Engineered for success, but has the rust set in?

10th August 2012 at 01:00
TESS reporter Julia Belgutay, who was born and grew up in Germany, drills beneath the surface of the country's approach to training

Last month held more bad news for the British economy, as figures from the National Office for Statistics showed output had fallen by 0.7 per cent between April and June.

Across Europe, the picture is just as bleak, with performance in a number of countries still threatening the future of the euro.

But in Germany, the situation is very different. The country's economy has been growing steadily after a brief downturn early on in the economic crisis, and that trend is set to continue.

The country's economic success and status as "export world champion" is, many believe, at least in part due to its highly trained and skilled workforce.

For years, the "made in Germany" label on white goods, electrical goods and especially cars has been a hallmark of quality. Indeed, it has been so much of a selling point that German companies will leave their marketing slogans in German, just to reiterate it - Audi's "Vorsprung durch Technik" is one of many examples.

The vocational education system which has trained the workers instrumental in building that reputation is regularly used as a model example at education conferences and in government policy papers around the world, and is praised for its close ties with employers. Does it hold lessons for Scotland?

Education in Germany is devolved and systems therefore vary significantly across the country's 16 Lander, or regions, but some common factors remain.

The path towards vocational training begins early on in youngsters' school careers. Young Germans go through four years of primary school, and then, aged around 10, are usually divided into three different levels of mainstream state secondary schools.

Whether they go to the local Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium depends on their performance in primary school and parental wishes.

High achievers attend the Gymnasium - where after eight years (it used to be nine), a university entrance diploma (Abitur) can be achieved. Traditionally, although this is starting to change, those in the middle go to the Realschule, where they are prepared for a more vocational pathway over six years. They then enter the dual vocational training system or have the option of moving on to the Gymnasium, depending on their grades.

Children who have struggled in primary school - often those from migration backgrounds or multiple deprivation - have usually gone to the Hauptschule, another preparation for a vocational route, albeit at a more basic level.

There are clear advantages in this system - education at secondary school is tailored specifically towards the desired outcomes for the young people at that level.

At Gymnasium, this means a highly academic education that aims to prepare pupils for university.

At Realschule level, pupils experience an added dimension of more vocational provision and a stronger focus on work experience and placements. While university is an option, it is not a priority, and the aim is to ensure pupils are ready for a vocational training route once they leave school.

The same is true, to a large extent, at the Hauptschule - although many pupils also need additional support, such as German language or learning support.

But the true strength of the German system, the asset that sets it apart from others around the world, many believe, lies in the part of the system beyond school - the dual vocational education system.

It has been a feature of Germany since the end of the 19th century, and sees young people train directly with one employer gaining essential, on- the-job expertise from day one, while receiving theoretical training from the local Berufsschule, or vocational college. This allows for exceptional employer involvement in the design of the training programme, while ensuring national standards are maintained in each sector through the colleges.

There are more than 350 occupations for which this training path is recognised, ranging from master baker to electrician, from nurse to trained wholesaler.

Trainees are paid a salary by their employer, staggered in accordance with their level of experience, while the theory part is funded by the local authority or region. Training traditionally lasts for three years in the first instance - although now two-year training contracts are available in some areas. Assessment often requires months of intense preparation - in many cases for both practical and theoretical tests.

The system and its associated career paths are widely respected in society, and that, in addition to regular pay from the start, as well as the chance of continuing employment when the training is complete, make the qualifications highly desirable.

The dual training and apprenticeship programme has been an intrinsic element in building iconic German brands such as BMW, Audi, Siemens, Bosch or even HUF Haus - the building company that gained recognition for its exceptional building standards in the UK through the television programme Grand Designs.

Statistics would seem to confirm the success of the system - German youth unemployment has long been low compared with other European nations, and reached 5.4 per cent in May this year, compared with 23.1 per cent of young Scots unemployed in June.

But this is not the full story. In recent years, criticism of the education system - especially the school side - has been mounting. A lot of it was triggered by Germany's poor performance in the OECD's 2000 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, which revealed that a quarter of German 15-year-olds could not read fluently, and the performance of "students at risk" was among the worst in the world.

Overall, the German score was significantly below the OECD average, and student performance was more closely tied to socio-economic background than in many other OECD countries because of the early segregation of youngsters into the three-tier system.

The system worked well for children of well-educated parents, who were three times more likely to go to a Gymnasium than peers whose parents had attended Hauptschule. But those from less privileged backgrounds were disadvantaged.

In 2006, the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Munoz, urged the German government to "reconsider the multi-track school system, which is selective and could lead to a form of de facto discrimination".

Because of the close relationship between socio-economic background and secondary school level, "people from a large part of the community are not achieving what they could be achieving," says Michael Davidson, the Scots- born senior analyst at the OECD who has responsibility for Pisa.

In 2010, 6.5 per cent of young people left school with no qualifications. According to research by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Lander and the federal education ministry, many of those were from immigrant families or deprived backgrounds. The number of those who left ill-equipped for training or further schooling was even higher.

And 10 years on from the first Pisa study, almost one-fifth of 15-year- olds were identified as weak readers.

A report by the OECD in September 2010, entitled Vocational Education and Training in Germany: Strengths, Challenges and Recommendations, found that some students left the compulsory school system with weak core academic skills, and there was no capacity in the dual vocational educational system to compensate for this.

It is in many cases not the three-tier school system itself that causes problems, but the early age at which children are put into one of the three routes and the lack of flexibility for those children who end up in the wrong school structure.

Those who struggle in the stream picked for them often just fall behind and have to repeat stages, while those who are placed too low down in the system have no other option in many cases than to finish their schooling and then try to move up.

Parents have been starting to express their discontent with the system. There has been a 25 per cent increase since 2008 in the number of schools set up as independent of regional control.

In addition to criticism surrounding schools, there are also emerging issues with the transition from school. And even the much-praised vocational training system is not immune from criticism.

In times of financial difficulty, its employer-focused nature has led to shortages in training places. The most recent available figures from the German government agency equivalent to the UK's Jobcentre Plus showed that 12,000 young people who applied for a training place did not secure one in 2010-11. There were also 30,000 training places for which no trainee was found - showing the mismatch between supply and demand.

Many sectors, especially those in sales or those based around modern technologies, now tend to attract young people with Abitur (the equivalent of Highers or A levels), pushing those with lower qualifications out of the market.

Those with a Hauptschule qualification or who come from immigrant families in particular are often unable to find a training place. A transition system has had to be introduced which accommodates young people unable to find a training place and who are lacking employability skills.

In total, almost 300,000 young people were in that system in 2011 - 28 per cent of all those in training. The OECD report said the transition system now served "nearly as many young people as the dual system".

There has also been some doubt over the ability of the dual training system to adjust quickly to changes in the market and stay up-to-date with emerging technologies and trends - again due to its reliance on established employers.

This, added to demographic changes in Germany's population and the mismatch in supply and demand for training, is leading many to fear there may soon be a shortage of specialist staff in some fields.

In some trades, such as baking, changes have been made to the structure of the training to entice more young people into a career in that field. These include cutting the length of the training process, and allowing people with less experience to sit the master exam. Many fear this will lead to a gradual erosion of the high standards the old system established.

In schools, changes are also afoot. Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Rheinland-Pfalz, Saarland, Sachsen-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein and Thueringen have moved to a two-tier system, where the qualifications formerly done at Hauptschule and Realschule are brought together into one school.

Bayern, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hessen, Niedersachsen and Nordrhein-Westfalen have added schools offering all three kinds of qualifications in addition to the traditional schools - Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium.

There is also an increased level of flexibility in many regions - with first and second year of secondary school being turned into an "orientation phase" in most Lander, in which moving up and down between school levels is easier.

"Some states allowed students in any of the three types of lower-secondary school to go to any of the upper secondaries, so that streaming was much less rigid," adds Michael Davidson. "It didn't quite eliminate the tracking that is evident within the education system, but it reduced it significantly."

And test results are starting to back this up: "There has been a significant improvement in performance, particularly in reading and maths. Germany has made steps in the right direction and the evidence from the data is encouraging," says Mr Davidson.

While reforms are progressing in schools, there is certainly no will in Germany to abolish the dual training system, or change it significantly. To address its shortcomings, chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party has proposed a differentiation of training routes to account for the different levels of work readiness among young people coming from different school structures, as well as a fast-tracking of training routes and grouping them into "job families" to avoid over- specialisation of training in a fast-changing market.

"The dual system is an asset of the education system in Germany. It contributes significantly to the low level of youth unemployment and every young person deserves the chance of a place in this system," a policy paper published by the party in November read.

Free Democratic Party education spokesman Patrick Meinhardt, whose party is the CDU's coalition partner in the current German government, told TESS: "The dual vocational training system is to this day ideal. Its strength lies in its closeness to the economy. Over the past few years, we have developed the system to allow for two- and three-year training routes, so young people can easily gain access into training and add qualifications later on."

Opposition parties and education experts agree: the German dual vocational training system is without doubt a model of success, says Kai Gehring, member of the German parliament for green party Die Grunen. This sentiment is echoed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany in its guidance on education in June this year.

And the OECD research into educational reforms in Germany after Pisa even concludes: "Germany's flexible combination of formal schooling with the dual system represents a very powerful approach to providing students with skills, knowledge and motivation that could prove decisive on a national scale in international competition.

"It is possible that Germany's current resurgence on the global economic scene is due in some measure to this combination of formal schooling and apprenticeship."


5.4% - Youth unemployment in Germany in May 2012 (Spiegel online)

23.1% - Youth unemployment rate in Scotland, June 2012 (Scottish government)

19% - Proportion of 15-year-old Germans in 2010 with reading difficulties.

19.5 - Average age at which a young person enters full dual vocational training

6.5% - Proportion of young people who left school without qualifications in 2010

38% - Proportion of men in Germany not employed at the adequate level for their level of qualification

83.6% - Proportion of graduates from dual training system in employment 12 months after finishing their training, 2008 (`Bildung in Deutschland' 2012)


Falko Burkert takes great pride in the standard and quality of the cakes, gateaux, breads and small treats he has been selling in Edinburgh for almost a decade at Falko Konditormeister.

The 42-year-old is a trained Konditormeister, a master cake-maker, who has gone through the gruelling dual vocational training process required in Germany to carry that title.

After school, it took him three years of training with a patisserie in his native Germany, then five years of work before he could start the six- month full-time preparatory course for the exam to become a master - a qualification required in Germany to be allowed to open your own business.

He says the time around his master exam was very difficult - starting his day at 4am to travel to the Berufsschule (vocational college) in Stuttgart, attending class until around 5pm, then studying for the exam for another four hours.

The exam then included an intensive practical test, in which various cakes, gateaux and patisserie are made, as well as an in-depth exam involving subject-specific theory not only around ingredients, recipes and food chemistry, but also maths and accountancy - and, since master bakers are in charge of training apprentices, pedagogy.

Mr Burkert feels the great strength of the German system lies in its dual nature, where national standards are ensured through the colleges, and a personal touch and a realistic experience of the workplace are provided by the employer.

He says it was important to him to gain the master qualification, although it would not be required to run his business in Scotland. It was also crucial to maintain the traditional approach to training in order to pass down the "cultural heritage" of patisserie.

"Once that knowledge is gone, it is gone. It is our job as Konditormeister to ensure that the cultural heritage lives on."

He now employs a German master baker, as well as a Polish master cake- maker and a Scottish baker, who makes up for the lack of formal training through years of experience.

Mr Burkert says young Scots lack the formal training attained through the vocational system in Germany - and the college courses available in his field, often only a semester or year long, offer insufficient knowledge and experience.

"It is just not enough in our line of work," he says. "It is also important that apprentices train with employers to experience what their working life is going to be like."

He says he is in talks with the Association of Scottish Bakers to help improve its standards of training.

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