“It’s not just about learning German.”

published 29 May 2019 updated 29 May 2019

On 26 May 2019, at the same time as the European parliamentary election, regional elections were held in the German State of Bremen. To date, it is unclear which coalition will be able to take power - whether a coalition of the Greens with the Christian Democrats and Liberals on the Green Center - Right, or an alliance of the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party  - which would be a first for western Germany. Prior to these elections, some 40 people attended a pre-election panel hosted by the GEW Bremen Working Group “Teachers Organising For Quality Education for Refugees.” Nick Strauss, the treasurer of the GEW Bremen State branch reflects back on the outcomes of this panel and declarations made by the then candidates from the main political parties on refugee education in the State.

“Mostly teachers directly affected by the challenge of teaching the more than 10% of students in Bremen, who have arrived in the past 5 years, but also community organisers from the Bremen Refugee’s Council were there, along with interested students and even the chief officer for vocational education from the education department.

On the panel were 5 politicians who had spent a morning in a preparatory course in a Primary, Junior Secondary or Vocational School in Bremen. These visits were conducted away from the gaze of the media – they were meant to be a time for the politicians to learn as well.

All opposition parties were represented from the pro market liberal ‘Free Democrats’ (FDP), the party of the German Chancellor Merkel the Christian Democrats (CDU) to the left wing party ‘die Linke’. As well the ruling coalition in Bremen of the Social Democratic (SPD) and their junior partners, the Greens, were there.

In line with GEW policy, and that of the broader German trade union movement, far right parties such as the so called ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) and the local populist party ‘Angry Citizens’ (BiW) were not given a platform.

As Ina von Boetticher, one of the State Spokespersons of the GEW in Bremen, said in her opening words:

“It’s not just about learning German and getting to know a new school and school system – and that’s hard enough for many (!) – at the same time many of the children and young people have brought with them severe trauma – including the loss of family and a secure, known home. … becoming a part of a new society as opposed to just coping, is an enormous challenge which needs time!” 

So what did the politicians say?

Julie Kohlrausch, a former head teacher standing for the FDP said that her party supported integration as opposed to segregation and that without additional resources no improvements would be possible. For example she supported the campaign for additional basic literacy support in primary schools. She also supported a mother tongue offer in every neighbourhood and encouraged the participants to stay active on the issues affecting refugee and migrant children. Ms Kohlrausch emphasised the importance of early years education as one of her goals for the first 100 days should the FDP be in government after the élections.

Sandra Ahrens from the CDU was the one speaker who hadn’t been able to spend time in a preparatory course - she did make a date for a visit at the end of the meeting though. Ms Ahrens could see the point of a more ‘dynamic approach’ to the length of attendance at school – which met many of the concerns about refugee and migrant children being put through the system too fast. The CDU supported mother tongue tuition but with an increase of state provision as opposed to relying on the home countries governments for teachers and curriculum.

Sophie Leonidakis from the Left Party had come straight from a visit that morning as the party leader who had done a visit before Easter was unable to attend. She criticized long waiting times of up to one year for some students to access courses, and the ongoing outsourcing of initial provision in Bremerhaven. Ms Leonidakis pointed out that she preferred to talk about inclusion rather than integration and said the “role of education was to meet the challenge of heterogeneity” with a wide range of offers including more public provision of mother tongue tuition.

Mustafa Güngür from the SPD, who’s his party spokesperson on education said that his visit to a preparatory course at a high school in Gröplingen, a working class suburb of Bremen, had made a deep impression on him … and also proudly showed the monster he had drawn during his visit. He supported child based solutions but agreed that the communication between the education department and practitioners need to be improved. Mr Güngür stated that the state had the best range of mother tongue tuition in the country but that this could be better supported with legislative guidelines.

Christopher Rupp from the Greens was the one representative who was not an existing member of the Bremen state parliament. He was the one visitor to a vocational college – the sector which has educated the significant number of unaccompanied minors over the last years. He argued for a far better advice service for, and placement of, the students in their vocational courses. “Successful integration is when the students like going to school”. He said that his party would strive to improve flexibility of provision in the first 100 days after the election if they were returned to government.

Many of the politicians spent much of the discussion learning about new aspects the field and taking notes. Many in the audience found this listening to practitioners a pleasant change from our usual experiences … but it is election time.

What were some of the points colleagues made?

  • Some union members pointed out the bizarre situation (during a massive staffing shortage) where staff wanting to work more hours were not allowed – the reason being: ‘unqualified’ staff are good enough to teach the preparatory courses but not to work in the rest of the school system.
  • Many colleagues called for improvements in vocational education – more time than the two years and better and more flexible placements.
  • The difficulties of teaching cross aged groups in the preparatory courses – either from 6 to11 year olds in primary or 1o to 16 year olds in secondary was noted.
  • Special needs provision for migrant and refugee children as part of an inclusive education system – at the moment there is simply no provision made.
  • Better communication – many problems had been raised before – again and again and yet it felt like nothing was being achieved.

“Leading up the election, almost all the parties in Bremen have said that education is a vital theme. As a union that’s pleasing news and it means that it’s particularly interesting to see what actually happens after the election … because that’s when it is that it really counts.” 

Ina von Boetticher, State Spokesperson for the GEW in Bremen.

Sometimes elections feel like the Olympics – the politicians compete every four years and win or lose. 

But for the children and young people in the education system in the state of Bremen and the education workers, teachers and social workers who work with them … education is more like a marathon. We just have to keep on keeping on.”