Private schools take off in Germany

Since 1995, private school attendance has increased 61 percent among elementary school pupils.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When most German pupils are leaving school for the day, students at Rhine Main International Montessori School (Rims) are getting a crash course in English.

That's just one aspect that sets the private school apart from its publicly funded counterparts. Not only do the children have daily English classes; they stay well past midday to participate in drama and sports. For this amount of coaching, parents spend $500 a month, unusual in egalitarian Germany.

"This is the best money you can invest," says Christina von Busse, who hopes to send her two toddlers to the school. "People want a way out of the public system, and Rims is a great way out."

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Unlike many countries in the world, Germany has little tradition of private schools. In part because the state set high standards for public schools and the constitution has strict guidelines governing private schools, Germans have tended to view education as a state responsibility. But with an international study in 2000 ranking Germany's prized educational system among the bottom third of industrial nations, parents have become much more open to the private school option.

"There's a breakthrough in mentality. People are not seeing education as a state prerogative anymore," says Lothar Ungerer, the mayor of a town of 20,000 in the former East Germany, which this year replaced a public high school with a private one. "People seem to be saying, 'If I spend money for my child, I'll get quality in return.' And seeing the quality seems to be making people more open."

Since 1995, the number of pupils attending private schools in Germany has climbed 61 percent for primary schools and 25 percent overall, according to German government statistics. And although private schools still only account for only 6 percent of all schools - compared with 60 percent in Belgium, 30 percent in Spain, and 25 percent in France - as many as a quarter of German parents would opt for a private school if one were available to them, says Christian Lucas, president of the German Association of Private Schools in Frankfurt.

"The real boom of private schools happens in the waiting list," Mr. Lucas says. "Helplessness is fueling this growth," says Ingrid von Walderdorff, director of the year-old Rims. She points to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which in 2000 ranked Germany 22nd, 21st, and 21st in reading, math, and science respectively - well behind Britain, Japan, and much of Continental Europe. In the next PISA study, in 2003, Germany did slightly better.

In Berlin, Yvonne Wende's resolve to find an elementary school for her daughter was strengthened by German's poor PISA results. Most public schools that Ms. Wende saw, she felt, wouldn't prepare her daughter for today's global economy.

"Society has changed, but schools haven't adapted," says Ms. Wende. So she created her own dream school, the Berlin Metropolitan School, which opened a year ago with 18 pupils and now has 135. It emphasizes bilingualism and has a day program that includes a science lab and karate. "We're overwhelmed with applications," says Wende.

Perhaps nowhere is the boom of private schools as visible, and controversial, than in the eastern regions where private schools were forbidden only 15 years ago. In Saxony, where population decline has forced 100 public schools to shut down annually over the past few years, Mr. Ungerer, the mayor, fought for his town's public school, so that children wouldn't travel up to two hours to attend school. But when the school did close, Ungerer allowed a private high school that charges $50 monthly for tuition and $90 for afternoon programs to operate from the old public high school's building. "It looks like private schools can react to problems better and faster," admits Ungerer.

Mr. Lucas of the Association of Private Schools concurs, saying private schools can be a catalyst for change in the public school system. But others, like Frankfurt education specialist Manfred Weiss, argue that public schools are starting to improve because they were shocked by the PISA results, not because they're scared that increasingly popular private schools are going to out- perform public schools. As a case in point, Mr. Weiss points to the government's commitment of $4 million to build all-day schools. (Currently nearly all public-school students, even high schoolers, get out by 1:30 p.m.).

Mr. Weiss also says that studies have shown that private schools aren't necessarily better than public ones. Although private-school students tend to do better than public-school students, that may have as much to do with their more privileged social backgrounds as it has to do with the quality of education they're getting, adds Wilfried Bos, director of the Institute of School Development Research at Dortmund University.

Indeed, perhaps nowhere in the industrialized world does the school success of children depend so much on the social background of their parents. Germany's rigorous tracking of pupils into three different school paths, determining as early as age 9 whether they will end up at a university or learn a trade, puts children of immigrants and lower social backgrounds at a disadvantage. The latest PISA study released last fall shows that children of professors are four times more likely to go to a "gymnasium" - the university-track high school - than children of car repairmen.

The private schools cropping up range in cost from a few dollars per month for some Catholic schools to several thousand dollars per month for international schools.

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