Preparatory classes – How the integration of refugee children can succeed

German school portal: Many schools have already set up preparatory classes, ie separate classes, for children and young people who have fled Ukraine, where they must first learn German and settle. Does this make sense?
Juliane Karakayali: When I look at the research we did in the wake of the refugee movement in 2015, I do not think it makes sense. At that time, we looked at 18 so-called “welcome classes” at 13 primary schools in Berlin and found many problems. These classes are usually not set up for pedagogical reasons, but due to a lack of resources, because there are not enough ordinary school places and not enough teachers – especially not those with a German-language education as a second language. Parallel systems are often established, which usually go hand in hand with questionable educational quality because no one really controls them.

There are hardly any guidelines in the federal states for what to learn in class. Therefore, the teaching is very different: some teachers think it is necessary to teach only German, others will take into account the vocational teaching, and still others want an arrival to be organized first.

In addition, most of the teachers who teach preparatory classes are not qualified teachers. We see it again now – everywhere it is announced that people with any pedagogical education must come to the schools to teach the refugee students.

It is also unclear when the transition to the regular class will take place. It also means that the system becomes very flexible if there are not enough regular class places available. Then the students stay longer in these separate classes.

Separate preparation classes carry the risk of establishing a parallel system

What does “longer” mean?
A specific time is usually not set. But in Berlin, the term “international classes” suddenly appeared in a Senate protocol. There is no such thing in Berlin. It then turned out that welcome classes were simply renamed and further separated because there were no regular class places for the students. In this way, the parallel system has become permanent.

I see this problem again now, because at least in Berlin a lot of preparatory classes are being set up. But the regular classes are usually full, so I do not know how the transition should take place for so many children and young people.

And there is another danger with the preparatory classes: Separation is always accompanied by a process of stigmatization. Children and young people in these classes are usually not perceived by the other students as part of the school community, but as children and young people who have a deficit and therefore need to be separated. In addition, language exchange is made more difficult.

Additional German support in a language band

Can schooling in a regular class work if the children and young people who have fled Ukraine do not know German at all?
We examined this in another study: In 2020, we looked at four primary schools – two in Cologne and two in Berlin – to see how preparatory classes and regular classes could be more closely linked. The students were enrolled there in a class corresponding to their grade level and spent most of the school day there. In addition, there was a language band, which means that German was taught two hours a day. These German groups were divided according to age and, if possible, also according to language skills. In the first two lessons, for example, the children from 1st to 2nd grade had their German lessons and in the next two lessons 3rd and 4th grade.

I think such a model is much more effective than the welcome or preparation hours. In addition, the age difference in welcome classes is also very large. In a primary school in Berlin, six- and twelve-year-olds sit next to each other. It can have a demotivating effect.

However, I also do not think that schooling exclusively in ordinary classes without additional German language support is desirable because there are good models for connecting the two.

But the burden on the teachers in ordinary classes is then probably very high.
I do not think. For a preparation lesson, you definitely need at least one extra teacher, but with the German lessons via a language band, the lesson quota for a teacher is usually not exhausted – so she can also be used in regular lessons and support the children there. Other children in the regular class who have difficulty with German will also benefit from it. In any case, most schools already offer internally differentiated teaching.

Teaching materials in a single language also help other children

Are there other such synergy effects?
Yes, for example, in the schools we studied, teaching materials in simplified language were purchased for the refugee children in the mainstream class. These were then also available to other students in the class.

Is schooling in ordinary classes without extra German lessons conceivable?
Theoretically, this is possible, but in practice it is unrealistic. Then the classes would need more human resources and as a result more opportunities for differentiation in the classroom. Teachers are already rightly complaining that they have to meet too many requirements and that very often there is not enough time to devote more time to individual students.

However, I also do not think that schooling exclusively in ordinary classes without additional German language support is desirable because there are good models for connecting the two. And it makes a big difference whether students leave their regular classes for individual lessons, or whether they only learn in separate classes.

Double education is not possible: no children or young people manage to follow the German curriculum in the morning and the Ukrainian curriculum in the afternoon.

Many Ukrainian families want their children to continue their studies according to the Ukrainian curriculum and attend Ukrainian online courses. How can all this be reconciled?
Many families have to settle down when they arrive in Germany, and the desire for the children to continue to follow the Ukrainian curriculum is probably also expressed as a desire to be able to return soon. But it is doubtful how long online hours from Ukraine can be maintained at all.

And double education is not possible: no children or young people manage to follow the German curriculum in the morning and the Ukrainian curriculum in the afternoon. And then there is the question of what degree the students should ultimately complete.

In addition, there is also a legal problem if the Ukrainian children and young people only participate in Ukrainian online education. I am not a lawyer, but from my point of view, the children living in Germany are also subject to compulsory schooling here.

Many children stay in preparation classes for a very long time

Many families hope to return to Ukraine soon. Then it would only be a time-limited model.
There is always a tendency to think of migration as a temporary affair. But that’s not usually true. Experience shows that it is rarely the case that large groups of people migrate back after crises, wars and environmental disasters, because of course the infrastructure in their country is also destroyed afterwards. But this is a process that the people affected must first visualize.

This was also the case with the refugee movement in 2015/16 and in the 1960s. It was assumed that the children of the so-called guest workers should only temporarily stay in Germany, and they were therefore taught separately in so-called “ordinary classes for foreigners”. It was a disaster. Parallel structures have solidified, where students often did not finish at all. The quality of education was poor and it was also a very racist system where foreign children were separated from German children. No one can wish for that today.

It is astonishing, on the one hand, to court career changers in schools, but fully trained teachers from other countries are treated as if they had no education.

To what extent should Ukrainian teachers be involved in German schools?
I think the effort to recruit Ukrainian teachers makes sense. I just hope it gets better than in 2015/16. It was very difficult to be recognized. Also, many teachers who have obtained additional qualifications in relevant educations have only been employed as a kind of teaching assistant.

It is astonishing, on the one hand, to court career changers in schools, but fully trained teachers from other countries are treated as if they had no education. They must, of course, have additional qualifications, learn German and their education must be adapted to the local system, but I do not understand why there are such big problems with teachers from abroad.

Lack of teachers makes schooling for refugees even more difficult

In your opinion, are the schools better prepared now than in 2015?
In fact, they are far less prepared. No federal state has sufficiently qualified teachers, and there are barely enough school buildings. In addition, everyone is exhausted by the corona pandemic, learning deficits need to be made up, and mental health issues in children and adolescents need to be addressed.

In terms of resources, schools are in a much worse position than in 2015.

Are there things you think are going better now?
I am glad that the school administrations today are finding more ways to no longer completely separate immigrant students. Many more schools plan to take children and young people to regular education.

And I also find it positive that the Conference of Ministers of Education came together relatively quickly and discussed the next steps. That was not the case in 2015. But schools need even more support now.

Very little responsibility is taken on the part of education policy, and much is tarnished with the schools.

What could it look like?
At the school level, I see a great deal of helplessness in terms of what they are allowed to do and what helps. It would be nice if every school did not have to think about this itself, but if there were more provisions from the education policy. For example, what happens in the German groups, what is written on the syllabus there and how the school should organize the groups. Education policy assumes very little responsibility and schools are endowed with much.

What do you want in the long run?
More sustainability would be important. A major problem is that an emergency situation such as 2015 or now triggers panic, and ad hoc solutions are quickly sought. When the need decreases, however, many assume that such a thing will certainly not happen again, and no conceptual approaches are developed. This is a pattern in education policy.

Of course, you can not have many extra school places in stock. But in quieter times, education policy should develop concepts such as how to anchor more diversity in schools. My great hope is that it will happen after the current refugee movement.

For me, the question also arises as to how the situation can now be used to promote long-awaited reforms. One topic is, for example, the recognition of the language of origin as another foreign language. Of course, this should apply not only to Ukrainian, but also to the languages ​​of immigrant children from other countries. The digitalisation of schools can also be further promoted. When Ukrainian teachers come and explain how such a system is set up, it is excellent.

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