How German headteachers want to overhaul ‘outdated’ school system

A new study has revealed that the vast majority of headteachers want to see a "new culture of learning" in Germany's schools.

How German headteachers want to overhaul 'outdated' school system
School pupils sit in class at a school in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Gregor Fischer

According to a recent survey by the Berlin Research Institute for Educational and Social Issues, an overwhelming majority of headteachers believe that Germany needs a complete overhaul of its education system.

The study, which included a survey of around 1,100 headteachers and 50 in-depth phone interviews, came to the conclusion that schools were crying out for a “new culture of learning” in the Bundesrepublik.

In more concrete terms, headteachers are keen to see a whole new curriculum that’s fit for the 21st century, better equality of opportunities and a shake up in traditional school hours and teaching staff.  

Here are the results of the survey.

A fresh curriculum 

More than four in five (82 percent) of headmasters told researchers that they were in favour of revamping the school timetable and curriculum, which is “no longer in keeping with the times”. Almost half of the respondents would like to see lessons in different subjects more closely linked thematically, while around a quarter think interdisciplinary learning would be valuable.

“German schools have not yet arrived in the 21st century,” the headmaster of a grammar school is quoted as saying. “The canon of subjects is madness.”

Though interest-led, individualised timetables are the exception rather than the rule, many of the headteachers surveyed believe this should change.  

Expansion of “all-day” schools

In contrast to the rigid structure of the ordinary school day, 89 percent of the respondents believe a switch to an “all-day” school model is needed.

In an all-day school, all pupils stay stay together at school on at least three days of the week until the afternoon. The timetable can be structured around natural cycles of activity, rest and concentration, with lessons, recreation and play alternating throughout the day.  

While some schools follow this model already, the majority of Germans schools don’t – they finish for the day around lunchtime. However, 82 percent of headteachers think it can contribute significantly to equal opportunities by decoupling success at school from the influence of the family home. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

Equality of opportunity

Educational outcomes can be strongly linked to the home environment – a situation that was made worse by the distance-learning required during the pandemic. According to the study, 92 percent of headteachers rely on individual support programmes to improve equality in schools, with the vast majority wanting to see better equality of opportunity.

To equip their students for adulthood and the world of work, 93 percent said they wanted more life skills to be taught in class.

Children learn on iPads at German school

Children learn on iPads at a school in Swisttal, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

One of the respondents, head of a primary school for 21 years, told researchers: “I see an increasing loss of educational quality in the parents’ homes. The school has to compensate more and more.”

More time for what matters

Staffing and working patterns were also seen as an issue by many headteachers. While the majority want to spend their time focussing on educational success and strategy, the reality is currently completely different.

Around half of the survey respondents said they had just three hours a week to consider the big-picture issues, while the majority of their time was spent on mindless administrative tasks. 

“I can plan as much as I want, but then everyday life gets in the way,” one headmistress was quoted as saying in the study. Juggling endless small jobs during the day “makes me disoriented”, she added.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What foreign parents should know about German schools

Nutrition and digital maturity

Other key topics that cropped up in the survey were better nutrition, democracy and digital education and maturity. In each of these three areas, around 90 percent of headmasters thought there was room for improvement.

In the digital realm in particular, 92 percent were in favour of teaching pupils how to use digital tools and media “responsibly”. 

German headteachers ‘are reformers’

The study was commissioned by the textbook publisher Cornelsen, with the involvement of educational researcher Klaus Hurrelmann.

Commenting on the outcome of the survey, Hurrelmann said he was surprised by the results.

“Who would have thought it? The majority of German school headmasters are reformers,” he said. “They don’t deny that there are some firmly embedded structures that are built into the everyday running of schools – but it is precisely these that they want to overcome.” 

Though the challenges of the pandemic have left most headteachers feeling dissatisfied over the past few years, the majority of them nonetheless said they felt optimistic about the future. 

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German minister wants to allow refugee teachers from Ukraine to work in schools

Education ministers are discussing how to get children fleeing war in Ukraine into the German education system quickly - and one idea is to allow refugee teachers to work in schools.

German minister wants to allow refugee teachers from Ukraine to work in schools

German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger wants to see refugee teachers from Ukraine be allowed to work at schools and daycare centres.

The FDP politician said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was forcing people – especially women and children – to flee, and that tens of thousands of refugees were now arriving in Germany. This means that extra daycare and school places are desperately needed.

There will be teachers from Ukraine seeking refuge in Germany who will “want to and be able to help”, Stark-Watzinger told the newspapers of the Funke-Mediengruppe 

On Thursday, education ministers were set to meet in Lübeck to discuss the situation. The aim is to quickly offer schooling to refugee children, said Karin Prien (CDU), who heads up the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the states.

READER QUESTION: How is Germany supporting refugees from Ukraine?

Education ministers have also scheduled a meeting with the Ukrainian Consul General in Hamburg, Iryna Tybinka.

German teacher shortage

In view of the challenge, several education unions are demanding more funding for schools. President of the German Teachers’ Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, urged for more staff to be hired.

“I can imagine that more student teachers and retired teachers can be recruited for this purpose, because there is an enormous willingness to help in society,” he said. “But the state must also provide additional resources for this.”

Germany already has a well-documented shortage of teachers. Studies show that this will get worse in the coming years. One study commissioned by the Education and Training Association (VBE), predicted that by 2025 there would be a shortage of 45,000 teachers – and this would rise to 81,000 teachers by 2030 if not addressed.

Meanwhile chairman of the VBE, Udo Beckmann, raised other concerns. He said most school staff are not trained for trauma work – and specialist help would be needed.

“In order to best meet the special needs of these children in the current situation, multi-professional teams are needed,” Beckmann told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

READ ALSO: How people in Germany can support Ukraine

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine up until Tuesday this week, more than 2.1 million people – mainly women and children – have fled the country, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned by the government in Kyiv from leaving due to martial law. 

In Germany, more than 80,000 refugees are known to authorities. But since there are no border controls on the EU’s internal borders, the number is likely to be much higher.