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28.02.2006

Choice in Education - IUF comment 05 / 2006

Germany`s schools have taken a second blow. Only a few years ago an international study indicated that schools were performing well below average when compared to other industrialised nations.

Now a UN special envoy, Vernor Munoz says the system fosters inequalities especially for immigrant and low-income students. Mr. Munoz seems to think that a more uniform system is the answer. But is it? Could the real answer be found in more diversity?  

 

Historically the educational system in Germany has been one of centralisation and control. Originally the schools provided one form of education for social elites and another for the average person. The Weimar Republic wanted to change this but again wanted state control with broad powers over education.  

 

During the Nazi period further centralisation took place as a means for political indoctrination. After the war the schools in the East were centralised under control of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei. What has been rare have been private alternatives to state education. After the last OECD report on German education there was a flurry of interest in private schools. Since 1995 private primary schools have seen a 61 percent increase in attendance. But still only 6 percent of German students attend these schools. In Belgium 60 percent of students attend private schools, in Spain it is 30 percent.  

 

In the East private education was illegal until unification. Now the Christian Science Monitor tells of one town that responded to the closing of their school by the government. The town allowed a private high school to open in its place. While it charges a modest fee it saves the students hours per week in travel time. The mayor, Lothar Ungerer, said: “It looks like private schools can react to problems better and faster.”  

 

Some critics have argued that the students at such schools do perform better because they are more advantaged on average. But studies show that even students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform better. The main reason that more students do not take advantage of private education is the cost. Parents who choose the private option pay twice for their children`s education. They finance state education through taxes and then usually pay private tuition as well.  

 

But it is the voluntary payment that helps push private schools to provide quality services. A private school that does not meet the expectations of the parents loses the students and the income. Private schools can go out of business if they don`t perform.  

 

The idea that educational bureaucracies can make the best decisions for individual children is antiquated. In the dynamic world economy a diversity of educational opportunities are needed.  

 

One way of promoting diversity is to encourage the growth of alternative schools. This can be encouraged by allowing funding to follow the students. Schools that do not perform would lose students which means a decline in funding. Schools that perform, whether private or public, would be rewarded with increased budgets.  

 

Diversity and the profit incentive guarantee choice in restaurants. Why should education be any different?  

 

Jim Peron, United States / New Zealand  

The author may be contacted at peron@orcon.net.nz  

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