AMID her other distractions Angela Merkel’s attention will on October 22nd shift to a new issue: the poor state of German education. She is gathering the premiers from all of Germany’s 16 states for an “education summit” in Dresden. Its vaunted aim is to transform Germany from a mediocre performer into a dazzling “education republic”. Yet the chancellor’s powers to achieve this goal are limited.
Nobody thinks that Germany can afford mediocrity. If its performance on international tests improved from average to excellent, growth would rise by 0.5-0.8 percentage points in the long run, says Ludger Wössmann, an economist at Ifo, a research institute in Munich. But the real stakes are higher still. Almost half the children in some cities come from immigrant families; many speak mainly their mother tongue. In Germany parents’ social status plays a bigger role in children’s fates than in most other rich countries. As many as 8% of 15-17-year-olds are school dropouts; unemployment among them is three times higher than among university graduates. Yet, with Germany’s population ageing, “who will pay our pensions, if not the migrants?” asks Jörg Dräger, head of education at the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Although the chancellor’s public relations offensive helped put education in the political spotlight it also raised expectations for the summit – some say to too high a level.
This was a risky strategy given the profound suspicion among Germany’s 16 states – responsible for most aspects of education policy – of federal government interference in these issues.
“Education is unequivocally for the Länder [states] to decide,” Wolfgang Böhmer, Christian Democrat premier of Sachsen-Anhalt told a German newspaper before the event.
Such is the tension between Berlin and the regions, and between the CDU and coalition partner the Social Democrats, that many of the most pressing issues never made it onto the agenda.