A Hard Look at Discrimination in Education in Germany

Imagine if you were ten years old and already knew your educational choices were limited and your future job prospects dim. This is the situation for children in Germany from Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab backgrounds. Their routine placement in the lowest level schools at a young age determines, for many, the course of their lives. 

On October 18 and 19, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, an independent expert body, will examine Germany’s compliance with its human rights obligations, including its duty to ensure that no one suffers discrimination. The Open Society Justice Initiative has submitted a briefing paper to the Human Rights Committee, seeking to shine a light on the consistent discrimination in education faced by ethnic minority children in Germany and urging the committee to voice its concern to the German government. 

The German school system has traditionally been highly stratified, with students attending Gymnasium (the highest level school preparing students for university studies), Realschule (the intermediate level), or Hauptschule (the lowest level, which prepares children for work or vocational training). These days, a Hauptschule education most often leads to unemployment or, at best, a low-income job with little hope of career advancement.

Evidence demonstrates that children of Turkish, Kurdish or Arabic backgrounds—known as “migrant” children in Germany even if they are the second or even third generation of immigrants—wind up in disproportionate numbers in the lowest level Hauptschule, condemning them to a cycle of marginalization.

Migrant children in Germany, on average, attend a Hauptschule twice as often as even other children of the same socioeconomic class. Migrant children, despite some progress, also continue to be underrepresented in the highest-level Gymnasiums. In short, the German education system is failing to help children overcome the disadvantage and marginalization that they experience as a result of their background, including as ethnic or religious minorities.

After a 2000 OECD study found German children, too, fall well below the average performance on literacy, math, and science across the 32 countries surveyed, Germany attempted to address these deficiencies. An effort to improve the situation of migrant children, in particular, included integrating the Hauptschule and Realschule into a new kind of school, the Sekundarschule, which was recently introduced in Berlin. The purpose of this change was to create greater mobility within the secondary school system and to encourage ethnic diversity among student populations. But only a small percentage of schools were restructured and the impact on minority students is unclear.

In Berlin, in an effort to integrate student populations, Gymnasiums are no longer allowed to handpick all their students. A Gymnasium may pick 60 per cent of its students (and 10 percent are reserved for siblings), but the remaining 30 per cent of its places will be allocated by lottery and are open to all pupils. In theory, attempts to create more diverse schools are a positive development. But in reality, this reform has prompted an increasingly hostile attitude towards migrants and, in particular, those affiliated with Islam—mainly people of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic descent.

Integrated schools have also adopted segregated classrooms: in Berlin, both primary and secondary schools, and especially Gymnasiums, have started to create separate classes for native-born German and for migrant students, with predictably negative consequences for the latter. The separation of students into different classrooms is done under the pretext that the migrant students’ German language skills are inadequate for “regular” classes. These children commonly speak German (as a second language), but some may require additional language support to enable them to access regular classes. They simply are not getting that additional support, dooming them to permanent educational careers in the lowest level classes

Under a recently introduced policy, students who are not performing at a certain level after the first year are dismissed from Gymnasium and “relegated” to special classes in an integrated secondary school. Unsurprisingly, this practice disproportionately affects children with a migrant background. In 2011, only a few weeks into the school year, many migrant students in Berlin were informed by their teachers that they were unlikely to pass; unremarkably, they eventually failed the first year test. Instead of providing these children with additional support so they could succeed, their relegation to classes for “failed students” seemed a foregone conclusion.

In preparation for Germany’s review at the UN, the Human Rights Committee has said that it wants to receive information about specific measures taken to eliminate discrimination against people with an immigration background in education. The Justice Initiative hopes that, armed with our briefing paper, the committee will engage Germany in a thorough debate about the need to reform the education system. Until an equal education is available to all children in Germany, migrant students are condemned to face ongoing stigmatization and marginalization, which undermines their potential to participate fully in German society and to create better lives for themselves and their families.



I have cousins in Germany and I have heard from them of this disparity there. How would I have them contact the responsible persons to participate in this program?

Thank you,

Jeff Stone

Thanks for writing, Jeff. I'm working with the Justice Initiative on this project. Have your cousins send me an email, and I can put them in touch with the appropriate parties. My email is:


Yours, Will

Dear Mr. Cohen,
i would like to particiate in this program too, i was born and rised up in germany, having a different backround like discribed from Mrs.Thomasen article above (muslim girl with mediterranean backround), made me suffer alot during my school life, but actually now i am student at a university, and also there is discrimination. So in this case, i can discribe you all possible discrimination which has happened and still happen to me and for all with different backrounds in german schools and universitys.

Note to the article: The big problem is that parents have trustet what teachers advice, and were tricked, because they do not no the german education system, for example after the 4th class teachers are giving a recomondation, but it is not a duty to vistit the adviced class categorie (Gymnasium/Real/Hauptschule), but those educators discribe there recomondation as duty to those parents. Which is a lie, if parents are not informed about the german school system law, the will teachers tell them nothing. Dangerous is that these german teachers ruin students psychologically, so that in the end those student giving really up learning, or having big fear going to school because of those bulling.
Those students are by themselve coved from teachers, and nobody can help them, because there parents are themselve not educated, and when they want to fight back, things will go more worst. In my case i know, that the teachers are all working together and they would not help a student. Teachers use there power, so that a student would never change something. Parents have trusted those teachers letting there childeren in the hand of these "Monsters", so in the end those students are having fear, inferiority complex and no future. The psychological scars are not reparable, there is no escape from the past educational career life. It is a circle of discrimination, it will be almost impossible relativity a longer path with extremely many hurdles to climb. Those students suffer extreme I know a girlfriend had to visit a psychologists. It is unfair, those people watches helplessly how their life is ruined.
I hope that your campaign can help to change the system, so that this discrimination can stop. Most importend is that the german folk should admitted there mistake, and helping the new and old existing victims. Best wishes, from a victim

Dear Mr. Cohen,

I am an American mother living in Germany for 10 years and raising two sons aged 15 and 14 presently. We have faced an ongoing battle against discrimination and would like to assist you in your research.

We were given Hauptschul recommendations in the 4th grade, due to the fact that I refused to move my children to a different primary school where more "children of color" attend. I actually received this in an email from the school principal.

After the 4th grade, I was able to choose where the children would continue and chose an international Gymnasium. After the second year I was asked to dis-enrole my children although they were. According to the head master "developing well and not causing any problems", however due to the fact that the principal from the elementary school convinced the Headmaster to set them both off lower schools.

From a psychological standpoint this is very difficult for a young child to digest. Of the two the oldest is doing well and progressing despite of the setback. The younger of the two is suffering from depression, dealing with anxiety and has become resigned even staying out of school for weeks during the semester.

The boys attend Gesamtschulen that are very high in migrant families and have a success quotient that less than 15 percent of the kids going on the higher education, according to the principals questioned.

I've had both sons IQ's tested and they range from 110- 130, so they are not intellectually challenged.

Currently the younger son is on a waiting list to be submitted to a mental hospital for children to assist him in working through his fear of failure. The Hauptschul test is next year in the 9th grade and my son feels that after next year his educational career will be over, before it ever begun.

This must stop, and it is sickening to think that this is being allowed to continue in the year 2013.

With kind regards,

Jennifer Harris


Thanks so much for your comment -- and I'm sorry to hear about your situation.

I would interested to follow up with you.

Could you send me an email at:


Thanks again for writing.


I am American of Italian and Spanish decent and have lived in Germany for over 30 years. I raised three children here, now 25, 23 and 21 years of age. What a nightmare!
It was an ongoing battle for over 18 years, detrimental not only to my children's wellbeing but also to our family. We were fortunate to obtain the Gymnasium recommendation for all three children. However, this had primarily to do with our community standing and my perseverance. Not one of my children made it through the local Gymnasium. If you are interested in our story I would be more than happy to relate it in a more private platform.

I am British/American. My daughter (13) and I face discrimination every day. I have studied economics in Germany and still have problems with finding a job. My daughter has similar problems in school like those mentioned before.

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