Smug in the face of decline

7th January 2000 at 00:00
GERMANY. TES correspondents gaze into their crystal balls and see computers as a determining force in education around the globe

IN 1980, Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass wrote the satirical tale of a childless German couple - both teachers - who travel to India. Their aim is to experience a country's demographic explosion at first hand in order to decide whether or not to have a baby. Debate takes precedence over action.

Like the two teachers in the novel, Headbirths or the Germans are Dying Out, debate in Germany continues to preclude innovation and change in education. The country has been accused of becoming smug and unable to anticipate future trends.

A study by the think tank Emnid, which is based in Bielefeld, concluded that Germans are not fit for the new millennium in key areas such as education and new technology.

Many Germans - including official authorities - are not prepared to change the way they have done things for decades, the institute says.

With German industrial competitiveness falling from fourth in the world to 15th in a decade, and with industries shifting to cheaper countries, many wonder how future wealth will be generated.

Europe has been transformed by industries based on technology, services and information transfer. Yet in Germany there is only one computer for every 36 pupils. In the United States it is one for every six. Only 15 per cent of schools are linked to the Internet and many of these barely use it. In the still predominantly chalk-and-talkclassroom, many children do not learn to find out for themselves.

Vocational training is lengthy and theoretical and not geared to new and emerging industries and services.

But if the German race is dying out perhaps it won't really matter. As Grass said in Headbirths: "Suppose the world had to face up to the existence of 700 million Germans instead of Indians... But this in-between figure doesn't suit us. To a German mind it's not speculative enough. Either we die out or we swell to a billion. Eitheror."

Education planning seems to be based on a declining population: the number of first-graders in the eastern states has more than halved in the past three years. Between 1998 and 2002 more than 50 schools will close in Berlin alone.

In the east the birth rate fell dramatically after reunification, partly due to economic depression and job uncertainty. It is rising again but has still not returned to pre-unification levels.

In the western states the fertility rate is dipping despite the fact that, at 1.3 children per female, it was already one of the lowest in the world.

Meanwhile, one third of teachers will retire in the next decade. Their average age is 49 and this is hindering the use of new technology in schools and teacher retraining. Up and down the country lessons are cancelled for lack of staff.

Huge investments will have be made to modernise education and teacher training, or the country will begin a downward spiral in the next millennium. Eitheror.

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