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.

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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:

[email protected]

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:

[email protected]

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.

Hi Jovanne,

I am in my final year of school in the UK undergoing an Extended Project Qualification of German immigration and integration. One of my focuses is on the struggles and hardship that non-native Germans experience and how it stems from early education. I am so sorry to hear about your horrifying experience! I would love to hear more of your story and if you do not want me to exclude you from my project than you have my utmost guarantee that I will not mention you.

Thank you


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.

I was on a Realschule in Germany and then i had a dual training called apprenticeship. In all countries I think, educational systems should be one step to the next step and i have heard, that Higher Education should be made accessible for all as a human right. There was no further education or higher education for me - i have to go to school again for three years to get access to higher education - this was wasting my lifetime. I had check this out: in most of the countries, i would get an access to higher or further education and a so called highschool degree with some general education, but there are some apprenticeships in Germany without access to further oder higher education and without general education or highschool certificate. Working class children should not learn many things, only learning how to work.

People who learnt an apprenticeship with me became unemployed directly after there qualification and no chance to work -- but when there are limits to get a new qualification, because they don`t have access, no highschool certificate, no second apprenticeship,... than it is also a form of discrimination. International standards are not the standard in the educational system there. Education systems must be more flexible, people who are unemployed must have a freedom to choose!! a new qualification. Germany has a high rate of longterm unemployed because of that.

my own children will never go to an vocational school again and i will choose a comprehensive school. In my schooltime there was no comprehensive school in the whole region, no chance for children to get an alternative pathway than the tripartite system from the 19th century.

today it is a little bit better, because there are more comprehensive schools -- but Bavaria is a problem! Most students there with immigration background or from poorer families like i (working class families) attend Hauptschule. Children with normal intelligence in many cases - they don´t have a freedom to choose there job or there apprenticeship later or what they want to work later --- Hauptschule is a schoolform only for the working class, which should only get a basic education -- this was it in history up to now.

also the dual system is a form of discrimination, because there are not enough possibilities to get access to this upper secondary system. There is a lack of qualification oppertunities - only when a firm is interested in you as an apprentice, you can learn what you want to learn. Germany needs more schoolbased alternatives, where students get a highschool certifcate, also with general education in the curriculum and access to higher education.

the college systems in other countries like community colleges and so on is a BETTER qualification system than the german dual training! I have look to a lot of countries and in my opinion it is easier in other countries to get a qualifcation and it is easier to get an access to further and higher education.

in Germany you can only learn by firms, there is a lack of school based alternatives. Look at the longtime unemployment rates --- 47% since the 1980ies, Sweden has got only 17,7% with a better education system, for example vocational students get a highschool certificate there with more access to general education and higher or further education --

the german system is from the middle age, only some reforms in the 19th century.Working class students don`t need so much general education, it is enough when they learn how to work -- look at the bavarian Hauptschul curriculum with a strong focus on "Arbeitslehre" since children are 11!!!

the little working class student don`t need much general education, he should become a craftsman -- this is from the 19th century!

it is soo stupid! I life in the 21st century. Bavaria in the 19th Century -- so stupid!

it is important to create a flexible educational system with many opportunities to get a qualification.

In Bavaria they change the curriculum for the "working class students" --- they have to start learn earlier how to work -- they reduce general education to give more of the subject "Arbeitslehre" -- this means "learning how to work" in the age of 10/11!!! in Hauptschule curriculum.

more and more the students don´t learn to read, to calculate, history or something else -- GENERAL Education -- no i read an newspaper article from bavarian schools that they learn more and more and earlier only how to work --- they visit more sausage factories and other firms and factories --- meanwhile children in the Gymnasium get GENERAL education.

in the 19th century in most of the countries knowledge and general education was only for a small elite. I think today every children have the right of the same good schoolprogramme and general education. A friend of mine was in Bavaria in a hauptschule -- she went many indirections until she was 28. She has got a normal intelligence - now she is studying biology -- why was she in a Hauptschule?! And she is really old when she get her Masterdegree -- that is a problem on the job market.

there also must be a freedom of choice, what students want to learn or what occupation they want to have later.

it is important that educational systems are more flexible, every student should get a highschool certificate and more general education, so that they find open ways, also when they have to change qualifcations because they are unemployed.

in my school "career" it was a fact, that we get teachers from Gymnasium as a form of disciplinary transfer. If a teacher did something bad on a Gymnasium, f.e. one of them hit a child, then he was good enough for Realschule, but not good enouph to teach Gymnasium children anymore. So he got a disciplinary transfer to Realschule, for Realschul students he was good enough. That looks like "it doesn`t matter if a teacher hit a Realschulkid.

that was during my school time in the 1980ies and 1990ies. It was also a fact, that good programmes like language scholarships, scientific and maths olympic games and other things in this time were for Gymnasium students only, not for the "stupid" children from other schools.

I think, today it is a little bit better, but i am not sure.

The other children were always only second or third good children in the school system here, general knowledge is more exclusive in Germany, for an elite. Other kids get more vocational education as working class children. Especially Hauptschule. Learning to work starts early for them, in Bavaria more and more in the year 10 to 11.

in the newspaper article the reporter said, they want to indoctrinate the children earlier to work in bad jobs like garbage collector or low skilld worker jobs.

it is so sad, every 4th child is on a wrong school, this chilren think they are stupid before they are 12 years old, for their whole life like a friend of mine who study biology now! In the age of 10 or 11, were children want to become astronaut, they tell them, that garbage collector is a good job for you

and it is also a fact, that in bavaria, they tell the children that nurse! or craftsman is a Hauptschuljob. This is a view of the world from the 19th century. Today nursing is a high qualified job. It is really a shame in this country with this stupid school system which is behind modernity.

i prefer the highschool and comprehensive school system in other countries with more freedom of choice and were you can teach all kind of knowledge, general and also voational, if the students want by their own choice. it is a better orientation for life and also for a job later. They have more time, to decide, what they want to do later.

by the way: the bavarian government do anything against comprehensive schools, there is no freedom of choice for parents in bavaria, they can only participate in the tripartite school system there with Hauptschule. Some people in bavaria would choose comprehensive school, where students can learn with more freedom of choice and more general knowledge for all, but the bavarian government is blocking that. It is the only federal state without comprehensive schools as an alternative as a state school, only people with more money can try to choose a private free school or comprehensive school like waldorf.

for me personally it is more important that children have the right to all kind of general knowledge and a freedom of choice, what they want to learn and what they want to work later. Also all person must have access to further and higher education, not only as a continuation of what they learnt before vocational ( A cobbler must stick to his last), i mean, also a freedom to change qualifications, study programms, learning opportunities -- i mean a flexible system.

I know this post is already 2 years old but I'd be interested in finding out more. What happened with this initiative?

Motivated by my own experiences as an immigrant here (I am a Canadian filmmaker living in Munich, who moved to Germany at age 12), I am currently preparing a documentary project on this issue and am looking for people who have experienced discrimination within the system and are willing to speak up. Any input is very welcome.

Please feel free to contact me at: [email protected]

This system is so strange to me. It seems Germany has so much trouble with integration. Instead of using migrants or immigrants to their advantage they don't know how to deal with it and in turn handle the problem poorly. I used to think Germans were very efficient and good problem solvers, but what I've seen is they are only efficient at what they know I.e. industry, banking/finance/maybe law (since their laws are absurd...on a whole different level). But the word innovation is not something you see in German culture. This is a huge problem they don't seem to know how to address in many fields and in education. It like they limit their students to what career they can have. I am working in a realschule now and I've heard the teachers constantly bad mouth the students call them stupid and make fun of their work. The immigrant students from Africa, Poland or Italy tend to be high achievers but aren't given the credit they deserve for it. The school is incredible lacking in diversity. The teachers teach English class in German! It's not good.

Good afternoon,
I was a Soldier in Germany for six years and Fathered a beautiful child there in Karlsruhe. Aminah is half Persian and attends a primary kindergarten school locally. I do not know what the plan is but this has me extremely stressed and anxious. Please give me some more background and solutions for this epidemic that I refused to allow my cub to fall prey to. Dankeschon

You defend bad ideas in a very articulate manner. The article on discrimination on Germany is irrational. Turkish, or whatever parents should consider some of thir values place their children a ta a disadvantage. Japanese, Chinese, Jewish children have no such handicap, in fact they hace advantage because in part of family values.

It is absurd to recognize som cultures provide advantages to their childrean but no to recognize othaer culturesm such a Arabs, provide disadvanrages.

It is the culture stupid! Unless tha Arabs recognise their culture has values that keep most of their kids, their countries down, what the your foundation is doing is try to make Germans feel guilty, for your own reasons. No interest in helping Arabs.

All this multiculturalm ideas are, like communism, hare brained, nonsensical. I must give you credit for talent in persuasively fooling many. It is Communist thinking all over again; makes no sense but seductive, Or revealed religion for that matter.

Where may I obtain a copy of the UN submission in German?

I'm facing a desperate situation myself with my son (aged 11) as he is falling victim of this segregation and discrimination. We moved to Germany one year ago, and our biggest mistake so far was to trust those who should be helping him in the first place. He was a brilliant student in our home country Portugal (he was even awarded with an “excellency award” by the city), and yet we accepted to let him go back one year and go to Mittelschule. In short time, we realized that the purpose of this was simply to “discharge” those that are not Germans or that at least have full domain over the language.
We decided to fight for our son’s future, but we are also lost and need some help.

I understand that this article is quite old, and that probably you are no longer involved with this, but I hope that maybe you can point me in the right direction on where to find help or resources to better help my son.

I've read this article - I've read all the personal stories in the comments.

And as a 20 year old former student, having made firsthand experiences with bullying, secondhand with antisemitism and rascism:
Neither the ethnic, nor religious discrimination are systemic issues in Gymnasiums.

Of course people from different ethnic backgrounds will experience their personal ordeal as such, especially when they're continuously told that there is a connection.
If you ask me this behaves like the elephant in the room of blind people- the religious minorities experience it as religious discrimination, the ethnic minorities experience it as rascism, the poor as classism, the girls as sexism.

In the end making it through German school successfully is about other factors, but other factors on which sex, race, religion, being foreign can all influence:

Being able to show performance/effort without immedeate reward.
The abbility to show subordinance towards "the right" authority (teachers and pupils alike).
The abbility of your social environment to support you

Are you still conducting this study?

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