Why hasn't the school system changed much

Expert Jörg Dräger explains what needs to change in the German school system

The doctor of physics was Hamburg Senator for Science and Research until 2008. Today he is the education director of the Bertelsmann Foundation, which publishes German school studies.

Question: Mr. Dräger, anyone who comes from a poorly educated and poor family has poorer educational opportunities in Germany than anywhere else. Politicians have known that for years. Why does nothing change?

Jörg Dräger: The Pisa shock at the beginning of the millennium left us with two messages: Germany was below average and educational success largely depended on the social status of the parents. In terms of performance, Germany has moved from the lower to the upper midfield within a decade, the influence of social origin has decreased. However, these advances are receding slightly. This is partly due to the education system, and partly to our increasingly heterogeneous society.

You mean that every fifth student has a migration background?

Dräger: Children with a migration background who were born in Germany are making progress. That is extremely positive. However, immigration is a challenge for every educational system.

The Pisa study shows that a fifth of 15-year-olds can only read and do arithmetic like a primary school student. What threatens these students when they grow up?

Dräger: Anyone who has not achieved such basic skills by the age of 15 has fewer chances of graduating from school and finding an apprenticeship position. That puts a strain on society. If these students are not supported, considerable costs arise in the form of falling tax revenues and increasing social spending. The problem does not end there: the children of these students will find it extremely difficult again not to get stuck at primary school level. Better education is the crucial tool in breaking the vicious circle.

School can allegedly do little if parents don't help. Is that correct?

Dräger: Education and upbringing mean a partnership between parents and school. But there are parents who cannot or do not want to carry out their part of the partnership - and then it is the school's task to offer more than math, English and German. We are on the way there. In my opinion, good all-day schools are the most important lever. There are not only better funding opportunities there, but also offers such as sports, music, robotics courses - in other words, offers that some parents cannot offer their children. This can enable more equity in education.

Well-trained teachers are central to this. Does the teacher shortage torpedo all good approaches?

Dräger: That is the heart of the problem at the moment. If there is a lack of good teachers, good teaching is impossible. By 2025 alone, there will be a shortage of at least 26,000 teachers in primary schools. The problem has now also been recognized by the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) - but there are unfortunately no quick solutions. In addition, several developments are currently running in parallel. We have many more students than was forecast not so long ago. We want to expand all-day schools and let children with special educational needs learn at mainstream schools. That also needs more and more qualified teachers. We are facing gigantic challenges.

Here, too, do the weakest suffer above all?

Dräger: The shortage of teachers is most dramatic in socially disadvantaged areas and in schools that are not grammar schools - in other words, exactly where students need help most. Most of the career changers also teach there.

Germany's ministers of education met this Thursday. You yourself were Senator for Science and Research in Hamburg for seven years. What was your impression: Are the ministers working together sensibly?

Dräger: I have always valued the KMK, especially when we took the opportunity to learn from one another. The open exchange mostly took place in the fireplace room rather than in the official meetings. I also once asked Canada's education ministers how much they coordinate. They said: “Not very much, the good ideas are already diffusing.” This is exactly the principle I am missing in Germany, for example now in the discussion about the National Education Council.

What exactly has to change?

Dräger: The Bavarian Prime Minister Söder said very harshly: “We don't want conditions in Bavaria to be harmonized.” But such a view of the Education Council is a fundamental misunderstanding. It's not about lower standards, it's about better concepts. If the Bavarians are good at natural sciences, the Schleswig-Holsteiners show how to build an inclusive school system and a school in Saxony-Anhalt is ahead in terms of digitization, then you can learn from each other. We don't have to reinvent the wheel 16 times.

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