Ulrich Kober: Education and Integration

February 11th, 2010

An interview with Ulrich Kober, Director, Programm Integration und Bildung at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Each year the Carl Bertelsmann Prize honors innovative ideas and exemplary solutions to pressing social issues from Germany and internationally with the mandate of learning from the best examples in the world.

In 2008, the prize was focused on the theme, “Integration depends on education.” The Bertelsmann Foundation carried out an international search to identify the practices and approaches that are the most successful at increasing equal opportunity in schools for the children of immigrant families and, by doing so, promoting the children’s integration within their adopted country.

Click here to read about the 2008 winner of Carl Bertelsmann Prize.

1. Like Cities of Migration, the Bertelsmann approach is about cities learning from other cities. When did Bertelsmann first start looking outside Germany for ideas and what led to this approach?

Well, after WW II, Reinhard Mohn, the founder of the Bertelsmann Foundation, spent time in the US as a prisoner of war. In addition to being impressed by what he experienced overseas, it also led to his view that the new post-war Germany could and should learn from the world at large. In fact, “To Learn From The World” was the title of his last book.

And so, the Bertelsmann Foundation has always had a deliberate focus on how the success of international practices could be used to address the challenges Germany is facing.

The annual Carl Bertelsmann-Prize honours those international models that inspire social innovation in Germany. For instance, in the field of integration and education, Germany must adopt policies that reflect our new reality of Germany being a country of immigration. At the moment, Germany has a lot to learn from countries that better integrate migrant and newcomer children in the educational system and this was one of the reasons why the 2008 Carl Bertelsmann Prize was awarded to the Toronto District School Board for its outstanding educational equity policy.

2. Education systems and curriculum requirements vary enormously from city to city and can have a huge impact on the classroom experience. With all these differences, does it make it difficult to actually apply a practice that may have worked in Toronto to the situation in Germany?

Indeed, the process of transferring a model from one specific context to another is always tricky.

It ‘s true that education systems vary a lot – the German school system is a multi-track system with tracking (or streaming) beginning at the very early age of 10 years.

In contrast, the Canadian system is comprehensive. In Germany, the regional or local level of government is not as important or involved in the education system as it is in Canada, since German cities are responsible for the maintenance of the school building but not in charge of curricula or teaching staff.

However, German cities like Berlin or Hamburg face similar integration challenges as Toronto and so, the way Toronto faces these challenges is highly inspirational for them.

Having said that, it is clear that the solutions must be adapted to fit into the German context – and that ultimately, they will be different from the answers given in Toronto. In Toronto the belief in integration through education is supported by a Canadian climate of valuing diversity and a national “multicultural” consensus.

There is no such thing in Germany.

The country has been ´- until very recently – reluctant to integrate migrants. Migrants were seen as “guest workers” that would return to their countries of origin and not as residents or Germans.

This viewpoint is what framed the national and regional discussion. And so, the change that we hope to encourage in Germany is really a change in mental models and not just introducing new teaching methods or pumping more money in schools with a high proportion of migrant children.

3. In your experience, what are some of the common issues that schools with high newcomer and immigrant populations face – regardless of city and geography?

I see two common issues: language and social capital. Language acquisition is the key to integration. All cities and countries need to establish effective systems and programs for migrant students to learn the new language.

Migrants also lack social capital in the new environment – meaning, they often don’t have relevant professional contacts, networks and friends and so need effective systems for social support.

4. What have been some of the successes that you have been able to bring back to Germany?
The German educational system has been undergoing deep changes over the last years. The OECD’s global evaluations, the PISA’s (Programme for International Student Assessment) have really helped to open up the country to international experiences.

Some of the changes that we’ve seen implemented in Germany include the extension of the school day which has been helpful for migrant students. Another idea, that was also inspired by international best practice and adopted in almost all German states, is to test the language ability of all four year old children. Students that need additional support are identified early and so, by six when they start school, have been given the opportunity and means to catch up.

Our global research and international involvement has also raised the profile of this issues nationally. Through our recommendations, we have also been able to engage a broad range of German stakeholders. For instance, the state commissioner for integration spoke at the event when the Carl Bertelsmann Prize was awarded to the Toronto District School Board. I was recently invited to the commission for schools of the parliament of Northrhine-Westphalia, (the largest German state), to discuss ways to improve immigrant integration in schools.

Last autumn I was invited to international commission of the Stuttgart council to speak about the integration of migrant children. These are just three examples which show that our work is perceived at a national level, the state level and the regional level.

5. What do you see as the most significant challenge to immigrant integration in education?

In Germany, it is the gap between migrant students and native students. According to the PISA studies, by the age of 15 migrant students currently lag two school years behind their native peers. As a result, the proportion of migrant students that enter university is much lower than the proportion among their native peers. Furthermore, the proportion of school leavers among migrant students is much higher and the proportion of those finding a place in the vocational system is much lower. These gaps have to be closed and at the same time the bar for all students in Germany has to be raised.

6. Is there a key message you would like to share about what needs to be done to move this agenda forward?

The key message is that every child – regardless of his social or ethnic background – matters and has to be enabled via the educational system to develop its potential. Individual support by teachers and schools is the key to deliver equity and excellence in education.

7. Good ideas aside, of all of the cities you’ve looked at and travelled to, what would you most like to bring back to your home city?

Well, When we want to Stockholm, Sweden we spoke to a principal in a neighborhood populated exclusively by refugees from Asia, particularly Afghanistan. We asked her whether she had problems with head scarves in her schools. Yes, she answered, they needed MORE head scarves especially among teachers … we were stunned because in some states in Germany teachers with head scarves are not allowed to teach. In Toronto we saw signs with the slogan “Diversity is our strength” – in Germany people think that diversity is causing trouble. These Swedish and Canadian examples could help Germany to develop a new approach to immigrant integration in the education system.

Read more about Bertelsmann Foundation.

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