, in Stuttgart | The beginning of the first grade at school in September is celebrated with a party where those attending receive a sealed package full of goodies and small gifts. It is a cardboard-cone that can be made at home, with the child's name and decorated accordingly. After the celebration, the children attend their first hour in class and then, they can open their presents. It is a lovely tradition that marks the passage from the preschool experience to formal school life. At that moment, the kids swiftly realise that the care-free fun and games of their kindergarten time is over. They soon enough learn that one doesn't go to school to kill time, and that marks and high performance is about all that counts.

What strikes foreign families residing in Germany is the lack of correlation between a free education system –which at first glance guarantees equal opportunities for everyone in this country– and PISA reports’ results: in no other OECD country is the students' socio-economic background as decisive in their educational success as it is in Germany. How can this contradiction be explained? There are two reasons.

The first is the tenacious selection process, which commences as early as in fourth grade, among children based on their marks. The best of them, starting in fifth grade, are admitted to an educational institution which ends in the twelfth year in a secondary school called Gymnasium, thus earning the top high school diploma. The average enter the Realschule, which ends after the tenth grade and grants an intermediate high school diploma. And the students whose academic performance is poor go to the Hauptschule, which ends in ninth grade and grants a basic diploma that is barely of any use when it comes to finding a job. In this selection process to which nine-year old children are subjected in fourth grade, only the average marks in mathematics and German are taken into account. As a result, the children of foreigners who are educated in two languages face a significant obstacle.

But there is another reason that consolidates this social selection, which at first sight is a selection based on student performance. Schools in Germany are usually half day. The most common timetable is from 8:20 to 11:50 am. So, what do they do in the afternoon? This schedule requires mothers –fathers are the ones who usually work– to stay at home and assist their children with homework and take their sons and daughters to the more socially

valued extracurricular activities: music and sports. While the children of educated mothers grow up in an appropriate learning environment that motivates effort and study, the children of many foreign or socially disadvantaged families have neither the mum who is dedicated to them –because they are working, as even in Germany a modest salary is insufficient to cover all the expenses of a family–, nor the activities considered healthy for the intellectual development of children.

The difference in the level of reading competence between German children and immigrant children is, according to the Pisa reports, of one year. Thus, foreigners are a year behind.

“In no other OECD country is the students' academic performance as affected by their socioeconomic environment as in Germany,” said Heino von Meyer, head of OECD's office in Berlin. Also Eckhard Klieme, responsible for the Pisa report in Germany, acknowledges that the German system is unfair. “There is still much inequality,” also says economist Ludger Wößmann, Professor of Economics of Education Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

To Wößmann, it is unacceptable that educational success depends on the educational level and economic status of the parents, and cites the positive example of Finland, which obtains excellent results in the PISA report guaranteeing equal opportunities.

In Finland children learn together for a longer period of time, reducing inequality. In addition, individual motivation is greatly emphasized. When a child has a problem, he/she is helped so that he/she can reach the level of the rest of the class.”

Wößmann also believes that there should be more competition between schools, as in the Netherlands. Three in four children go to private school funded by the state. Parents are, thus, more likely to choose the school that suits them best, without discrimination of poorer families because they do not pay school fees.

There’s no doubt the primary and secondary educational system will change in Germany. Especially because in this country there are fewer children as time goes by (which makes it absurd to have so many different types of schools) and because no one wants to have their child labeled a fool forever at the age of nine. Meanwhile, this system will continue as many still believe that children should be prepared for the three types of professional life because this country will continue to require the engineer who builds machines (with a university training), the technician who can repair them (with higher vocational training) and the worker who can operate them (basic training).

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About the Author

Lidia Conde
She studied journalism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Since 1991, Lidia lives and works in Germany as a correspondent for several Spanish newspapers, in which she has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification. Seeking an answer to how Europe could become competitive and fair, too.