A Hard Look at Discrimination in Education in Germany

Imagine if you were ten years old and already knew your educational choices were limited and your future job prospects dim. This is the situation for children in Germany from Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab backgrounds. Their routine placement in the lowest level schools at a young age determines, for many, the course of their lives. 

On October 18 and 19, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, an independent expert body, will examine Germany’s compliance with its human rights obligations, including its duty to ensure that no one suffers discrimination. The Open Society Justice Initiative has submitted a briefing paper to the Human Rights Committee, seeking to shine a light on the consistent discrimination in education faced by ethnic minority children in Germany and urging the committee to voice its concern to the German government. 

The German school system has traditionally been highly stratified, with students attending Gymnasium (the highest level school preparing students for university studies), Realschule (the intermediate level), or Hauptschule (the lowest level, which prepares children for work or vocational training). These days, a Hauptschule education most often leads to unemployment or, at best, a low-income job with little hope of career advancement.

Evidence demonstrates that children of Turkish, Kurdish or Arabic backgrounds—known as “migrant” children in Germany even if they are the second or even third generation of immigrants—wind up in disproportionate numbers in the lowest level Hauptschule, condemning them to a cycle of marginalization.

Migrant children in Germany, on average, attend a Hauptschule twice as often as even other children of the same socioeconomic class. Migrant children, despite some progress, also continue to be underrepresented in the highest-level Gymnasiums. In short, the German education system is failing to help children overcome the disadvantage and marginalization that they experience as a result of their background, including as ethnic or religious minorities.

After a 2000 OECD study found German children, too, fall well below the average performance on literacy, math, and science across the 32 countries surveyed, Germany attempted to address these deficiencies. An effort to improve the situation of migrant children, in particular, included integrating the Hauptschule and Realschule into a new kind of school, the Sekundarschule, which was recently introduced in Berlin. The purpose of this change was to create greater mobility within the secondary school system and to encourage ethnic diversity among student populations. But only a small percentage of schools were restructured and the impact on minority students is unclear.

In Berlin, in an effort to integrate student populations, Gymnasiums are no longer allowed to handpick all their students. A Gymnasium may pick 60 per cent of its students (and 10 percent are reserved for siblings), but the remaining 30 per cent of its places will be allocated by lottery and are open to all pupils. In theory, attempts to create more diverse schools are a positive development. But in reality, this reform has prompted an increasingly hostile attitude towards migrants and, in particular, those affiliated with Islam—mainly people of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic descent.

Integrated schools have also adopted segregated classrooms: in Berlin, both primary and secondary schools, and especially Gymnasiums, have started to create separate classes for native-born German and for migrant students, with predictably negative consequences for the latter. The separation of students into different classrooms is done under the pretext that the migrant students’ German language skills are inadequate for “regular” classes. These children commonly speak German (as a second language), but some may require additional language support to enable them to access regular classes. They simply are not getting that additional support, dooming them to permanent educational careers in the lowest level classes

Under a recently introduced policy, students who are not performing at a certain level after the first year are dismissed from Gymnasium and “relegated” to special classes in an integrated secondary school. Unsurprisingly, this practice disproportionately affects children with a migrant background. In 2011, only a few weeks into the school year, many migrant students in Berlin were informed by their teachers that they were unlikely to pass; unremarkably, they eventually failed the first year test. Instead of providing these children with additional support so they could succeed, their relegation to classes for “failed students” seemed a foregone conclusion.

In preparation for Germany’s review at the UN, the Human Rights Committee has said that it wants to receive information about specific measures taken to eliminate discrimination against people with an immigration background in education. The Justice Initiative hopes that, armed with our briefing paper, the committee will engage Germany in a thorough debate about the need to reform the education system. Until an equal education is available to all children in Germany, migrant students are condemned to face ongoing stigmatization and marginalization, which undermines their potential to participate fully in German society and to create better lives for themselves and their families.

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