Thursday, April 05, 2007

Hacking away at Schulpflicht

I have the feeling that we are busy hacking away at the crumbling foundations of enforced schooling here in Germany. The first time I came to Germany, 9 years ago, homeschooling was a taboo subject (as I mentioned in one of my first posts ever on this blog). Things are really changing now. Homeschooling has been continually in the news in the last few weeks. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Education recently recommended that homeschooling be allowed in Germany. There was much commentary from the German educational authorities and in some newspapers about this issue, much of it negative (but all of it publicity, nonetheless!)

A couple of days after the Munoz report, the German newspaper, Die Welt, published an interview with a German Professor, Volker Ladenthin, in which he pleads for the legalisation of homeschooling. The cherry on top of all this publicity is the pretty unbiased article in the latest issue of Der Spiegel (the German version of Time Magazine) about homeschoolers in Germany. Later this month, an international Colloquium on Home Education is going to be held and I know for sure of two television camera teams which will be there.

A couple of days ago I had the privilege of being at the press conference for the opening of the first democratic school in Hamburg. The enormous press presence was not due to any particular interest in the school itself, but to the fact that one of its founders is the famous German popstar Nena (remember that haunting song, 99 red balloons?). This is the first school of it's kind to receive permission to open from the authorities. So far, two other applications (in Berlin and Leipzig), which were further along in the planning stage, have been turned down.

The legal argument which the German state has against homeschooling is the oft touted "Erziehungsauftrag" (or mandate to educate). Although the German Constitution doesn't say anything about Homeschooling, in Article 6 it states that parents have the natural right to bring up their children and then goes on to say in Article 7 that the State has supervisory authority over schooling. Somewhere along the line, the German Constitutional Court decided that the State's right is on an equal level with that of the parents and inferred that the state has the "Erziehungsauftrag".

Any decision of the constitutional court has a binding status on lower courts in Germany. Consequently, it doesn't help home educators in Germany to argue that the state has no Erziehungsauftrag. The constitutional court also said that the state has a duty to work against parallel societies. As I see it, the only way for homeschoolers to argue against the state is to take these two assumptions to their logical conclusions and show that they are actually irrelevant and are, in many cases, not being upheld.

The first issue is the actual sense in which the word "Erziehung" is meant by the Court. As can be seen here, the word "Erziehung" can mean either education or upbringing. It would seem obvious that the first sense of the meaning is meant, because, well, this is all about education. However, the fact that the authorities have accepted, in many cases, the academic benefits of home education and the other statements made by them, such as this one by the German Consul-General in Chicago, Wolfgang Drautz -

Homeschooling may be equally effective in terms of test scores. It is important to keep in mind, however, that school teaches not only knowledge but also social conduct. Daily contact with other students from all walks of life promotes tolerance, encourages dialogue among people of different beliefs and cultures, and helps students to become responsible citizens.

would indicate that both senses of the word Erziehung are being used by the German state.

The authorities have told a friend of mine that distance learning does not enable the state to fulfil its Erziehungsauftrag, as this has to be carried out in person. This begs the question of how this is possible when a teacher is dealing with a class of 30 children. As studies show, home educators have no problem in becoming the kind of citizens that the state (ostensibly) desires, so does this mean that what the state is really saying is that it wants to brainwash its subjects?

Another issue which they obviously haven't thought about is that there are plenty of children going to school in Germany who are escaping the state's Erziehungsauftrag. For example, the Neue Schule in Hamburg is based on the principle of "Nichterziehung", which is the antithesis of the concept of "Erziehung". Another example is that of German children living in Germany who attend international schools. These children are not being brought up in the ideals mentioned by Herr Drautz. They do not have daily contact with children from all walks of life and are, in fact, educated in a culture far removed from that of the German one. A German friend of mine sent her son to a British school (which was actually for the children of British military personnel) for a few years. When she lost her job he had to start going to the local state school, which was an enormous shock for him, from a cultural perspective as well as a linguistic and educational one. So should the state forbid German children from attending international schools in their own country?

It is clear that the German state's arguments against home education have several holes in them big enough to drive a truck through. It is up to home educators to take a lateral thinking approach and network with each other at each step of their individual legal processes. The ideas which I have outlined above come from our case as well as that of a friend living nearby who is also embroiled in a court case. My ideas have grown out of hers and then she has expanded on mine and so the whole thing is growing symbiotically into a strong, vital little plant which will soon hopefully dwarf the rotting old system of enforced schooling that the state is desperately trying to maintain.