The big run on the private schools

In Germany, every eleventh student now attends a private school. Of the total of 10.8 million children and adolescents in the 2018/19 school year, around 1.0 million chose the alternative to public institutions, the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden announced on Monday. For comparison: ten years earlier it was only every thirteenth student. “For almost three decades, more and more schoolchildren in Germany have been attending private schools – both in absolute numbers and proportionally,” write the statisticians.

Johannes Pennekamp

Responsible editor for economic reporting, responsible for “Die Lounge”.

Primary schools and grammar schools make up the majority of private schools, followed by comprehensive schools and Waldorf schools. According to the assessment of educational researchers, the catching-up process in East Germany, where private schools were only slowly establishing themselves, played a significant role in the upward trend.

Rush to private schools because of Corona?

In the eastern German federal states of Saxony (14.7 percent), Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (12 percent each), parents now share the majority of children in private schools, while in Schleswig-Holstein it is only 4.4 percent of children. “Because there is a lack of children, some of the public schools in the east are now withdrawing from the area. Instead, municipalities are looking for private providers to step in,” says Klaus Klemm, emeritus education researcher from the University of Duisburg-Essen.

The trend is being driven by academics. “In the east, a good 23 percent of the children from university parents attend a private school, in the west just under 17 percent – around 20 or 13 percentage points more than in 1995,” according to an analysis by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

“That is a massive increase,” says DIW education economist Katharina Spieß. There are parents who enroll their children directly in a private school, as well as others who decide to switch after having had bad experiences in public school. The reasons are varied: different pedagogical approaches, the desire for a more homogeneous class, dissatisfaction with the state institution.

It will now be exciting to see whether the corona pandemic will make private schools even more popular. In the first few weeks of the lockdown in spring, the public schools came under fire because many found it difficult to organize online lessons via video. The Association of German Private School Associations (VDP) announced on request that they were happy that the “private schools have successfully dealt with the situation so far”.

“There is no better learning in private schools”

With great dedication, it was possible to “maintain high quality teaching”. However, parents who send their children to a popular private school in Frankfurt also report that lessons have only taken place sporadically for weeks and that teachers have refused to accept digital teaching formats. The VDP association does not want to predict whether Corona will cause a rush to private schools – that cannot be foreseen.

In public debates, private schools are often accused of widening the social divide in the country, because only particularly well-off people can afford to pay high school fees. Actually, this should be ruled out from the outset: Article 7 of the Basic Law forbids “a segregation of the pupils according to the ownership of their parents”.

That is why there are always court judgments and expert reports that quantify a maximum monthly school fee that must not be exceeded in order to avoid social exclusion. Sums of 100 euros per month are mentioned for children from low-income backgrounds, as most recently in Berlin, or 160 euros in 2016 in Baden-Württemberg.

The Federal Statistical Office has now calculated on the basis of information in tax returns (part of the school fees can be deducted) that parents at paid schools paid an average of 2000 euros in school fees in 2016. Higher earners pay on average more money for private schools, write the statisticians. If a taxpayer earned more than one million euros, the annual school fee was as much as 7800 euros per child.

However, DIW education economist Spieß does not see any evidence that “the special ban is being violated across the board”. Income-tiered contributions and sibling discounts mean that children from lower-income households can also attend private schools. Nevertheless, social segregation when attending private school has increased over time. The private school association VDP assures that the facilities adhere to the legal requirements.

For many parents who invest a lot of money in the schooling of their children, however, one message is likely to be sobering: “In private schools, learning is no better than in public institutions – you can see that if you look at socio-demographically comparable children and young people,” says Education researcher Klemm. Overall, the private students are more efficient. “This is not because of better teachers or better educational concepts,” says Klemm, “but because certain, higher-performing students are overrepresented in private schools.”


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