German education is very German
Where the British education system is tightly controlled by London, Berlin mostly stays out of German education. In many ways, the German system is similar to ours. The states (or Länder) have the primary authority in education. Therefore, just as in the U.S., education can vary radically from state to state. Incidentally, Germany is made up of 16 states.
Germans do not like what we call “non-traditional” education. Meaning, home schooling, religious schools, online schools, and private schools are pretty much unilaterally outlawed. The Germans have taken this to such an extent that parents can be, and have been, imprisoned for refusing to send their children to the state approved schools. Some parents have even sought political asylum in the U.S. because they were adamant about not sending their children. In recent years, more parents are challenging the laws, but seem to be losing. The only exceptions to this are approved international schools for foreign students and some limited Germans and U.S. DOD schools for military personnel stationed in the country.
The justification for this harsh, by American standards, ruling is to prevent the formation of subcultures within Germany. The German government is still paranoid that an uncontrolled subculture could lead to another rise in something like Nazism.
When we arrived in Germany, we intended to home school our two boys, since both my wife and I are teachers anyway. When we found out the laws (after we arrived – bad idea), we changed to plan B, which was to have them attend the international school where I was teaching. A typical contractual benefit for international teachers is free or reduced tuition for children. This makes sense because most international schools, especially in Europe, are outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, German laws require the tuition benefit to be taxed at the going rate of about 40%. Ouch! So, on to plan C.
We got permission, after quite a struggle and paperwork, to enroll our oldest in a U.S. approved online school. Our youngest, however, was forced to go to the German town school after we got a letter from the government informing us that if he was not there the next day, then the police would come to escort him. No amount of American bravado can dissuade the Germans. Rules are rules!
At first we thought that this would be a great cultural enrichment experience for our son. Unfortunately, the Germans do not embrace multiculturalism. As the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared, “German multiculturalism has utterly failed.” The language of instruction is German, period. That is a huge problem for an 8 year old who only speaks English. Immersion in German does not work when a stubborn little boy decides otherwise. We could not blame him; German is ridiculously hard to learn.
One day while I was dropping him off at school in the morning I wished him a good day. He responded, “Yep, off to another day of torture!” I was both amused and heart-broken. He really did not like the school. He would obstinately sit in the back and read his own books while the teacher rambled on in German. The year was an academic disaster for him.
The principal called a meeting to discuss the issue. Through broken English and German with the help of a parent who spoke a little English, we learned that she was more concerned about his exam scores come time to select his secondary school. In Germany, students are self-selected by exam scores to one of three possible options: Gymnasium for smart kids bound for university, Realschule for good kids that might go on to some type of higher education or job, and the Hauptschule for kids that are bound for less noble pursuits. The principal wanted to let us know that our son was opting for the third choice. We knew otherwise, but were forced between a stubborn German system and an even more stubborn child. Luckily, we also knew that our time in Germany was limited, so we just had to wait it out. Elijah was not as happy about the wait.