Homeschooling was rarely an issue in Germany. The concept of Schulpflicht, i.e. the duty to send one’s children to school, dates back to the Reformation and is now an integral part of German law. Each state has its own rules, but those who wanted to teach their children at their own home are forced to go to neighboring countries or even the United States.
On the face of it, COVID-19 has changed everything. Suddenly, homeschooling seems to be the new norm and many parents have to tackle a tremendous challenge for which they have hardly been prepared.
The current situation is also an unprecedented burden for teachers, who now have to switch to distance learning, and not least for the pupils themselves. It also raises difficult questions for society as a whole.
How can parents, teachers and children be supported? And what does homeschooling mean for equal opportunities? What about children who are not safe at home? There are no simple answers to these complex questions.
However, three things are particularly important from a liberal point of view. First and foremost, it must be ensured that schools can fulfill their teaching duty even in a time of crisis. This also includes a heightened awareness for the concerns of vulnerable children.
Secondly, teachers and parents must be given the best possible support in maintaining the teaching process with the help of digital learning platforms.
Thirdly, steps need now to be taken to prepare the education system for future disruptions.
Why Even German Liberals Have a Problem with Homeschooling
It is a main tenet of liberalism that education should be as free as possible. However, homeschooling according to the Anglo-Saxon or French model is a bridge too far for most liberals in Germany. They are in agreement with large sections of society – and the Federal Constitutional Court.
As the judges explained in a landmark decision, compulsory education at school is not only tasked with imparting knowledge, but also with “training responsible citizens who will participate equally and responsibly in the democratic processes of a pluralistic society.”
School, which brings together children from very different cultural and ideological backgrounds, and which is linked to a curriculum that teaches democratic values, is thus one of the most important places to prevent ‘parallel societies’.
The fact that some advocates of homeschooling focus on biology and sex education reinforces the impression that homeschooling is more likely to stand in the way of the development of free citizens or is even a gateway for illiberal ideas. In other words, the right of the parents to educate their children as they see fit is limited by the children’s right of receiving a particular type of Bildung.
The doyen of German liberalism, Ralf Dahrendorf, clearly formulated this 45 years ago in his remarks on education as a civil right: “It is the duty of state authorities to ensure that these rights can be exercised.” Even in a time of crisis, Schulpflicht is still at the heart of German education policies.
The goal is, therefore, not the general introduction of homeschooling through the back door, but rather the implementation of the school’s educational mission from a distance. Digital tools are worth their weight in gold, although it must be ensured that weaker pupils, who do not have access to a smartphone or a PC, do not fall behind.
Moreover, parents cannot simply be “retrained” as teachers. Parents, but also teachers, must therefore quickly familiarize themselves with their new tasks without being overburdened. It goes without saying that a university degree comprising didactics and pedagogy cannot be replaced by crash courses (let alone noble appeals).
Focusing on the Weakest: What Matters Now
The coronavirus crisis does not affect everyone equally. For some, it is “merely” a matter of adjusting to the home office, others have to work overtime in the logistics or health care sector, and still others have to worry about their economic existence.
But children are also affected to varying degrees. As the German Association for Education and Training (VBE) rightly pointed out, over half a million children have special educational needs and over 150,000 child welfare assessment procedures are carried out annually.
Precisely those children who are not safe at home need to be considered and specially protected when it comes to emergency schooling. Even if one sets apart the question of immediate need for protection, the situation looks very different in each household.
In a study published in 2016, which dealt with the technical equipment of schoolchildren in Hamburg, it was found that around 10% of all respondents did not have a smartphone. Just over half had a tablet or notebook, and a third had access to a stationary computer.
In other words: even though some teachers have now managed to introduce teaching via videoconferencing software, a significant proportion of the student body is not able to take part in them. The biggest challenge is, therefore, to make sure every child has access to the necessary equipment.
Moreover, teachers and children need to be trained quickly, and it needs to be made clear which pieces of software are safe to use. In particular, the issue of data protection needs to be addressed by state education ministers.
Connecting the Classroom with the Cloud
The digitization of the classroom has long been on the agenda. Unfortunately, it has not quite made it to the order book, and in many places, progress has been sluggish. As the education journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda rightly observed, many ministers of education have simply “overslept”.
Fortunately, the headmasters and teachers on-site are highly committed, clever, and proactive. Caught between unfinished state learning platforms and the privacy nightmare of Facebook and WhatsApp, many schools have now found their way from the classroom to the cloud.
A pragmatic solution is to use existing commercial and non-commercial learning platforms and cloud solutions. From the provision of teaching and instructional videos to communication between parents and teachers in compliance with data protection regulations, many things are already possible.
Once again, the innovative power of the private sector is evident, and schools now need to tap into it.
The states should give schools a free hand without shifting responsibility – it will be exciting to see which solutions prove themselves in open competition.
However, it must be ensured that the private data of the students is not gobbled up by data leeches.
From the Crisis to New Structures
The coronavirus crisis and the unprecedented slamming of the brakes on social life are accelerating the emergence of new structures. The education system will undergo massive changes based on short-term decisions. All the more important is a transparent evaluation of the experiences of the coming months and the willingness to openly name and correct mistakes.
In particular, it must be ensured that the rapid switch to digital teaching platforms does not lead to “lock-in effects”. Instead, competition for the best teaching platforms must continue to be conducted openly and based on European data protection laws.
Critical voices should also be heard: as the technophile magazine Technology Review argues in its latest issue, many misguided paths have been taken in the digitization of the education system in the USA.
Policymakers should not act headlong, but rather consider where and how digital tools can be used sensibly – and with what goal.
A Great Challenge
Perhaps, the coronavirus crisis will lead to the breakthrough of the digital classroom and the breakthrough of novel techniques of teaching. First and foremost, however, it is an enormous challenge which is very burdensome for everyone involved, albeit to varying degrees.
The overriding goal should, therefore, be to restore regulated teaching as soon as this can be justified from the perspective of health experts.
In fact, some German schools – including those in North Rhine Westphalia – are set to be gradually reopened from April 23 onward. Some comments currently emphasize the opportunities of temporary homeschooling, highlighting teachers who use VR goggles as well as other novelties.
However, there is a great danger that expectations will be raised that cannot be fulfilled. Perhaps, the production of an automotive supplier can suddenly be switched to manufacturing respirators. However, teachers cannot simply be converted to Internet stars – and parents do not suddenly become experienced teachers.
Instead, parents, teachers and politicians need to carefully test what is possible – and perhaps once again remember the wise theorem of the famous author of children’s book, Erich Kästner, who admonishes students (and parents) in his (aptly titled) school novel “the flying classroom”: “Don’t be fooled and don’t be fooled.
Learn to look misfortune firmly in the eye. Do not be frightened when something goes wrong. Don’t be afraid if you are unlucky. Keep your chin up!”