Workforce - School's out and the dole awaits

Teachers in Germany face a summer of unemployment

Frances Mechan-Schmidt

As the school year draws to a close and students look forward to their summer break, thousands of teachers are dreading the end of term, when their short-term contracts will finish and they will be forced to claim unemployment benefit.

In what has become widespread practice, regional education authorities in Germany routinely employ legions of teachers on contracts valid only for the duration of the academic year.

In July and August, the Lander - the federal states of Germany - shift the burden of responsibility on to the public purse, forcing laid-off teachers to claim benefits, only to rehire them at the start of the new academic year.

But there was an outcry when recent figures released by the Federal Employment Agency showed an increase of 5,400 teachers on unemployment benefits last summer, taking the national total to about 25,000.

The GEW, Germany's biggest teaching union, described the situation as "scandalous". "It's not the state's job to pay teachers during the summer months," said an indignant Ilse Schaad, a union board member. She added that many schools start the academic year on "emergency timetables" because teachers on limited contracts are not immediately rehired and schools end up short-staffed.

Figures were worst in Baden-Wurttemberg, one of Germany's most prosperous states, where unemployment rates among teachers jumped from about 400 to 2,000 last August.

The use of short-term contracts to save schools money is not restricted to Germany. A 2013 European Commission report on teacher employment in Europe showed that in Portugal, only 68 per cent of teachers are permanently employed. Short-term fixed contracts are especially common in Ireland and Italy, where close to 20 per cent of lower-secondary teachers are employed under short-term arrangements.

The numbers of teachers with permanent contracts were highest in Denmark and Malta, where more than 95 per cent of teachers were permanent employees.

Teaching associations in Germany have been particularly dismayed by the rise in unemployed teachers because hopes were high that the left-wing government, under the Greens and the Social Democrats, would put an end to the deeply unpopular practice of fixed-term contracts.

Instead, the situation remains unchanged and the regional government is unrepentant. A spokeswoman for the Baden-Wurttemberg education ministry defended state policy, pointing out that limited contracts are most often used to provide cover for teachers who are on sickness or maternity leave. "There's no need to replace anyone in summer," she explained.

Court ruling

This prompted an angry response from Heinz-Peter Meidinger, chairman of the conservative-leaning DPhV, the German association of grammar school teachers. He demanded that states assume responsibility for teachers by "providing them with proper contracts, with remuneration covering the entire year". But the Lander are sticking to their guns, employing tens of thousands of teachers on short-term contracts and abandoning them to their fate when the school gates close for the summer.

Some teachers are fighting back. Marie Luise J., as the German press discreetly calls her, sued the education authorities in Hesse and won. Like thousands of the other 200,000 teachers employed by Germany's federal states, the 40-year-old teacher had clocked up 14 contracts over a 10-year period, without any prospect of a full-time job.

The court ruled in her favour, with the judge adding that he suspected that the state education authorities were trying to evade the need for long-term replacements by keeping teachers on short-term contracts for years, sometimes decades.

He recommended that states "review their policies". Other regional governments are watching with bated breath.

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Frances Mechan-Schmidt

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