A new study found that nearly two million young people have no qualifications
Germany likes to think of itself as the land of poets and thinkers. It enjoys a global reputation for excellent craftsmanship. The label ‘Made in Germany’ continues to evoke high standards. But, behind the scenes, Germany’s rigid education system is creaking at the seams, creating a shortage of skills and an imbalance in life chances that have begun to undermine an economy reliant on a well-trained workforce.
A study published on Monday revealed that the proportion of pupils leaving school without anything to show for it has risen to 6.2%, while there are 1.7 million young people between 20 and 30 years old who have no professional qualifications at all — that’s nearly one in five of the total. Klaus Klemm, who led the team that conducted the study, warned of a “huge waste of human potential”.
But the warning signs have been there for a long time. International studies, such as those conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have suggested that social mobility in Germany is lower than in most comparable economies. Its 2018 report warned that it would take a child whose parents’ earnings are in the lowest 10% bracket six generations, or 180 years, to earn anywhere near the average income. It concluded that “this has severe social, economic and political consequences”.
Part of the problem is the country’s tiered school system. Education is a devolved issue over which each German state presides, but in most cases secondary schools offer either general, vocational or academic education, and it is difficult to switch between school types. Usually only the highest tier grants access to university and specialised apprenticeships. Many students are therefore set on predetermined life paths at the age of 12 or younger based on their teachers’ recommendation and their parents’ expectations.
This calcified system is unsuited to support those who develop their talents at a later stage, those whose parents or teachers have limited ambitions for them, and those who don’t understand how it works. Academic achievement becomes a matter of outlook as much as ability.
In the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, for instance, drop-out rates are particularly high, despite higher-than-average academic ability in the segments most at risk. A spokesperson for the Thuringian Social Democratic Party (SPD) suspects this is due to the fact that “perspectives for young people just aren’t as good as, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia”, a state in the far west of the country.
Such stark regional and social imbalances not only leave an awful lot of young Germans behind, but they also exacerbate a shortage of skilled workers, which industry captains in Europe’s largest economy have bemoaned for years. Over half of them deem this to be the biggest threat to their businesses.
Supposed quick-fix solutions like more immigration, which many have called for, are not the answer. Unsurprisingly, an education system that lacks flexibility for those who have lived with it for generations is even more ill-suited to coping with people who come from different social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Children without German citizenship are nearly three times more likely than their German peers to leave school without any qualifications.
Germany needs to face up to the fact that its education system requires nothing short of a complete overhaul if it wants to build a fairer society and repair the cracks in the foundation upon which ‘Made in Germany’ is built.