Wed, Jan 27, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Germany’s middle classes get an education in flexible schooling

Demographic reality is dawning upon a country in which mothers are expected to ‘round out’ the schooling of children. The result: all-day school programs


Manuela Maier was branded a bad mother. A Rabenmutter, or raven mother, after the bird that pushes chicks out of the nest. She was ostracized by other mothers, berated by neighbors and family and screamed at in a local store.

Her crime? Signing up her nine-year-old son Florian when the primary school first offered lunch and afternoon classes last autumn — and returning to work.

“I was told: ‘Why do you have children if you can’t take care of them?’” Maier, 47, recalled.

By comparison, she said, having a first son out of wedlock 21 years ago raised few eyebrows in this traditional town in Bavaria, Germany’s Catholic and generally conservative southern state, she said.

Ten years into the 21st century, most primary and secondary schools in Europe’s biggest economy still end before lunch, typically around 1pm, a tradition that dates back nearly 250 years. It has powerfully sustained the homemaker-mother image of German lore and was long credited with producing well-bred, well-read burghers.

Modern Germany may be run by a woman — Chancellor Angela Merkel, routinely called the world’s most powerful woman in politics — but it seems no coincidence that she is childless.

The half-day school system survived feudalism, the rise and demise of Adolf Hitler’s mother cult, the women’s movement of the 1970s and reunification with East Germany.

Now, in the face of economic necessity, it is crumbling: One of the lowest birthrates in the world, the specter of labor shortages and slipping educational standards have prompted a reconsideration. Since 2003, nearly a fifth of Germany’s 40,000 schools have phased in afternoon programs, and more plan to follow suit.

“This is a taboo we just can’t afford anymore,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the German labor minister. “The country needs women to be able to both work and have children.”

A mother of seven and a doctor-turned-politician, von der Leyen baffles homemakers and childless career women alike, not to mention many men in her Christian Democrat Party.

For her, the spread of all-day schooling in Germany is “irreversible,” as women flock into the work force, whether they seek fulfillment, are single mothers or have partners whose income cannot sustain a family alone. In Germany, one-fifth of households depend on the income of women.

This trend makes childcare a question of competitiveness, notes Karen Hagemann, a professor of European and gender history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“High birth rates and female employment rates tend to move together,” said Hagemann, an expert on Germany’s system. “Child care and a school system that covers the working day is key.”

In 1763, Prussia was the first country to make education compulsory for the lower classes. The half-day system evolved in an era that depended on child labor. By the time France and Britain set up day-long systems a century later, the German way — which survives in Austria and parts of Switzerland — had grown deep roots.


Germany’s middle classes long believed that they, not the state, should round out children’s general culture. No school, the thinking went, could improve on a mother.

Edith Brunner, 41, is that increasingly rare German model mother. A qualified tax adviser and mother of four, she went to part-time work after her first child and then gave up her job altogether. She spends afternoons checking homework and shuttling from flute and piano lessons to soccer training and gymnastics. Her husband is a well-paid physicist.

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