The education system in Germany is facing major challenges. Dr. Dagmar Wolf, Senior Vice President, Education at Robert Bosch Stiftung, explains how the foundation’s area of education works to develop schools and promote a sustainable future for learning in the 21st century.
An interview with Dr. Dagmar Wolf
Henry Alt-Haaker: Education is one of the foundation's three areas of support and is very visible in Germany with many projects. My first question is about the German educational landscape. Germany is one of the richest countries in the world and is very proud of its image as a “land of poets and thinkers.” How do you assess the quality of the German educational system and how would you classify the current debates?
Dr. Dagmar Wolf: The German educational system is currently in a difficult situation. In international comparison, it doesn't get the grades that we’d like it to. At the same time, we’re experiencing stagnation in its development and don't really know how we should further develop the system for the future. In addition, as in many other industrialized nations, there is also the problem that the teaching profession is becoming less attractive. This leads to a major shortage of skilled workers in the field of education and training. Many schools are cutting back teaching hours. Innovative measures are already being introduced to induct new entrants from different career backgrounds in the field of education. And the personnel problem will continue to worsen throughout Germany because many teachers are retiring in the next few years and a large new generation will be entering the school system. Despite the re-qualification of career switchers, the goal must remain to train enough daycare, primary school, and secondary school teachers and to maintain a system that relies on professional staff. From a professional theory point of view, it is extremely important that we employ people in schools who have both the technical and didactic knowledge as teachers.
There is a shortage of more than 12,000 teachers nationwide, although the situation varies greatly in the federal states. What about inequality in the German educational system, both regionally and in terms of the origins of parents and children? Are we on the right track there?
Since the first PISA survey over 20 years ago, the OECD clearly underscores to us that we have a major problem when it comes to educational equality in Germany. The fact is that children with one or more “risk situations” have significantly worse educational opportunities than children fromeducated households . In the city states (Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg) and also in North Rhine-Westphalia, significantly more children and young people live on social welfare payments and are therefore of course more educationally disadvantaged. But you also have to recognize that the composition of children and young people is changing extremely in many regions. In recent years, for example, Baden-Württemberg has taken in significantly more children and young people with a migration background or refugee experience than other federal states and has therefore performed worse in national educational performance comparisons. The many different starting opportunities in the school system must first be considered.
Was this reinforced by the 200,000 Ukrainian children who had to be integrated into the school system or did they belong to a group that was relatively easy to integrate?
We didn't just take in children from Ukraine. During the same period, almost as many children and young people with a different migration history came to Germany. This means that we’ve accepted in total around half a million children and young people into the German school and educational system. This is a huge challenge for our educational system and at the same time a huge achievement. Despite the system's deficits, a lot is happening, above all through the personal commitment of teachers and people who feel responsible for the children and young people in the system.
We assumed that Ukrainian children and young people could be integrated quickly due to the fact that they come from a school system similar to ours. Now we realize that this is only partly the case and that these children and young people suffer extremely from this experience of flight. Added to this is uncertainty about their prospects in Germany. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education sets clear expectations for these children by repeatedly telling them that they are expected to come back after the war and help with reconstruction.
Schools are increasingly realizing that these students have an extreme motivation problem. Does it make sense to learn German? How long do I need this, how long am I even here? None of us expected this and it pushes the system to the brink. It has many different effects on the behavior of the students, which the school has to deal with in some way.
That paints a black picture. Now let's move on to your approaches to improve the situation. What is the strategy of the Stiftung’s education team? How do you understand education and which age groups do you reach? Where do you start and what are your priorities?
The education department is the only area of the foundation that works just nationally with its programs. Our target groups are primarily daycare, primary school, and secondary school. Our goal is to use our offers to support the educational system, to improve it and to actually be able to pursue the issue of equal opportunities. To do this, we use different approaches.
With the German School Award, we want to make good school practice visible and tangible to give others the opportunity to orientate themselves to this good practice and to be able to derive ideas for themselves. To do this, we look for good schools based on criteria that we select in a multi-stage jury process, award prizes to, and then make this good practice visible with the concepts of these schools. It is now known in the education sector that you can sit in on prize-winning schools and experience what makes a good school. Through internships we also enable an exchange between the federal states because teachers then have the opportunity to look at a school in another federal state.
In a further step, we work with scholars, experienced school practitioners, and convincing concepts from award-winning schools – or schools abroad – in a co-constructive manner with federal states on tailor-made offers for school, teaching, and leadership development. We then pilot and evaluate these with our own trainers with the aim of scaling them into the system in respective countries.
A concrete example is a program to ensure basic skills in primary schools. Reading, writing, and arithmetic form the basis for all further school learning, but currently only a fifth of primary school students have these skills at the end of four years of primary school. We have developed a program with the two federal states Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein that brings primary schools together. Four to five primary schools apply with their school inspectorate and then work together on concepts to ensure basic skills at their schools. We provide support with content offerings and networking meetings. These four to five primary schools form a school family in which, in best cases, continue to work together on a permanent basis. And now the international comes into play: our school family model is an international model that is primarily implemented in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The importance of the School Award is underscored by the fact that our federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is presenting it this year.
In recent years, the federal president and the chancellor have alternately presented the award. For the schools, this is a sign of appreciation coming from the highest office in the country. And the politicians, through their association with the school prize, can show to their constituents that good schools can be successful. Our work with high-ranking politicians helps us draw attention to the importance of our work on education.
You explained why you focus on the German educational system, but at the same time of course you look internationally, where we can learn from other countries and where we look: what is transferable and where are we comparing apples with oranges? A while ago you went on a learning trip to the US, where our fellow Dennis Shirley accompanied and supported you. We know the US as a great pioneer and a country with the best universities in the world, but unfortunately less as a pioneer in school education. What did you learn and take away?
On the US trip we primarily dealt with the topic of digital and AI-supported education. We came just at the time when the general public was really noticing Chat GPT, and it was exciting to see at Stanford how opportunity-oriented this topic was viewed there. It’s utopian to think that students do not use this instrument. That's why we must give them the skills to be able to assess: Is what Chat GPT gives us actually correct and how should I classify it? In the US it is used much more creatively and a little more carelessly than in Germany. The discussion was also a step further when it comes to performance measurement and assessment in the university and school sectors and what that means for the demands we place on learners. Of course, there are also risks that we have to see and discuss.
When you talk about technology in schools, I wonder whether we in the German educational system are far enough along to ask these important questions about education’s future. When I read about our schools, I tend to read about very banal construction problems, right up to the fact that students are disgusted about going to the toilet and their health suffers as a result. Are we taking the second step before the first?
I don't think we should ask the question like that. The German educational system must deal with all of its challenges. This includes an architecture that promotes learning, but also questions such as: What do children and young people need to be able to learn well? What can I do as a teacher and where do I need support?
Our schools have to do better. This is also followed by the topic of what future learning looks like and what our children need to survive twenty years from now in a world that we today can’t properly envision. And we must further develop a school system that is able to integratechildren because we will continue to be confronted with immigration and have children and young people with different levels of ability and knowledge.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and heads the Strategic Partnerships and Robert Bosch Academy department.
Dr. Dagmar Wolf is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and Head of the area of support “Education”. Her department focuses on the topics “Learning” and “School Development / Development in Pre-school and Daycare”.
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