Supports for Pre-Primary Children and Their Families
Early childhood education is a responsibility of the Länder governments and is primarily overseen by the Ministries of Youth and Social Affairs rather than the education ministries. The system traditionally relied on private providers (primarily churches), with public providers stepping in only to fill gaps. As early childhood education expanded dramatically over the last twenty years, however, services are increasingly provided by public providers. In 1996, the federal government guaranteed a spot for children age 3 and older in early childhood education, and in 2013 this expanded to all children age 1 and older. As of 2014, 94 percent of 3-year-olds and 98 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary education in Germany, compared to the OECD averages of 71 percent of 3-year-olds and 86 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education. Enrollment of children under age 2 has expanded the most, however, almost tripling over the past decade from about 10 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2013.
The Länder vary in the level of subsidies provided to low-income children. Some Länder offer free access to early childhood programs for special ages or populations and some use a sliding-scale fee structure. Germany also provides a high level of support for new parents, with one year of paid parental leave and two more years of leave without pay, but with a job guaranteed. This leave was expanded in 2006 and is a federal guarantee.
Meeting the expanding need for programs is a challenge. There is an ongoing shortage of early childhood educators, and concerns that these teachers are not well trained enough as more pre-academic skills are added to the curriculum. A credential to teach in early childhood programs requires a three-year post-secondary training program, which is less than the master’s degree required for primary teachers. There was a KMK agreement among the Länder to work to raise the skill level of early childhood teachers, which has resulted in the development of new university programs in early childhood education. In addition, the Education Through Language and Writing (BISS) initiative put in place in 2013 provides additional training for early childhood educators in literacy and language development across all Länder. Almost all Länder now assess young children’s language abilities before they begin compulsory education to provide supplementary language instruction as needed. The federal government has also invested funds in the expansion of preschool and kindergarten slots specifically for immigrant children.
Overall, Germany invests approximately the same percentage of GDP in early childhood as the OECD average (0.8 percent of GDP), but the annual expenditure per child (US$10,542) exceeds the OECD average of US$8,618.
Supports for Disadvantaged Students
The federal Ministry of Education directs funding to the Länder to support disadvantaged populations. Since 2013, the federal ministry has provided up to US$60 million annually to support special afterschool and enrichment activities for low-income students and those whose parents have low-levels of education or are unemployed. In addition, the federal ministry and Länder each provide about US$5 million annually for the Education Through Language and Writing (BISS) initiative, which promotes sharing promising practices in literacy promotion across a network of early childhood education providers, primary schools and secondary schools. A research team works in collaboration with the network to identify and scale high-quality interventions.
Individual Länder use different approaches to provide additional funds to immigrant and low-income students. For example, Berlin’s primary funding formula applies an additional weighting factor to each language learner once a school’s concentration of language learners reaches 40 percent. Additional weighting is also provided to low-income students using the same procedure. Schools that cross the 40 percent mark for both language learners and low-income students benefit from both supplementary weights.
The reforms of the secondary school system across Germany were also aimed at providing more equitable education opportunities for low-income and immigrant students. Some Länder have also made efforts to encourage the recruitment and mentoring of migrant-background teachers who can better support new arrivals and serve as intermediaries between students and other staff.
Supports for Struggling Students
A KMK agreement, reached in 2003 and revised in 2007, committed Länder to provide additional instruction during school hours or after school to students who struggle in reading, writing, or mathematics. Implementation varies across Länder, but instruction generally takes place individually or in small groups and follows support plans developed in collaboration with teachers, parents, and students.
The KMK has also adopted recommendations aimed at reducing the number of students leaving school before completing a secondary school pathway or vocational education and training. In 2007, the KMK agreed to measures such as providing secondary school students more opportunities for workplace experience; providing additional academic support for students in danger of not earning the hauptschule leaving certificate; and incorporating more learning theory and learning psychology into initial teacher education. In 2010, the KMK adopted a targeted support strategy for low-performing students, which includes individualizing instruction; longer learning periods; and in-school remediation and teaching interventions for students who are off-track. From 2008 to 2015, the number of students leaving school without a secondary school qualification decreased from 8 percent to about 6 percent.
The Basic Law gives special education students the right to education and training appropriate to their needs, as do the Länder constitutions. The Länder are responsible for funding and providing special education services, either through inclusion in mainstream schools or at special schools. Approximately 7 percent of all students in Germany are identified as having special educational needs.
There has been a push for inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools in Germany during the past decade, but progress has varied across Länder. Some Länder have struggled to make necessary changes, such as adapting initial teacher education and coordinating services for students with special needs across the social and education sectors. As of 2014, the percentages of students with disabilities attending mainstream schools ranged from 14 to 64 percent across Länder. Nationwide, about one-third of students with disabilities attended a mainstream school, compared to about 20 percent in 2007. In a 2014 report, the KMK and Federal Ministry of Education and Research identified creating a more inclusive education system as one of five “fields of action” for collaboration across Länder. Recommendations included ensuring that teachers are qualified to work with special needs students and developing strategies to address discrepancies in inclusion across regions and levels of school. The focus on promoting inclusion was reiterated in a second report in 2016.
There are special schools in Germany for those with more severe learning difficulties and those with special emotional needs. These schools are funded by the Länder and staffed with specially trained teachers and generally have a smaller student to teacher ratio than regular schools. There are more than 3,000 special schools nationwide, and they enroll about 4 percent of all students.