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The View from here - Germany - Choosing the high road over the easy ride

In times of economic uncertainty, job security gains ever greater significance. But Arne Ulbricht, a 40-year-old French and history teacher in Wuppertal, Germany, has other ideas.

Last month, Ulbricht became the first German teacher to turn down "permanent job status", unleashing a nationwide debate about whether this hallowed privilege is still relevant to the modern-day profession.

Permanent job status is still regarded by many as the main perk of the job, but just days before his formal appointment last month, Ulbricht did the unheard of and asked to remain an ordinary employee rather than a civil servant.

"There's no incentive to move on or change jobs once you're a civil servant because the job dictates what you do for the rest of your life," he claims. Staggeringly, Ulbricht will earn EUR500 (#163;433) less a month in future, but he's standing by his decision.

Nonetheless, permanent status, which all teachers are entitled to apply for after three years in the profession, is still much sought after. Lavish benefits include lifelong job security with comprehensive pension and health coverage at no cost, since beneficiaries only pay tax. In the wake of cutbacks, however, some states have abolished civil servant status, including the city state of Berlin in 2004.

Even the German Education Union, the country's largest teachers' union, is unsure whether permanent job status can be justified in modern German society. "Teachers no longer exercise authority as representatives of the state as they did in the past," says Ilse Schaad of the union management committee. Despite this, only a quarter of Germany's roughly 850,000 teachers are ordinary employees; the rest have permanent posts.

Why is Ulbricht so against his colleagues' getting favoured status? "Because the system is unfair," he says. "I know teachers who are dedicated and good at their jobs, but they're discriminated against because they're overweight or have a history of family disease." Indeed, such high-risk candidates seldom attain civil servant status since those who take early retirement for health reasons, irrespective of age, get 95 per cent full pay.

Ulbricht finds the system unjust in other ways, too. "Why should I get a huge pension at the end of my working life when I haven't paid anything towards it?" he says. He is also not in agreement with the strike ban that is imposed on civil servants.

So what would he recommend? "I would replace permanent status with merit pay," he says.

Ulbricht's motives are perhaps less altruistic than they seem. He has ambitions to become a writer and has just written his first book, Teaching: Dream Job or Horror Trip? (Lehrer: Traumberuf oder Horrorjob?), based on his years as a supply teacher.

Critics accuse him of trying to promote his book, which he doesn't deny. "I taught many different classes, saw many different staffrooms at all sorts of schools," he says. Now he feels others can profit from his experience. "I don't profess to be a teacher who has everything under control all the time," he admits.

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