Tag Archives: school

20 Observations I made at a London inner-city school 

Over the past 3 months I have been working at a London inner-city school. Having been educated in the German system I was able to experience a British school with a contrasting perspective. Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

  1. Students line up outside the classroom and before the lesson and inside the classroom after the lesson, waiting for the teacher to invite them in or release them, respectively. They also line up after lunch break to enter the building in an orderly fashion
  2. Yellow separating lines in the corridors and on stairs make sure that two-way traffic is possible within the school building.
  3. Between lessons the teaching staff stand in the corridors to make sure that students get to their next class in a quiet and orderly fashion.
  4. Students wear school uniforms. Students in casual attire may not enter the school building. Teachers are asked to dress formally and address each other with ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Addressing a teacher by their first name is not allowed.
  5. Nike and Adidas backpacks are terribly fashionable. I estimate that 90% of all students have one. Similarly, sports shoes are a source of pride, especially for the boys.
  6. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited on school grounds. Any spotted device will be immediately confiscated for at least a number of days.
  7. In class, each student has a work book for every subject, which they are not allowed to take home. The teachers keep them, grade the quality of the work and provide written feedback. Worksheets are glued in.
  8. Teachers try to minimise passive learning (classical teaching) and try to engage students through activities – from crossword puzzles to tinkering with circuit boards.
  9. Teachers need to be able to prove that learning occurs in every single lesson. Therefore, teachers present the ‘learning objectives’ at the beginning of the class. At the end of the lesson the students have to write into their workbooks what they learned in that lesson. 
  10. Teachers have access to a database, which details previous, current and expected grades as well as any identified special needs (e.g. learning difficulties, emotional or psychological instabilities) and financial standing (free school meals) for every student. This information is used to provide extra support for disadvantaged students.
  11. The date is also used to set the difficulty of the tasks during the lesson as well as the difficulty of the homework. Teachers are held accountable for providing each student with the appropriate difficulty. It may be that the teacher has to prepare the same worksheet in three variants in order to cover all the levels of ability of the students in a class. On top of that come special needs students.
  12. A number of staff members deal exclusively with the special needs students. They offer one-on-one tutoring and lots of psychological coaching (anger management, self-confidence building).
  13. Teachers can ask lab technicians to organise an experiment in advance and have the materials delivered to the classroom. Sometimes the lab technicians will even perform demonstrations (e.g. alkali metals in water).
  14. Students of a year group (year 7, year 8 etc,) are organised into classes (7A, 7B etc.) based on their levels of ability. The most able students are in the A-set (7A, 8A etc.). A year 8 student may be in 8A for English, but in 8C for Science and in 8D for History.
  15. Every six weeks the students are reevaluated and can move up or down in the classes. In rare cases, students can skip a year. Repeating a year practically never happens.
  16. When a student disrupts the class the teacher writes the names on the board. Two further disruptions lead to a ‘demerit’ (a negative point that is recorded school-internally). A third disruption can lead to same-day detention. Students may also be sent outside the classroom for a few minutes or their parents might get a ‘bad news slip’, which details their disruptive behaviour.
  17. Every week a few kids get excluded from school for a few days due to improper behaviour. A kid tried to trip me, which led to a two-day exclusion.
  18. The so called ‘pastoral managers’ are equipped with walkie-talkies and assist teachers upon request by paying classrooms a visit and restoring behaviour that is conducive for learning. They have the power to keep, exclude and expel students. They are highly respected by the students.
  19. Good behaviour is rewarded with ‘merits’, which are – just like demerits –accumulated over the year. Merits can lead to great prizes such as a Samsung tablet or a bicycle, while demerits may result in the student not being allowed to go on school trips. Students can be expelled on the basis of bad behavior.
  20. Every classroom is equipped with a surveillance camera, which is often times used as evidence when one statement stands against another statement. One kid was caught frequently disconnecting the power cable from the computer to stall the class.

Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

Merry Christmas!

How Germany Plans to Get 250,000 Syrian Refugees Into School


As a German, I would like to share an inside perspective into how Germany plans to handle 250,000 new students coming mostly from Syria. The refugee crisis has pushed every other news topic aside over the last two weeks and I’d like to share these news – which have not been communicated in the English speaking world to such a degree – with you.

German Syrian Flag800,000 refugees are expected to seek asylum in Germany just this year (Source) and with a 42% (Source) of all requests being granted, Germany would expect 336,000 new inhabitants for 2015. According to the U.N. half of all refugees are under the age of 18 (Source). That would mean an additional 168,000 students that would need to go to school. Some estimates say Germany should prepare for 250,000 additional students (Source).

It’s the sheer volume of students arriving in such a short period of time that is starting to worry authorities. Apart from the current logistical challenges of registering and moving refugees across the country to their new homes, the schools will feel the pressure in the coming months when kids will start to join their German class mates. Many schools may actually benefit from the influx of refugee students because student numbers have been declining for years due to Germany’s shrinking population. 250,000 new students may save a number of schools from closure (Source). With currently 11 million children going to school an additional 250,000 would equal to an increase of just 2%. This may not seem like much, but it’s a gargantuan challenge for the educational system. Here are 4 key challenges and how Germany plans to tackle these:


(1) Healing Psychological Wounds and Letting Refugees Feel Safe

You can’t just empty a busload of refugees at a local school and expect them to magically adapt to their new environment. Many kids will arrive terribly scared and confused from their journey, away from home and surrounded by a completely different culture (Source). The cold winters will also pose a challenge to Syrians. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Family Ministry expects 110,000 refugee children under the age of six to live in Germany by the end of this year (Source). This would imply 25,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages Caritas daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). PTSD can easily take years of psychological care to treat, which would be a significant cost factor for the public health care system.


(2) Adapt to the Language and Culture8154287681_f58e5c8dee_k

The German language is not your Sunday ice cream in the park. The pronunciation as well as the grammar can cause some serious headaches. Since 2005, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been offering “Integration Courses” for newcomers. These courses are comprised of 600 hours of German lessons and 60 hours of lessons on the German state and society. The BAMF will be spending an additional €25 million (£18 million, $28 million) this year alone and expects the costs to be much higher in 2016 (Source). This will require a joint effort of community colleges, private language schools and church institutions to find more German teachers and increase their course offers.


(3) Varying Levels of School Performance

Many of the kids will not have gone to school for months if not years. A Bavarian teacher said: “Student ability ranges from true illiterates who have never gone to school, who have tended sheep or who have worked in some other way – to students who are able to attend Gymnasium [UK Sixth Form, US High School] and who can speak two, three languages, but not German” (Source). This situation requires individual support in order to ensure that each child can develop properly at the right pace. In Germany, the yearly average cost for public school education per child is about €6,500 (£4,775, $7,367), but this figure will be far higher for refugees as they need extra classes and tutoring to get to the same level of ability as their German class mates.


(4) Intercultural Education and Professional Networks for Teachers

Norbert Hocke from the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) says: “We need intercultural competence from educators as well as trauma specialists” (Source). Cities and municipals are calling for expert-networks that serve educators with advice and consultancies. A model project at ten daycare centers in Saxony has is already offering intercultural training to primary school teachers. It is expected that kids will learn German faster and their parents parents can connect with other parents and find more time for their German courses.



Why Helping Syrians is the Right Thing to Do

15307288216_9e2816f682_kYes, the challenges are massive. Yes, it will demand a lot of time, effort and money to get the job done. Whether Germany will financially benefit in the long run is unclear, but also completely beside the point. It is vital that young Syrians everywhere are properly educated. I really hope that they’ll one day be able to return home. And when they do, they should be equipped with all the tools they need to rebuild and develop a prosperous nation that can feel safe and help maintain peace.


As for Germany

9680885082_733815fbb5_kThere have been more than a dozen attacks on refugee accommodations (Source) across the country, but a resounding 93% of Germans say that Germany should host refugees (Source). Why Germans are so willing to help refugees is debatable. However, support for refugees is very likely take a dip in the following months and years. Good societal integration is very difficult and problems will surely arise. German political leaders will have to tread very carefully when justifying the billions of Euros spent on refugees rather than increasing government spending for the education system, which has been stagnating for years. Proper integration takes years of hard work and Germany is just at the beginning of things. Just 75 years ago, the Nazis moved millions of Jews via trains to concentration camps. Today, those same trains move refugees into German communities. A remarkable transformation.

Why Schools Should Teach Meaning and Purpose

A few weeks ago I went to south London to visit one of the best public schools in the UK. As I sat in Biology class I compared my own school days to the ones of the students sitting around me. I wanted to find out what made this school so special. I noticed that students and teachers were much more structured and disciplined compared to my school days. The desire to be successful was very present in everybody’s minds and there was a sense of pride in being part of this school. Students and teachers seemed to be pulling on the same rope, but I noticed that it meant giving up something as well.

46 - Corporate CultureI spoke for an hour to two 9th grades who wished that their teachers would involve them more in designing the classes, but their teachers were not actively seeking student collaboration. I believe that the structure and discipline that is required to be as successful as this school comes at the price of student exploration, which is a relatively time consuming and inefficient activity if ones goal is to maximise student success. Efficiency means not looking to the left and right, it means making no mistakes and it also means not to question.

97 - OceanMy own school experience felt like chasing the horizon. I was given a set of tasks that I had to work on and if I was successful in the exams I could advance to the next higher grade. The problem is not that the horizon cannot be reached or that the goals were not worth pursuing. It’s actually quite the contrary. Graduating from school with honors is not an easy task and it should be celebrated if you can pull if off. But you should also ask yourself why you are pursuing good grades. If the answer to that question is ‘to have good grades’ you have identified the real problem in our education system.

Rewarding a 3rd grader with ice cream for his school work is all good and fine, because a 3rd grader hasn’t fully developed the ability to form his opinions and define his goals. But a high school student should have learned to do this; to set his own goals, to act based on a set of beliefs or convictions. There will always be people who know what they want and they will try to convince you of working for them. They may incentivize you with a title, a salary and a career, but it will be their goal, not yours. Students should learn to develop themselves in order to make decisions based on their own set of beliefs. Then they can decide to work with others who follow the same goals or act out of the same conviction.

98 - BlackboardThe structure and discipline that I witnessed at that school in south London is in itself nothing bad, but it comes at a high price. These students may be able to enter top universities and land well paying jobs, but they may one day wake up and ask themselves what it was all for. I belief it is the responsibility of a school to help students develop their personality, but this is not possible when a school tries to be efficient. You need ‘pointless’ and ‘ineffective’ student activities that don’t lead to better grades if you want them to live a life of meaning and purpose. Sacrifice a bit of your academic excellence and make room for personal development. The system won’t thank you for it, but the students will – by living a more fulfilled life.