How can I rule my middle school?


Kurt Edler

Kurt Edler, director of studies, born 1950 in Oldenburg i.O., is chairman of the German Society for Democratic Education and German coordinator for the Council of Europe program Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights. He heads the Society department at the State Institute for Teacher Training and School Development in Hamburg. His specialty is the prevention of extremism.

A comment

School should help young people to become responsible citizens. That seems self-evident and is in every school law. But what do our schools actually do in this regard? How can democratic skills be fostered and the participation of parents and learners strengthened? What is participation in school anyway?

Christmas wishes from students: More justice! (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Article 7 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany stipulates that the entire school system is under the supervision of the state; and in the school laws of the federal states, the most important paragraphs are based on the basic values ​​of the Basic Law and the state constitutions. According to the wording of the law, the school in Germany is democratic.

Democracy in school laws

The reference to the basic democratic values ​​of our Basic Law can be found prominently in the school laws of all federal states. According to this, the educational mandate of the school also includes the task of training pupils to become responsible citizens who identify with the basic values ​​of democracy and who are also able and willing to take on social responsibility and to support democracy engage.
Here is an example of an excerpt from the Hamburg Schools Act (HmbSG):

§ 2
Educational and educational mandate of the school
(1) Teaching and upbringing are based on the values ​​of the Basic Law and the Constitution of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. It is the task of the school to enable the pupils and to strengthen their willingness to
  • to shape their relationships with other people according to the principles of respect and tolerance, justice and solidarity as well as gender equality and to take responsibility for themselves and others,
  • to participate in the creation of a democratic society committed to humanity and to advocate peaceful coexistence of cultures and for equality and the right to life of all people,
  • to be able to maintain one's own physical and mental well-being as well as that of fellow human beings and
  • To take responsibility for the preservation and protection of the natural environment.



However, not everywhere where democracy is on it, there is also democracy inside. The permanent critical dialogue in which our emancipated civil society finds itself today with politics and the state is based not least on the idea that it "depends on the content". That's the slogan on my shopping bag, and it comes from the federal government.

The institutions of the republic are currently exposed to enormous public pressure to justify themselves. Administrations have to be asked about their efficiency, hospitals about their hygiene and penal institutions about their safety. This is ensured not only by closely observing journalism, but above all by the people's increasing self-organization of news via the Internet.

Schools as an institution are currently receiving a lot of public criticism: Hardly a week goes by without a new book appearing with a scandalous thesis on the state of our schools. Everyone is talking about the Prechts and the Hüthers, and an audience critical of the school streams into the halls to listen to them. On some talk shows, school is the number one topic. The school and its educational establishment have become public to an unprecedented extent. Public education is under scrutiny.

School is more than a subject

In contrast to the 1990s, the school now sees itself in much greater demand for its own performance - especially in the wake of the so-called "PISA shock". The first and most important question so far is how well the school is performing. Your "performance" is measured by the students' learning outcomes, mostly in the "hard subjects" such as mathematics, German, English or the natural sciences. Hardly anyone in Germany knows that PISA referred to a much broader spectrum of competencies: the key competencies defined by the OECD include, in addition to the frequently emphasized technical competencies, also social and democratic competencies - including the ability to work peacefully in a heterogeneous world living together, or the ability to shape your own life.


The key competencies defined by the OECD

Competence category 1: Interactive use of media and resources (tools)
  • Ability to use language, symbols and text interactively
  • Ability to use knowledge and information interactively
  • Ability to use technologies interactively
Competence category 2: Interacting in heterogeneous groups
  • The ability to have good and sustainable relationships with other people
  • Ability to cooperate
  • Ability to manage and resolve conflicts
Competence category 3: Independent action
  • Ability to act in a larger context
  • The ability to design and implement life plans and personal projects
  • Ability to exercise rights, interests, limits and needs
Our school laws leave no doubt that teaching such skills is one of the tasks of the school. If we take this part of the school's educational mandate really seriously, however, we have to ask ourselves whether and to what extent schools actually strengthen our democracy: What is it doing to ensure that a new generation of democrats is growing up in our country? How can social and democratic skills be fostered in school? That debate is in full swing today. School specialists (e.g. school administrators, management members of schools, teacher trainers), parents and an increasingly active student body who are demanding their (legally guaranteed) rights of co-determination take part in it. But "powerful third parties" such as large foundations, educational science, political think tanks, the Federal President and, last but not least, international organizations such as the Council of Europe have discovered the topic of democratic schools for themselves. In principle, there is consensus: Democrats don't just fall from the sky. Democracy must be learned if the constitutional state and its guarantees of freedom are to have a future. And that only works where all children and young people learn together: in school.

Nevertheless, all those who have meanwhile gathered under the slogan of "democracy education" have so far only made difficult progress with their concerns. Although all signs point to citizen participation and institutional criticism, so far neither school policy nor the public have focused on the question of how much democracy there is in a school and what one should expect from it in terms of promoting democratic coexistence. In any case, school does not seem to be the place to be associated with those forms of participation that have long been emphatically demanded by active citizens in other areas of society.

In the field of tension between coercion and freedom - or: can school be democratic?

There are reasons for that. First you have to be aware that the origins of the German school are anything but democratic - after all, it is in the tradition of the authoritarian Prussian administrative state that once established it. Even in today's everyday consciousness, school is by no means primarily a place where young people experience self-determination and freedom. The child is subject to compulsory schooling and thus public upbringing and education; The school allocates professional and thus life opportunities by awarding grades, attesting achievements and issuing certificates (authorization system). The learning content and objectives are specified by law. The children are divided into school types and classes and are subordinated to a class teacher (educational institution). The teachers have an educational mandate that many of them now hardly believe they can do justice to. Even in the most humane school, a coercive relationship is realized in a certain way, which can run counter to the claim and the possibilities of self-determination and co-determination of the learners, the parents, but also the teachers.

This area of ​​tension cannot be completely resolved, but it can be balanced out better than is usually the case in our schools. Democratic school development aims to create serious opportunities for participation. It's about taking the ideas of learners, parents and everyone else involved seriously and finding ways and means of taking them into account as much as possible when designing schools and lessons. Mind you: There are no patent remedies for this; Every school has to find workable solutions for itself that suit its student body, the pedagogical profile, the staff and its own community environment. In the meantime, there are qualified advisors in all federal states who can advise on the selection of democratic pedagogical content and concepts and accompany the implementation.