Too cool for school?

While homeschooling has a less-than-favourable reputation elsewhere, it's outright verboten here. But if you're not a fan of the state schools, there are ways to keep your special brat away from the mainstream school system without breaking the law.

Image for Too cool for school?

Four ways to keep your special brat away from the mainstream school system without breaking the law.

Not a fan of the state school system? You’re not the only one. Unfortunately, homeschooling in Germany has been strictly verboten since the Nazi party said so in 1938. Through all the years, appeals and petitions, the ban has somehow stuck. German kids, like their Swedish, Serbian and Greek counterparts, have to go to a government approved school. Parents who don’t comply face serious fines and even the loss of their children.

Some families have dealt with this by fleeing the country – like the Romeikes from southern Germany, who moved to Tennessee in 2008 to seek political asylum. After a bitter, back-and-forth series of court rulings, Uwe, Hannelore and their six kids were denied asylum in March. Others before them were deported back to Germany.

A much less melodramatic option would be to check out one of the many alternative schools in Berlin. Here are a few of the major ones, ranging from conventional to anything but.

Sudbury: Power to the little people

Schools: TING-Schule, with 48 students, and Demokratische Schule X (both combined primary/secondary schools) are the only two schools in Berlin, although they do not affiliate with each other.

Background: These extra-freie schools are loosely based on the Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Massachusetts, which popularised the concept of ‘democratic education’: students decide what to do with their school time together with parents and teachers.

How it works: Sudbury is about as alternative as you can get in Berlin. Traditional academics are available but optional, and everything is decided by school assemblies where teachers and students have equal votes. There are no grades, classes are mixed, and students hoping to complete their Abitur (A-levels) will need to mostly do so on their own – but few do.

At TING-Schule in Pankow, students can ask the school to fund any project that interests them, whether it’s learning Japanese or dressing as their favourite celebrity. The school voted to grant the language wish, but the little girl did not get her pop star costume.

In their own words: “If you want, you can do almost everything,” says one student. “We need a place where children and adults can be equals,” says Anne Viezens, a staff member at TING-Schule. “There are two sides to this coin: freedom and responsibility.”

Montessori: Learn through play

Schools: There’s no requirement for a school to call itself ‘Montessori’, and many schools in Berlin, such as the 350-student Freie Montessori Schule in Köpenick, use some element of the Montessori method.

Background: In 1907, Italian scientist Maria Montessori called for a system that catered to the way children naturally play based on scientific observation. She believed kids should learn by ‘discovery’ rather than direct instruction and make their own choices in the classroom – within limits.

How it works: Montessori’s methods are tailored for curious, self-motivated kids. At pure Montessori schools, classes are mixed in age; art materials and educational toys are always available; and students don’t see a grade until their 10th year of schooling. The schools are often international and strongly emphasise language learning. At the Freie Montessori Schule, kids undertake independent projects, from building a working canoe to redesigning the school website. Many students go on to do their Abitur, though they must do so outside of the school.

In their own words: “I don’t think that grades are a good tool to judge students,” says Annika Albrecht, an English teacher at the Freie Montessori Schule. “They mostly teach children to cheat. What is important is that students learn their own strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with them.”

Waldorf: Fun and games till the homework sets in

Schools: The most prominent form of alternative education in Germany, Waldorf lists 10 combined primary/secondary schools in Berlin.

Background: German philosopher Rudolf Steiner believed children should be educated according to their stage of development. When he gave a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in 1919, his ideas caught hold and schools began cropping up across the country.

How it works: Waldorf schools divide children’s development into stages. For the first seven-year stage, the schools emphasise creativity and social skills, meaning kids don’t hit the books until later. Arts, crafts, theatre and other subjects such as woodworking remain important as children mature, and grades aren’t introduced until secondary school. Although students may have to do their Abitur elsewhere, Waldorf schools provide much of the necessary background.

In their own words: “The Waldorf School is a supportive community,” says one mother at the Freie Waldorf Schule in Prenzlauer Berg. “It makes me happy that everyone helps, both teachers and parents.”

Jenaplan: A big, strict multikulti family

Schools: Peter-Petersen-Schule, a combined school with roughly 300 students in the heart of Neukölln, has been Berlin’s only Jenaplan school since changing its curriculum in 2002.

Background: The Jenaplan method dates back to the 1920s, when Peter Petersen thought of a community-oriented Lebensgemeinschaftsschule based on conversation, play, party and work.

How it works: In between class field trips and bonding, the multikulti students (60 percent non-German) at Berlin’s Jenaplan school are expected to follow a strict plan of academics and language learning. A higher-than-average percentage go on to do their Abitur. classes have mixed age groups and no grades through the fourth year. Mums and dads are expected to put in quite a few extra hours helping out.

In their own words: “They benefit from learning together through being sociable, and there is a place for everybody so no one is left out,” says Hildegard Grief-Große of Peter-Petersen-Schule. “Kids who struggle can repeat things with younger students, while fast learners can move ahead.” Still, she cautions, “We are not a ‘free’ school.”

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.