GERMANY. Can teachers decline to teach a pupil whose political activities they find objectionable? Two teachers at a German secondary school are finding out the hard way after refusing to put a boy through his Abitur school-leaving exam because he is a member of a neo-fascist group.
The pair, at Jahn school in Hamburg, are now facing disciplinary action by the local education authority after failing to turn up for 19-year-old Jan Zobel's oral exam earlier this month. The teachers claim they were unable objectively to assess Zobel, who is the national press spokesman and regional chairman of the Young National Democrats, the youth organisation of the National Democratic party, a radical right-wing group which has won notoriety after being investigated by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Before the oral exam, 10 teachers from the school had written to the education authority, stating: "Jan Zobel's political work puts him at the forefront of a neo-fascist group and in the clear political tradition in which minorities and whole ethnic groups were persecuted and destroyed on racist grounds. In our school we teach pupils who belong to such minorities. In our teaching we champion the right and the duty of resistance against racismI In the face of this we are declaring our difficulty in assessing this pupil."
The education authority expressed understanding for the teachers' discomfort, but insisted that staff could not refuse to put pupils through exams because of their political convictions. Following further exchanges between the authority, the teachers and their trade union, the GEW, two teachers directly involved in examining Zobel decided to defy the authority and not take part in Zobel's exam. One, who asked not to be named because they had been instructed by their employers not to talk about the case, said: "It is outrageous that people who make a stand such as this are penalised for it."
The row was triggered in February when Kaz, the newspaper published by the Hamburg Association of School Pupils, published a critical article about Zobel, who had been the subject of a news magazine article last year. Some pupils at Jahn school, a comprehensive in a smart area of Hamburg with a reputation for its liberal values, then demanded that Zobel should not be allowed to take the Abitur.
Steven Galling, spokesman for the Hamburg pupils' organisation, said: "Zobel had been at the school for four years and had attracted attention right from the start because of racist remarks." He believed it would be wrong to deny Zobel his Abitur but said: "The problem has been complicated because the teachers acted so late, just a few days before his exams were due. Schools need to debate how to deal with cases like this in future," he said.
Zobel claims to be a patriot and a nationalist. Although German, he grew up in a German community in South Africa, and holds both a South African and a German passport. He said: " A lot of people opposed my ideas and we had discussions about it. I think it is cowardly of the teachers to do this now, just a few days after I left the school to take my exams."