Munich, Germany

Giving Young Refugees a Shot at Success


September 29, 2015

A learner-centred approach gives young refugees opportunities for education and integration

Source: Robert Bosch Stiftung

Click to watch video (Source: Robert Bosch Stiftung)

Sitting in a classroom in SchlaU-Schule in Munich, Germany, Mehdi, an 18-year old refugee from Afghanistan, dreams of becoming a pop star or, if that does not work out, an electrician. Next to him is 19-year old Naima, a Somali refugee who dreams of training as a medical assistant.

SchlaU-Schule is not just an ordinary school. Loosely translated as ‘smart school’, it was founded in 2000 by Michael Stenger to address a gap in Germany’s asylum system which prevented young refugees over the age of 16 from attending local schools, denying them the right to education and effectively excluding them from an essential step in the settlement process.

Education is a national policy area in Germany, but no nationwide laws exist to regulate the schooling of refugee children. Each state has its own policies for admission numbers, teacher training and language training as well as how long refugee children are required to attend school, if at all.

As a teacher of German as a foreign language with extensive experience working with migrant groups, Stenger understood that without schooling these young adults had limited opportunity to learn German, or to acquire the education and skills needed to integrate into German society and get on with their lives. SchlaU-Schule was founded with the belief that a special institution was necessary to ensure these young people had access to sustainable education and integration.

Exceptional circumstances

Refugees often flee their home countries under chaotic and traumatizing circumstances. For young refugees arriving in Germany without parents or family, the challenges of settling in and normalizing their lives are enormous, amplified by widespread discrimination and systems that fail to recognize their needs. Many arrive orphaned or unaccompanied by adults, without emotional support. Temporary accommodation, often chaotic and insecure, further isolates them from mainstream society and adds to their precarious situation. For some, a fear of deportation is a haunting daily experience.

SchlaU-Schule’s immediate goals are to prepare students for their final exams – whatever their literacy level entering the school – and to secure them a place in Germany’s vocational training and apprenticeship system. To make this work with limited means and outside the formal school system,  SchlaU needed to accomplish its goals in an accelerated time frame while providing support for young people living with the stresses of exceptional circumstances.

A holistic approach

The SchlaU curriculum offers a comprehensive approach to refugee youth and unaccompanied young asylum seekers between 16 and 25, structuring courses equivalent to those offered in state schools and offering programmes that address their most urgent needs. Special language training, teaching of regular school curricula, legal assistance and social, pedagogic and psychological support helps prepare students to succeed at the basic state school exam, enabling them to quality for post-secondary studies or vocational training and a professional career.

A key task of the school is helping prepare these young people transition to adulthood in the context of the challenges they face in integrating into their new home. Serving as a community hub, the school provides them with an important setting for their recovery and progress amidst loss, uncertainty and frequently undefined immigration status.

Nelson Osakue, an unaccompanied young adult from Nigeria, likes math and wants to study finance. He commutes to school from Olching near Munich, where he’s housed in a two-room asylum residence. For Osakue, whose German improves daily: “I think of SchlaU-Schule as a parent.”

Learner-centered approach

The school puts the needs of the students in the center of the learning process. A highly modular class system honours and fosters individual learning successes.

Providing individualized attention: At the school, the classes are small, with a maximum of 16 students, with teachers and social workers working on a one-on-one basis with the young people. The goal is to build much-needed relationships and trust between the teachers and the students.

“The success of teaching depends critically on a good teacher-student relationship,” says Anja Kittlitz, an educational researcher who works on curriculum development at the school.

Tailored education materials: The school creates its own educational materials tailored to the needs of refugee youth. “Many [language] textbooks that exist in the market have been developed for a target audience that is learning a second or third language,” says Kittlitz. Readings or exercises about the middle-class family or holidays in Italy can seem insensitive to refugee students who come from very different backgrounds and have had difficult life experiences. So SchlaU teachers prepare their own materials, connecting learning to the realities that count, the student and the community he or she now calls home.

Socialization of students: Access to education goes long way in providing normalcy in an otherwise unstable environment for these young refugees. School is an important space for the refugee youth, not only for getting an education but also for peer-to-peer interactions and integration into society.

Realizing that real learning can only be achieved if the school also tends to the personal development and self-esteem of the students, the school offers students a range of extra-curricular activities such as a chess club, a school band, sewing classes and a theatre group, many made possible thanks to the support of local community volunteers.

Accelerated learning: SchlaU has empowered 96 percent of its students –-distressed, often semi-literate and from all over the world– to graduate within two years from German secondary school which usually takes nine years of schooling. SchlaU pupils also outperform their native peers, with better grades on their exams than average Germans.

Facilitating school-to-work transition: SchlaU also helps with the transition from school to work by connecting students to training opportunities, apprenticeships and employers. All students participate in a mandatory two-week internship during their final year. Through mentorship programmes with pro bono business partners, graduates receive crucial vocational training. As a result, most of the SchlaU alumni who start vocational training complete their programmes and have a much lower dropout rate than native-born German apprentices (dropout rate is one in five for native-born Germans).


In Munich, SchlaU-Schule has revolutionized the way refugees are received and treated throughout their asylum process. Today, the municipality of Munich recognizes the right of every underage refugee to attend school and made school visits part of the settlement services offered to young refugees on arrival. Having successfully established his SchlaU schools in Munich with 145 students, Stenger is expanding throughout Bavaria, Germany’s largest state. In 2014 more than 1500 students had travelled through Schlau. In 2004 the Bavarian Government officially recognized SchlaU-Schule as a state-accredited school. Today the State of Bavaria covers two-thirds of the cost of the school’s teachers.

Through its successes, SchlaU has won national and international acclaim as a pioneer in the field of offering educational support to young refugees.

In 2014, SchaU-Schule was awarded the German School Prize (Deutschen Schulpreis) by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

SchlaU continues to attract attention from the international community and partnerships with major universities, citizen organizations and foundations, such as Ashoka and Active Philanthropy, as well as big name private sector corporations like BMW and KPMG. Today, there are many institutions that have adopted the concept and work with underage refugees providing them with special education, the support of a guardian and housing.

SchlaU-Schule serves as a best practice model for building political pressure in the area of refugee rights from the bottom up, one student at a time. Extraordinary results, accomplished with modest economic resources, Stenger’s work at SchlaU-Schule successfully makes the case that these forgotten students are willing and able to learn, integrate and replicate their school achievements in the wider world of work and society.  SchlaU-Schule helps them find a home in Germany.

Making it Work for You:

  • Individualized attention and personalized learning strategies can be more effective for marginalized youth than the one-size-fits-all approach of mainstream education models
  • The combination of mentoring and peer support creates a secure environment for vulnerable or marginalized populations and fosters better integration