Are schools needed for education?
is Professor of Public Law with a focus on social and educational law at the University of Hildesheim Foundation and at the Berlin Science Center for Social Research (WZB). [email protected]
is President of the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and Professor of Educational Sociology and Labor Market Research at the Humboldt University in Berlin. [email protected]
After schools and daycare centers were closed without much public discussion, the far-reaching consequences of this decision gradually became an issue. In the meantime, study results show that the closure hit particularly hard those children who could not receive sufficient support in "homeschooling" because they come from socially disadvantaged living conditions, do not speak German as their mother tongue or are less familiar with academic educational content. Problems in structuring the daily routine and the (self-) learning processes, especially the lack of individual guidance and support from educators, have proven to be more significant than the lack of technical equipment with end devices or internet access.  There is clear evidence that the long school closure has further opened the social gap in children's education. Children with disabilities were also hit hard. The special educational support they need has been withdrawn from these children - and their right to education has been partially suspended. 
All of this may have been justified because of the acute risk of spread of a virus that was still largely unknown in spring 2020.  In the meantime, a change of course has also taken place: The education ministers of the federal states are now giving the right to education top priority and, provided that hygiene measures are observed, only close schools locally and on an occasional basis until further notice.  But how long can the consensus withstand the fear of increasing numbers of infections? The price for renewed (partial) closings over a longer period of time would be high - for the children affected, for social cohesion and for the economy. Children are hardly affected by Covid-19 as a disease. However, under the containment measures, they suffer more than any other group of the population. Schools (and daycare centers) should therefore be kept open as long as the risk of infection can be contained. At the same time, the deficits in the German school and education system, which have become even more visible or even worsened by the pandemic, must be addressed.
Education is a civil rightEducation is the decisive key for economic, social, cultural and, last but not least, political participation in our society, which is increasingly oriented towards knowledge and technology. People with a good education are integrated into the labor market faster and more permanently, they are more flexible in their professional careers and have greater opportunities for development; accordingly, they are less likely to become long-term unemployed. Well-educated people are healthier and have a higher average life expectancy than less educated people. Last but not least, they show greater resilience and are significantly more often and more intensively involved in social and political processes.  On the other hand, a low level of education leads to social (self-) exclusion and to considerable consequential social costs. 
Education is a "civil right", as the philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf put it back in 1965 and thus programmatically initiated the educational expansion in the early Federal Republic.  Today this normative guideline is all too often overlooked. The right to education is part of the core of internationally recognized human rights. It is guaranteed in various international agreements such as Article 13 of the International Social Covenant, Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 2 of the 1st Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and, last but not least, Article 14 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.  Good education is a prerequisite for the effective exercise of elementary freedoms such as freedom of expression, assembly and freedom of occupation. It is therefore called empowerment right - Right of competency - classified.  The opportunities that young people have with regard to their later professional lives, their political participation and their social relationships depend crucially on the extent to which knowledge and skills can be imparted and recognized degrees and qualifications can be acquired. The subjective right of the individual to education necessarily corresponds with the objective duty of the state to have a functioning education system on the basis of equal opportunity"), which is geared towards imparting the highest possible level of education to every person. 
Since 2009, the Federal Republic of Germany has also been obliged under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to guarantee an inclusive education system "at all levels".  In accordance with Article 24 of the Convention, the inclusive or integrative schooling of children with disabilities in general schools must become the norm. Behind this obligation under international law are experiences with school systems in many countries around the world, including Canada, the United States, the Scandinavian countries and Italy, in which only a small proportion of one percent or less of all students (still) have separate schools for children with special needs visited.  In Germany, on the other hand, the share of special needs schools is 4.2 percent and is therefore particularly high in comparison.
An essential requirement of the human right to education is the abolition of discrimination, including those that result indirectly from the education system (legally: "indirectly") when people have a disability due to their social or ethnic origin, their religion, their gender or a disability or comparable characteristics are disadvantaged.  In the past decades, educational research has compiled a great deal of evidence of such disadvantages in the German educational system, without politicians having drawn sufficient conclusions from this. 
Eliminate disadvantages, break down barriersEducational success in the German school system still depends heavily on the social and cultural capital of the parents' home, much more than in other countries.  There are multiple reasons for that. In the German federal states there is no culture of longer joint learning in which young people can develop their skills and talents individually. Very early on, mostly between the ages of nine and ten, children are divided into different types of school, in which their educational career is steered in a certain direction. Later corrections, especially ascent, are rare.  The classic "half-day school" also opens up few opportunities for individual support, with the result that (inadequate) educational experience at home often has a direct impact on school performance. This often results in a deficit orientation of the teachers: unfavorable performance developments of disadvantaged students are not understood as the result of insufficient support or pedagogically generated appreciations and devaluations, but attributed to the ethnic, cultural and social characteristics of the affected student groups.  The increasing socio-spatial segregation and segregation in schools intensifies these processes - so the "focus school" becomes a self-reproducing metaphor for social problems and low performance expectations.
On the other hand, education systems that are successful in an international comparison do not only rely on long-term joint learning (with possible internal differentiation). They understand the social and cultural diversity of students as a resource and assume that every student is basically able to achieve a high level of education. Accordingly, they carefully select their (multi-professional) pedagogical staff and motivate the pedagogues to continue their education, to learn about their practice in the sense of best pratice exchange and learn from each other. There are regular surveys on performance development and (mutual) coaching, not just for the purpose of control, but with a view to feedback and opportunities for further development and improvement.  The City of London has achieved astonishing success with such a strategy; some of the schools in "disadvantaged areas" are now among the best performing in the country. 
In contrast to this, the school system in the German federal states produces an (too) high proportion of educational losers compared to other countries. Around 15 percent of all young adults finish their school or vocational school education without a vocational qualification and are therefore considered to be relative "poorly educated" (measured by the population average).  The rate of young people who leave general schools without a vocational qualification or who do not reach level 1 of the PISA competence scale is over 5 percent - here we are talking about absolute Educational poverty. 
About 60 percent of young people without a school leaving certificate have attended a special school.  Even in the vocational transition system, the former special needs students fail to make up for the missing qualifications and skills; they are stigmatized and have no chance on the regular training and job market.  Special schools and special needs schools must therefore be seen as the institutional (main) producers of permanent absolute educational poverty - a clear finding that should cause us to rethink, especially in comparison with more inclusive school systems such as in Scandinavia or Canada.
When it comes to inclusion, there is still no progress in most federal states. Half-hearted political decisions lead to a "right to choose" between mainstream and special schools and thus to an elaborate double system.  Role models show: Without a planned relocation of the support and funding systems to mainstream schools - and the gradual closure of special needs schools - as well as better training and further education of specialists in the sense of inclusive pedagogy, there will be a lack of resources and excessive demands, as we see them in many places today. 
Nationwide education investments and strategiesTwo points are decisive for overcoming the challenges mentioned. On the one hand, public spending on schools in Germany is too low; measured in terms of gross domestic product, they are still below the OECD average.  However, investments in education are more important than ever and pay off because they - in the sense of preventive social policy - reduce later social costs and potentially also benefit economic strength.  An increase in investments in high-quality and efficient training measures is therefore urgently required. However, it cannot be provided primarily by the federal states and municipalities, which today contribute almost 90 percent of the total expenditure.  Rather, the federal government must contribute more in the long term. However, that will not work without giving him more opportunities to participate - as with the "digital pact" or the legal right to all-day care.
On the other hand, there is still a lack of a sufficiently coordinated approach by the federal states to master key challenges in the school sector. This can be seen very clearly when dealing with the shortage of skilled workers. This is a nationwide problem. The particular strategies of the federal states, however, lead to the fact that in various states even training places for teaching staff have been cut, which has triggered a less expedient "competition" between the federal states for the existing graduates - without a long-term, sustainable common strategy becoming apparent to get the problem under control. 
If we want to improve our school system in terms of the right to education, the federal and state governments must work together even more closely in the future. The "still" is deliberately set here, because a lot has been set in motion over the past few years. With the creation and expansion of Article 104c of the Basic Law, the federal government has the authority to invest in the "communal educational infrastructure" together with the federal states; billion-dollar programs run through this, such as the "digital pact", which has now been expanded to include an instant acquisition program to support students from low-income households. With the planned legal entitlement to all-day care in elementary school age from 2025, the federal government - via youth welfare law in the Social Code (SGB) VIII - will effectively intervene to a large extent in the school structure of the federal states. The classic "half-day school" will then be replaced nationwide for grades 1 to 4 by an open all-day program - including lunch and homework supervision. 
It is necessary to build on these developments in the sense of a joint, national education strategy of the federal and state governments. The legal entitlement to all-day care shows what opportunities are opening up for the qualitative further development of all-day schools. In addition, the federal government is responsible for educational and participation services that benefit children and young people from disadvantaged parental homes. The Federal Constitutional Court has emphasized that corresponding services such as tutoring, musical and cultural offers can also be provided as material and services;  in this respect it makes sense to use this to anchor offers in schools in the infrastructure. At the same time, connections to the social area can be expanded. The same applies to the services of integration assistance according to SGB IX for children with a disability, through which inclusive support offers at the mainstream schools can be qualitatively improved and linked to measures by other service providers.
In the interplay between the federal, state and local governments in social and educational policy, there is therefore some potential for overcoming the challenges outlined here and other challenges in educational policy. You just have to use it.
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