German Education Now Humbled by America’s Immigration Problem

BERLIN—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confidence that Germany can handle the challenges of integrating refugees faces a test when the summer vacation ends and many young migrants enter classrooms for the first time.

Around a third of the million or so newly arrived asylum seekers are potentially school-age. Many of them have just completed their basic German-language instruction and are due to begin regular schooling this fall.

The scale of the challenge worries teachers, local governments, and others who say Ms. Merkel’s “we can do it” mantra is heading for a reality check.

The sheer number of new pupils means the 16 state governments, which are responsible for education, need 20,000 more teachers and more and bigger classrooms, teachers unions say.

Asylum Seekers Arrived in Germany Bar ChartWithout that, “integration risks failing,” said Berthold Paschert, a spokesman for teachers in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. “The situation is tense.”

A recent spate of violent attacks in Germany, including two by Islamists, has increased public fears that the task of integrating all of the newcomers successfully, in the labor force as well as schools, could prove more difficult than Ms. Merkel acknowledges.

Bavaria’s state governor Horst Seehofer, whose party is also a junior partner in Ms. Merkel’s coalition, has repeatedly challenged her “we can do it” slogan.

“With the best will, I can’t adopt this phrase as my own,” Mr. Seehofer said on July 30. “The problem is simply too big for that and the approaches so far at solving it are simply unsatisfactory.”

He called for the government to focus more strongly on the security risks posed by young asylum seekers who might be recruited by Islamic State.

Already, many teachers who have encountered young refugees and migrants have found the experience sobering. Young refugees from the Middle East and South Asia often suffer from language issues, illiteracy and trauma.
“I have some pupils who have been out of school for three or four years while they were fleeing their home country,” said Guido Siegel, who teaches teenage refugees in Berlin. “They have problems and learn very slowly.”

Migrant children receive special instruction in German before starting regular schooling. When migrant children arrive, they initially attend transition classes aimed at teaching them German. After 12 to 18 months, they attend regular classes with German children.

The 16 states reckon they will spend €2.3 billion ($2.55 billion) this year alone on transition courses for the roughly 350,000 school-age children who entered the country since last year.

But teachers and parents say it isn’t enough, and that migrant children will need special support beyond that.

“We have got 15-year-olds or 16-year-olds. They learn German in the transition class for a year but then can’t manage the jump to regular classes,” said Gabi Audehm, a teacher who advises schools in the eastern Berlin district of Treptow on migrant children.

Even before the refugee wave, Germany had a mixed record at integrating immigrants. In 2013, unemployment among young people with an immigrant background was 15%, twice the level for native Germans.

Kai Maaz, from the German Institute for International Educational Research, said Germany should invest an additional €2.2 billion to €3 billion a year and hire 44,000 new teachers if it wants migrant children to integrate.

“If we don’t succeed in this, these young people will have the same problems as migrant children who have lived here longer,” he said. “Or worse.”

State governments say they can’t afford to hire enough new teachers and want Berlin to shoulder €10 billion a year of the extra costs. Berlin has offered far less, a total of €7 billion by 2018.

The populist Alternative for Germany party, which has lambasted Ms. Merkel’s migrant policies, says the arrival of so many refugee children is bad for native German pupils.

“A teacher doesn’t have unlimited attention or support to give,” said Lars Löwe, a teacher and senior party official in Germany’s relatively poor northeast. “ Of course, there is the risk that those [German] children who also have extra needs will lose out.”

Write to Andrea Thomas at andrea.thomas@wsj.com

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