The future of the Mapal firm is gathered around a cleaning bucket. Three and half years from now, these 40 young men and women are supposed to be able to build and use complex tools. But personnel director Hans Krauss is taking them through eighth-grade math. “How many liters can it hold?” he asks, pointing to the square, red pail. He’s told the trainees its height, width and length in centimeters. But the question is enough to make his audience nervous. One in ten won’t be able to answer, Mr. Krauss says.
In 22 years at Mapal, Mr. Kraus has learned patience. He has accompanied many young people on their journey into professional life – trainees unfamiliar with the Pythagorean theorem, or inclined to strew commas throughout a written text at random. “Quite honestly, they often completely lack basic knowledge,” Mr. Kraus says. For several years, Mapal has been offering remedial classes. Sometimes Mr. Krauss feels like a school principal.
Using Mittelstand companies as a post-school institute to maintain educational standards has become customary in Germany. According to a new study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, one in three German trade firms provides catch-up classes. Students revise high-school reading, written comprehension and math. But in 2015, some 25 percent of trainees dropped out; in trades, the figure was as high as 31 percent. More than half of trainee barbers or hairstylists don’t complete the program.
Complaining about young people is par for the course in industry. A decade ago, it talked down the dual educational system envied by many other countries, and called for earlier high school graduation and quicker college studies to offer highly qualified workers. The result was a lack of trade skills and institutionalized gaps in education.
In a survey of managers conducted by WirtschaftsWoche and the Boston Consulting Group, seven out of 10 considered German education “neutral” or “tending to be bad.” The survey found that “barely a quarter of young managers believe German schools provide good preparation for professional life.”
Some fear Germany is squandering its economic future with rigid educational policy and an erratic approach across different states. Debates over high school diplomas, types of school and grade inflation mean the country is distracted from the real task of improving standards, comparability and achievement throughout Germany, and above all, ensuring it has enough teachers and sound buildings.
Experts estimate that renovating the 40,000 German schools would cost €34 billion, or $37.6 billion. The German government spends less than average on education for OECD countries.
On paper, German education levels are improving. More and more students are earning their Abitur, the German high school graduate qualification, and going on to university. In Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests that compare high school students' performance on math, science, and reading, Germany now does significantly better than a few years ago, ranking 16th. In Europe, only Estonia, Finland and the United Kingdom perform better.
Yet Susanne Eisenmann, who was responsible for school policy in Stuttgart before becoming culture minister in Baden-Württemberg, a center of both Mittelstand companies and the quagmire of German education, insists that German standards are falling short. “It’s unacceptable that companies suffer from the poor quality of our schools,” she says.
What use is the rising number of high school graduates if they arrive at colleges and apprenticeships without basic skills? “The gap is growing between what the school can provide and what is expected from it,” says Andreas Schleicher, director of the PISA study at the OECD.
Whenever the issue of a shortage of trained workers is raised in Germany, talk soon turns to the lack of enthusiasm for MINT – math, information technology, natural sciences and technology. MINT degree graduates start their professional life with a significantly above-average salary, but there is a growing shortage of MINT employees. This is bad news for Germany’s digital economy; 40 percent of all open MINT graduate positions are in the IT sector.
It’s unacceptable that companies suffer from the poor quality of our schools Susanne Eisenmann, Culture Minister, Baden-Württemberg
Too few pupils want to work in technical professions. Critics say physics teaching in Germany just doesn’t inspire. “Children’s economic efficiency and functionality are restricted,” says Gerald Hüther, a neuroscientist in Göttingen. “They lose their joy in learning.”
There are alternatives. Students at the Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum, a protestant school in the capital, choose their own educational focus and are set challenges like roaming England for three weeks with four classmates and one adult on just €150.
“We are rethinking the nature of school,” rector Caroline Treier says. Pupils are encouraged to question everything, learn how to learn, and “discover their personality,” she explains. “Then they’re enthusiastic about school.” Low achievers who can’t find such enthusiasm are directed towards internships and collaborations with companies to learn technical skills.
But even if a successful model is found, implementing it across the country’s 16 sovereign states is another challenge. Jürgen Zöllner ran the Rhineland-Palatinate culture ministry of for 15 years and spent five more as the education and science senator in the Berlin city government. Without his campaigning, Germany might never have participated in PISA tests. Mr. Zöllner says Germany needed the shock caused by its poor showing in the test in 2001. “We all knew our schools weren’t good enough. But we needed it in black-and-white.”
Mr. Zöllner pioneered all-day schools throughout Rhineland-Palatinate, against resistance from conservatives who wanted to preserve morning-only education to maintain parental influence. Mr. Zöllner believes Germany now has better schools because the trend everywhere “is toward all-day schools.” But this was a rare victory over German regionalism.
Today, the country is arguing over whether students should graduate after 12 or 13 years of school. Mr. Zöllner was never a fan of eliminating the 13th year of schooling but believes it would be a mistake for states to reverse the reform under pressure from teachers’ unions and parents. “A stubborn return to the past is a mistake,” he says.
The former G9 system of later graduation is popular with many voters, but Federal Education Minster Johanna Wanka has called for an end to the debate. “School reforms cause turbulence; there is a value to continuity,” she said. “I favor G8 because it gives students greater independence, earlier.”
But what can a 17-year-old do with such independence? Many take a gap year in Australia or Asia. The hope that the new G8 system would provide new workers for the German economy and simultaneously reduce social spending hasn’t been realized.
The eastern German states, the Saarland and the city-states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen are sticking to G8, while the rest of the Federal Republic is in turmoil. In Baden-Württemberg, where the controversy between the two camps has been particularly bitter, test results have dropped considerably. “What we need now in the system isn’t a further reform but calm and dependability,” Ms. Eisenmann says.
Another major question hangs over how much an Abitur is worth if it doesn’t qualify students for work and everyone has one anyway. In 2014, 41 percent of pupils graduated with the Abitur; if you include those qualified for trade schools, the figure rises to 53 percent, 10 percentage points higher than a decade ago. If the trend continues, Germany will meet the OECD’s recommendation of 70 percent of high school leavers attaining an Abitur in 2035. Ms. Eisenmann thinks this is the wrong approach. “We have to make it clear that education in a dual system can also lead to a demanding and lucrative career.”
Mr. Krauss at Mapal agrees. “Everyone is calling for more engineers,” he says. “But what we need are technicians who aren’t above getting their hands dirty and operating a machine.”
Moreover, German industry no longer recognizes even a high Abitur result as any kind of guarantee of qualification. With grades on the rise, educational researchers say students aren’t getting smarter but expectations lower and examinations easier. And the regional system means employers don’t know whether a four in Bavaria is worth as much as a two in Hesse, or the other way around. “The only way to slow down the glut of good grades is a central Abitur,” Jürgen Baumert, author of the first PISA study, says.
Companies such as Deutsche Bahn have now stopped looking at grades to evaluate applicants for training slots. At Mapal, Mr. Krauss doesn't believe in their relevance anymore, either. “They don’t correspond with the results of our aptitude tests,” he says. He recognizes that his substitute school in Aalen will have to stay open for a while and he will continue to play the role of school principal. “Somebody has to teach them these things.”
This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]