Finding new losers – racism in German schools
Berlin - Feature Story

Finding new losers – racism in German schools

How Germany’s school system has led to a “de facto segregation” that feeds alienation in the country’s minority communities.

The horrible death of Tuğçe Albayrak, a woman of Turkish descent apparently killed by a man from Serbia after she stopped him harassing some teenage girls, has, slightly strangely, put a new dimension on the country’s relationship with its immigrant population. The killing seemed to distil a dilemma that troubles many Germans, and which Die Welt newspaper put most succinctly and crudely: “Courageous, young, and engaged, she embodied the image of the preferred immigrant – just as the perpetrators embodied that of the criminal who refuses to integrate.”

Viewing this murder through the lens of immigration betrayed a persistent attitude in Germany: that immigrants should have to demonstrate the right qualities to be allowed to stay in the country. (Even though it’s a little bizarre to call Albayrak an immigrant, given that her family has lived in Germany for three generations.) The attitude is pervasive, fed more than anything by a divisive school system that Germany has traditionally considered one of its strengths.

It’s not a nice feeling when the one thing you thought you were really good at turns out to be below par. Germany suffered such a shock in 2001, when a PISA study into the country’s famed education system found that German children were performing below average in all basic skills. Socially disadvantaged children did particularly badly, and children from migrant backgrounds did worse still. Their scores lagged behind “native” peers by 110 points – a bigger gap than in any other OECD country except Belgium. In almost no other developed country was success at school so dependent on parents’ social status and ethnic background.

PISA helpfully saved Germany the trouble of pondering the root cause of this inequality by squarely blaming one thing: the rigidly stratified tripartite education system, whereby children are streamed into one of three levels straight after primary school – either Hauptschule, Realschule, or the top-level Gymnasium, the latter being the only path to higher education. In 2006, the United Nations criticized the inequality in the German school system, before sending a Special Rapporteur in 2009 who concluded that “the three-tiered system of German education, with early selection into separate levels of education, creates a bias against students whose mother tongue is not German.”

But the problem persisted. Last year, the Open Society Justice Initiative NGO carried out yet another survey and noted “de facto segregation,” as some German schools in areas with a bigger immigrant-based population were found to be quietly shifting white children with better German into separate classes in an attempt to keep their families from moving elsewhere.

This echoed a now-discontinued measure from the early years of modern migration to German the 1970s, when children of immigrants were put into separate Ausländerklassen [foreigner classes]. Evelin Lubig-Fohsel, teacher and teacher-trainer in Berlin since 1969, recalls the consequences with a shudder: “I don’t want to tell you what I saw. Those classes were taught by teachers who weren’t good enough to teach in proper German classes. Teachers who were always off sick or close to retirement. Now those children, who had a marginalized and very poor education, are the parents of the children of today.”

There are parallels to the way the children of migrants were absorbed into the British school system in the 1960s. The sociologist Frances Benskin suggests that because Caribbean immigrants worked in low-paid jobs affected how their children were placed in school. “This belief system paved the way for black children to be seen as

underachievers in schools regardless of their ability to succeed, because once such a label has been successfully applied it is very efficacious,” she wrote. If that is true, the effect has been exacerbated in Germany, both by the three-tiered system, and the fact that Germany’s own influx of Turkish immigrants in the 1960s were commonly regarded as “guest workers” – in other words, most people were expected to leave once their work was done.

The damning reports of recent years did not get anything like the media attention accorded to an infamous book published in 2010. Germany Abolishes Itself, a bestseller by state finance minister turned banker Thilo Sarrazin, theorized (among other things) that children from certain migrant backgrounds are culturally less inclined to learn. This was not simply racism, but rooted in the enduring idea that poor children do badly at school because they are poor: economic weakness equals lazy parents equals academically inept children. Around 2006, a jargonistic label arose to define the equation: bildungsfern – literally “education-distant” – an adjective that conjures an endemic mentality, a condition that cannot be cured.

The 2001 “PISA shock,” as it was dubbed, sparked much controversy, but little legislative reaction – partly because German education policy is regulated not at the federal, but the local state level, so wholesale reform is not easy, and partly because the conservative media reaction was not to blame the structure, but the pupils in it. “After PISA, what did it say in the papers? ‘It’s the Arabs’ and Turks’ fault that Germany did so badly’,” says Lubig-Fohsel, who hears the same reaction from individual teachers now: “I always hear things like, ‘The foreign children in my class are ruining my averages.’ “

Parents have witnessed racist attitudes first hand. Sharon Otoo, a British woman who has lived in Berlin for eight years and raised three sons in German schools, saw children of Turkish and Arab descent being neglected out of prejudice: “The teachers had low expectations of the children who could not speak German very well,” she told me. “They hadn’t been given proper support. But when I told the teachers that, they literally did not know what I was talking about.”

Those experiences have gained a new dimension with the emergence of Isis and its much-reported attendant subculture among teenage Muslims across Europe. Sindyan Qasem of Ufuq, an organization that provides cultural integration workshops in Berlin’s schools, has noticed a link between ostracism and radicalization: “When it’s made clear to young people that they ‘don’t belong here,’ then of course their go in search of groups where they feel better. Then the Salafists, among others, become more attractive,” he said. “But apart from that, we see young people who have grown up with an almost exclusively negative public image of Islam. Of course that has an influence – it creates a defensive culture.”

In 2012, the state of Berlin finally cranked its legislative levers and came up with the “Berlin School Law” – streamlining the three tiers by combining the Hauptschule and the Realschule into a single Sekundarschule, though still maintaining the privileged position of the Gymnasium.

This is a good start, designed to ensure better mobility, but many other reforms are needed – bigger classes, better social pedagogy, and not least, according to Lubig-Fohsel, sensitizing teachers to other cultures. It all reminds her of ancient debate from the 1960s: “In those days the losers, the ones who brought down the averages, were Catholic girls from the countryside – today we have another so-called educational disaster, and who’s the loser this time? The immigrant in the big city. We make our own losers for the debate.”


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