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public spending Crumbling Cathedrals of Learning Lawmakers are competing with visions of a 21st century education system, but a gaping hole in investment must be filled just to make German classrooms fit for purpose.

by August 18, 2017 General

public spending

Umkleidekabine in Schulturnhalle
German schools, like this in Berlin’s Lichtenberg district, are in a shocking state of disrepair. Source: DPA

With election campaigns heating up, politicians are getting on their soapboxes promising to revolutionize Germany’s dilapidated education system.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives want to launch a €5 billion ($5.9 billion) “digital education offensive” to drag German schools out of the analogue age. Their rivals the Social Democratic Party (SPD), too, are promising major investment digital education.

The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), meanwhile, is calling its education program its “moon-landing mission,” saying it wants to put Germany’s education system back on top globally, with a “nationwide act of force.”

To catch up with the 21st century, Germany’s schools need more than electronic blackboards. The future economy will demand workers fluent in the languages of computer programming.

But there’s little room for such ideals in a system that faces far more pressing problems.

A chronic shortfall of funding has left pupils across the country in crumbling, overcrowded classrooms. Teachers are in short supply. Toilets fester, and without long-overdue renovations, some schools are becoming a health hazard.

The situation is so dire, a fundamental shift in the way schools are funded has become a political priority.

Germany invests just 4.2 percent of its GDP in its educational institutions, compared to an EU average of 4.9 percent. Neighboring France, with a much weaker economy than Germany, spends 5.5 percent of its national product on schools.

08 p46 Schools – Educational Expenditure-01

John F. Kennedy once said, “There is only one thing more expensive in the long run than education — no education.” For an economy that isn’t based on natural resources, it’s nothing less than a matter of survival.

Germany’s dual education system, which offers college-level students apprenticeships closely tailored to industry needs, is admired internationally. But high school performance has long been a concern.

The early 2000s saw much debate over Germany’s low international ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which assesses 15-year-olds’ performance in mathematics, science, and reading.

A trend towards less ideological discussion of school development followed, leading to federal standards for the quality of teaching and more practical orientation in teacher training. But Germany still lags at 16th place in the Pisa rankings.

Experts say this is worrying for the country’s future. Ludger Wößmann, professor of economics at the University of Munich, has studied the Pisa results of 50 countries. “The better the performance in Pisa tests, the higher per-capita GDP growth since 1960,” he told Handelsblatt.

Federal government plays a minor role in shaping the country’s education system, which is the responsibility of Germany’s 16 individual states. A key aspect of their treasured “culture of sovereignty,” this was enshrined in the German constitution after the war to reduce the risk of centralized of power.

Now, lawmakers across the political spectrum are asking whether a fragmented system can maintain the Germany’s edge in the face of competition from powerful emerging economies.

08 p51 Schools – Pisa Study-01

“Today in Shanghai or Singapore, you see modern teaching, better equipped schools and better qualified teachers than in Germany,” the OECD’s Pisa coordinator Andreas Schleicher told Handelsblatt.

Germany’s states are responsible for basics like books and stationery. Buildings are a matter for often heavily indebted local authorities. Under current law, policy from Berlin is confined to special projects like the digital offensive promised by CDU Education Minister Johanna Wanka.

The Social Democrats, Green Party, Left Party and FDP are all demanding a greater role for central government in the education system.

An amendment recently passed by the German parliament will now allow for federal funding to be used on renovation projects. But in its election program, the CDU remains committed to keeping decisions over how the money is spent in the hands of individual states.

Ms. Merkel’s rival Martin Schulz has put education at the forefront of his SPD party’s manifesto, promising a €30-billion investment in buildings, equipment, new teachers, and a million new all-day places at primary schools — many of which still send pupils home at midday.

But even this may not be enough to make the country’s 45,000 schools fit for purpose. Around the country, there are horror stories of students breathing in toxic chemicals, suffering electric shocks from exposed wiring or sitting huddled in their coats as winter winds cut though unheated classrooms.

A 2016 study by German development bank KfW put the nationwide cost of renovating German schools at €34 billion, saying the poor state of schools was impeding educational success. Investment was even lower in poorer states where more children came from families on welfare, KfW found, reinforcing social inequality.

“Today in Shanghai or Singapore, you see modern teaching, better equipped schools and better qualified teachers than in Germany.”

Andreas Schleicher, Pisa coordinator, OECD

Last year, the Social Democrats’ Sigmar Gabriel — then minister of economics — denounced the miserable state of German education saying, “schools, not banks, should be the cathedrals of our country.”

That will require more than repairing dilapidated buildings. Analysts say a comfortable, modern environment is vital to get the best out of students — and teachers.

But whether decisions over where investment is made are made locally or on a federal level, recruiting the right people to enrich and inspire the next generation will be key.

“When it comes to investing in smaller classes or better teachers,” Mr. Schleicher of the OECD says, “the successful Pisa countries usually choose teachers.”

And that investment looks set to become ever-more costly. For years, German cities expected falling student numbers. But a study released in July found that with rising immigration and families choosing to have more children, the country can expect 8 percent more pupils by 2030. Nationally, that could mean a shortfall of tens of thousands of teachers.

Benedikt Becker, Emma-Victoria Farr, Mona Fromm, Stefani Hergert, Simone Wermelskirchen and Christian Wermke contributed to this article. To contact the authors:

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