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Freeing the futures of German youths

New programs aim to ensure low-income kids can aspire to promising careers.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2008

Two types of classrooms: When German students are 9, they are divided into academic or trade-oriented schools. This division affects their entire lives. There’s now discussion about whether this should be done.


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For years, Germany's selective college-prep "gymnasiums" produced the worlds' Einsteins and Göthes and its trade-oriented Hauptschule turned out the most reliable – and best paid – artisans. Tracking pupils by skill level as early as age 9 worked. So did relying on mothers staying home, with child care for young children almost nonexistent, kindergarten optional, and school ending before lunch.

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But as Germany has become more heterogeneous, children born to less-privileged, working parents and non-native residents have started falling through the cracks.

Today the Hauptschule is often seen as a dumping ground offering graduates little hope of a job, and the gymnasium as reserved for the elite. Studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have said that in no other country is the academic success of children so dependent on their parents' socioeconomic backgrounds.

The debate became more urgent after researchers asked schoolchildren how they perceived their lives. In the recently released results of the study, children stunned Germany by showing how conscious they are that their social backgrounds stick to them like glue, charting their future.

"I'm in the Hauptschule, so I know I won't be able to do much when I'm older," said Kevin, one of a dozen children interviewed extensively by researchers. With his mother working as a cook's helper, he is on his own after school and hangs out with friends or watches television.

Conversely, Monique, who lives in a residential area near Munich and attends the selective gymnasium, sees her future with confidence: "I hope to have a good job," she said. In the afternoon, Monique goes from dance to music lessons, with her mother coordinating her free time.

"The most stunning revelation about this study is how early and intensely children grasp where they belong and what their perspectives are," says Klaus Hurrelmann of Bielefeld University, who conducted the study.

Sponsored by the nonprofit children's association World Vision in Friedrichsdorf, Dr. Hurrelmann's team of researchers interviewed 1,600 children, ages 6 through 11, and their parents, focusing in particular on 12 children representing different social groups.

German children's social baggage weighs heavily on them, according to the World Vision study, which came out last fall.

While 82 percent of children from upper-class backgrounds say that they plan to take the prestigious Abitur, the high school exam that opens the door to studying at a university, only 20 percent of children from lower-income families do.

Like Kevin, children from less-privileged backgrounds are less likely to attend afternoon activities such as dancing and music or to belong to clubs. Three-quarters of the low-income parents interviewed said that they aren't in a position to organize afternoon activities for their children, because both parents are employed.

And yet the study makes it clear: Those children lose out when they don't participate in the music classes, sports clubs, and other opportunities their wealthier peers enjoy.