Worlds of Education

After the German Elections. Is Another Germany Possible?

published 24 November 2017 updated 11 January 2022
written by:

Thoughts from GEW Conference “Good Education for Refugees”, Bremen (20th September 2017)

The German federal election results of the 24th of September this year, will lead concerns for many of our friends and colleagues outside of Germany. When just 70 years after the defeat of Nazism in Europe, a political party like the AfD could achieve more than 10% of the vote with leaders who want to honour the achievement of the German army in World War Two and call for more new 'Germans' on placards showing a pregnant woman without her head as a baby machine … not just concern but outrage and action are all necessary.

Looking more closely at the results however, what's apparent is that while the Anti Islam and Anti Migrant bias of the AfD's policies were clear – the contact with the actual migrants and people who are Muslim is relatively limited. The new federal states in eastern Germany have had very few migrants until 2015. Established multicultural societies as in western Germany appear to be often the best defense against right wing 'populism.

However what are the dangers when migration occurs in a context of underfunding and a battle for limited resources amongst the working class and poor?

In 2015 some 12,000 refugees, including many young people under 18 without parents, arrived in the state of Bremen (population 670,000). Simultaneously, many migrants from poorer parts the EU were attracted by the combination of jobs and affordable housing. An education system which was already struggling with the highest levels of child poverty in Germany alongside low levels of funding (compared with other major cities) struggled to cope.

In 2016 and 2017 despite a reduction in new arrivals, the combination of inner German migration by refugees who were still allowed to move, and the limited family reunion allowed by the national government has led to continuing high levels of demand for German courses for newly arrived migrants and refugees.

The numbers according to the answer to a parliamentary question from the LEFT Party show that the courses were offered to 2,723 young people in 2016 and 2,622 young people in 2017. On the positive side there was a clear reduction in the number of young people without any formal school place from over 1,000 in early 2016 to 750 in late 2016 and down to around 320 in 2017.

However, the additional funding for the municipal governments for German courses will come to an end in December 2017. There has also been no programme of additional money announced to support the children who have completed these courses and are now learning in mainstream classes with however limited German. The pressure will build again.

That's the situation in which the GEW state branch in Bremen, with the support of Education International held a daylong conference on “Good Education for Refugees.”

Some one hundred participants attended – what on the one hand doesn't sound much has to be put into context. The state government politely declined our suggestion that teachers be enabled to attend – almost every teacher who was able to attend with the support of their school management had colleagues in their schools covering their lessons – more often than not in the compulsory unpaid overtime which is meant 'only to be used in emergencies' but nowadays … almost every day is an 'emergency'.

Up until this conference it had been only possible to mobilize staff from the preparatory courses within the relatively narrow confines of staff meetings called with statutory protection by the official staff representative committees (Personal Versammlungen called by the Betriebsrat or Personalrat-Schule.) So for our state branch, every registration was a step forward.

Our union was also pleased that some 30 colleagues who weren't union members also attended. Many of the staff working in the preparatory courses have been outsourced or are on temporary contracts – our membership amongst outsourced staff has gone up by some 50% over the last 2 years – but at around 15% we've got a long way to go. Some members will be won over during industrial action over wages and conditions – but many of the members of the GEW are committed to the union because of our education policies and support for education workers as professionals. The conference allowed us to interact with these colleagues on this level as well.

It's difficult to summarize a daylong conference into a short article – I'll try and give some of the highlights from the perspective of the organizing team.

A senator's representative spoke at the start of the day. The senator herself was unable to attend but Mr Husemann made clear his concerns for the continuation of an inclusive education system for refugee children. The schools are full so that when young people finish their preparatory course there is nowhere for them to go. In addition – Mr Husemann pointed to the continuing high levels of demand and made clear that the education system coped more or less with one shock in 2015 but continuing stresses would bring it to its knees. He thanked the staff present whom he said had saved the education's departments backside in 2015 and 2016 – and offered a way forward for qualification and recognition for the many teachers in the sector who are counted (and paid as!) 'unqualified' teachers as either their foreign qualifications are not recognized or because their degrees don't meet the model of the traditional German teaching qualification.

Professor Fantini gave the keynote address. In his work with trainee teachers at Bremen Uni he teaches among other thing intercultural education at the Faculty of Pedagogical and Educational Sciences.

In summarizing Professor Fantini stressed the need for school systems and also individual teachers to focus on what our young people could bring to their education (orientation on resources) rather than focusing on what they couldn't do (an orientation on their deficits.) He highlighted the concept of ‘reflexive intercultural competences’, which is based on the cultural self-assessment and on the reflection of dealing with foreignness.

The 'pre -lunch' workshops covered a range of topics including educating mainstream classes about the experiences of refugees and using new media to work with young migrants.

I attended a workshop held by Dirk Troué a representative of the tradesperson's Guilds Council of Bremen. Many small and medium manufacturing and service sector employers are very open to employing refugee apprentices. The young people bring a commitment which the employers value. The workshop discussed some of the concrete problems which the apprentices face. The vocational college part of the apprenticeship (in Germany these are carried out in part in the company and in part in a vocational college) requires language skills which are often a challenge for weaker mother tongue students and which present significant barriers for newly arrived learners of German. The necessary 'B1' qualification to start an apprenticeship did not appear to provide students with the German skills to follow the teaching in the course. Many of the attendees saw the need for an additional year of context based language learning to support these apprentices.

Another workshop was held on Intercultural Competence by Claudia Brockmann. In a context where German staff rooms reflect the senior secondary classes of 10 to 30 years ago – where significantly less than 10% of staff have got a migrant background themselves – the discussion as to how far the 'majority' has to move is significant. Clearly just explaining that 'that's how it is in Germany' isn't enough.

After lunch there were two 'praxis inputs.'

Mariam Leithe-Alkhazan who had played an important role in organizing the day (thanks!) spoke of her schools use of intercultural evenings as a way of breaking the ice between new and old students and how these were a way of showing newly arrived communities how they were valued by the school.

Lars Kaempf showed the tri-lingual web site which the voluntary sector group 'Welcome to Bremen' has developed since 2016. The website offers information of different aspects of life in Bremen for refugees and migrants.See https://welcometobremen.de/ for more info

The day ended with 'world cafe' work and cake where the participants could input into the unions policy development for our state conference in November 2017.

Katharina Lenuck is a Bremen student who been working for the GEW in organizing the conference (thanks!!) and keeping the project on the road. She highlighted that the conference gave important input for the further work on the project in supporting and improving refugee education in Bremen. Bernd Winkelmann, spokesman for the GEW state branch in Bremen, added that the conference has confirmed again that one of the main problems in integrating refugees and migrants into the education system is the lack of investment.

Many people living in Germany showed their fear when they went to the polls on September 24th. The GEW is clear that the AfD hasn't got answers for the problems facing working people in Germany. Some of the answers to these problems have begun to be worked on at the GEW's conference.

A fair and dynamic education system which provides opportunities for all the young people living in Germany is an important part of the solution to the economic inequality and ecological unsustainability of the German and European economy. The workers in the education system are key players - 'wir schaffen das.'

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.