Parents as Partners with Professionals and Politicians: The German Case

1.1 Background Information

Germany lies in Central Europe and - after unification in 1990 - shares land borders with nine countries. Six are EU members and three are potential ones: in the north (Denmark), in the west (The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France), in the east (The Czech Republic and Poland) and in the south Austria and Switzerland. Although populated with just over 80 million inhabitants (a population density of 227 persons/km2 ), there are only three cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Munich) with more than one million inhabitants. Two-thirds of the population lives in communities of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Eight percent of the total population is made up of non-German ethnic groups: almost 2 million Turks, 916,000 from the former Yugoslavia, and 558,000 Italians. The population is growing at a rate of less than one percent. The rate of growth for the German population is negative, but positive with regard to immigrants.

Quite a number of people expected systematic reform from unification in the political as well as the educational fields. After eight years it can be stated that - at least in the educational field - attainment tends to zero: the newly created states of former East Germany follow in each case a model of one of the western states according to political preference (only exception: staying 12 years up to Abitur (university entrance) instead of 13 years in the western states of Germany).

After unification, the Federal Republic of Germany comprises sixteen Laender (states). Areas of government jurisdiction are divided between the federal government and the states. Education for compulsory schooling falls into the exclusive jurisdiction of the states. Authoritative control includes regulation of the curriculum, time schedules, professional requirements, teachers, school buildings, equipment and recruitment of teachers. Only about four to five percent of the children attend private schools, which are financially supported and supervised by state authorities too.

On the other hand, the federal constitution guarantees equal opportunities to everyone. Therefore, although independent in the educational sphere, the Laender have to co-ordinate their domain; and they have a long tradition in doing so as Germany has always been federal. There is a high degree of accepted benchmarks, e.g. concerning which subjects are to be included in the core curriculum and to what extent they are to be taught. The Laender co-ordinate their educational policy through the institution of the Standing Conference of Laender Ministers of Education (KMK). Decisions have to be taken unanimously, becoming legally binding through promulgation in the form of state laws, decrees or regulations by Laender authorities.

The rights of parents (regarding education) are stated in the German Constitution (Grundgesetz), Article 6(2): "Care and education of children are the natural rights of parents and are their foremost duty. They are monitored by the state authorities."; and Article 7(1+2): "(The education system) (1) The entire school system is supervised by the state. (2) Those invested with parental authority have the right to determine the child’s participation in religious instruction."

This constitutes the necessity of co-operation between the state compulsory school system and the parents authorising education.

2.1 A View of the Educational System

To make things more complicated Germany is a federal state. Generally speaking, compulsory schooling commences at the age of six and finishes at eighteen. Nine (or ten) of these years have to be spent in full-time schooling; the following years either in full-time schooling or part-time vocational schools, e.g. in connection with an apprenticeship.

The structure of the school system is given in the following figure.

2.1.1 Pre-school

The Kindergarten for three to six year-olds is not directly linked to the education system and attendance is voluntary.

2.1.2 Primary

The Primary School (Grundschule) is the lowest level of the educational system attended by all pupils. It comprises grades 1 to 4 (6 to 10 years-old pupils).

2.1.3 Lower Secondary Level

10 to 16 year-old pupils) offers differentiated teaching in accordance with young people's ability, talent and inclination and includes:

and as a school experiment in all Laender and as a normal form of school in some Laender

According to the special task of the types of school one finds many differences in the time-schedule and even in the subjects.

In 1997, the distribution of the 14/15 year old pupils (grade 8) is as follows :

Hauptschule 27.8%
Realschule 28.8%
Gymnasium 30.2%
Comprehensive Schools (including Waldorf schools) 9.2%
Special Schools 4.0%

2.1.4 Upper Secondary Level

(16 to 19 year-old pupils) offers a three year course, which leads to university entrance qualification (Abitur). Since the mid 1970's the course is no longer organised in terms of types of Gymnasium (classical, modern languages, mathematics and science), but is replaced by a system of basic and specialised courses as well as compulsory and optional ones.

Upper Secondary Level also encompasses full-time or part-time vocational education. The West German "dual system" of vocational education involves co-operative apprenticeships at two learning sites: the school and the workplace. Enterprise-based vocational training then has two sponsors: the Laender governments establishing and financing vocational schools, together with enterprises themselves financing and providing apprenticeships. Correspondingly, responsibility in enterprise-based vocational education is also split. The authority shared between the Laender Ministers of Education, the Federal Minister of Education and Science, the Federal Institute for Vocational Training and representatives of industry, commerce, the skilled trades and trade unions.

2.1.5 Handicapped children

Attend various forms of Special Schools.

2.2 The schools are financed in three ways:

  1. The personnel costs (= teachers) are paid by the states. The teachers (who are usually state civil servants) are assigned to the schools according to the number of pupils enrolled.
  2. The non-personnel costs (such as building maintenance, equipment, laboratories, libraries, etc.) are paid by the county, whereby the state contributes to new construction and larger investments.
  3. In some states parents have to pay for textbooks and learning materials. In others states the costs are mainly covered by the county (b).

Some form of parental participation in the field of education is known in all states. Details are laid down in the education laws of each of the Laender (states). It would require too much space to mention all of the differences in parental representation. In the case of major differences, only the most contradictory positions are named.

In general, five levels of participation can be distinguished:

  1. the individual class
  2. the school
  3. the county
  4. the Land (state)
  5. the federal level

At the first two levels, the parents’ partners are the professionals (teachers, headmasters), at levels 3 to 5 their partners are politicians and administrators.

3.1 Parents as partners with professionals

3.1.2 Level 1: The individual class

The individual class is the basis for all co-operation and formal representation. Regular parent-teacher meetings aim to inform the parents about the goals of instruction, the intended curriculum and other questions of general interest. A discussion about education and instruction should be taking place.

The parents of a class elect a committee, usually comprising of a chairperson and two deputies. The teachers of the class have to inform this elected body about all general topics and issues regarding the class, and to supply all required information.

The chairperson of a class is also a member of the class conference made up of all the teachers teaching a particular class. Among other things, this kind of conference discusses and decides on grading and the evaluation of learning behaviour and social behaviour in the classroom, on passing on to the next grade or repeating the school year, on graduating from school, on exams in accordance with the examination regulations. The class conference also meets to decide on disciplinary action, whether this entails a written admonition, transfer to another class, suspension for a limited period of time or expulsion from school. It also decides on honours to be conferred, co-ordinates homework and testing dates, plans class excursions and other out-of-school activities.

The institutionalised participation of a representative of the parents in all decisions concerning the individual class or a student in that class at this level ought , on the one hand, to make the school’s decisions transparent and, on the other hand, be a building block in the partnership based on confidence between parents and school.

3.1.3 Level 2: The school

The second level of formal representation is the school. The chairpersons of the individual classes usually form the parents’ school board. This body has the job of general co-ordination, both in supporting the work of the individual class representatives as well as in co-ordinating the parents’ co-operation with the school.

The parents’ school board elects a chairperson and usually two deputies from among its members. The headmaster is required to inform the parents’ school board about fundamental decisions and to supply the necessary information.

In about half of the states there are a number of topics where the agreement of this body is compulsory when introducing certain school regulations. In the others this body can only express their viewpoint. The topics involved include: decisions concerning the length of the school day and whether the school week is five or six days long; the introduction of all day instruction; the execution of pilot projects.

A few states have a school conference as the overall decision making body. This means that in such a system decisions are not made by the headmaster but by an elected body made up of teachers, parents and students. The seats are usually equally divided with the teachers on the one side and the parents and student on the other (one state even has this strictly divided in thirds: one third teachers, one third parents and one third students). The school conference advises and decides in accordance with state laws and regulations, among other things in the question of the fundamentals of education and teaching at the school; the application of guidelines and curricula as well as teaching methods; introducing textbooks and selecting teaching materials; fundamentals concerning the use of standardised grading for evaluating achievement; general rules concerning homework and tests.

In quite a number of states, a representative of the parents is a member of the school’s subject or department conferences. These conferences deal with questions of didactic and methodology; the application of guidelines and curricula; teachers’ in-service training and continuing education; the use of budgeted money; the introduction and purchase of new teaching materials, especially new textbooks; the compilation of collections and the equipping of subject classrooms and workshops.

The participation of a parental representative in these conferences, whereby the parents are in the minority, serves to make school decisions more transparent and to include external, non-school competency in a subject-oriented area of school.

4.1 Parents as partners with politicians

The differences among the states mentioned in the previous section concerning the relationship between parents and professionals/school administration are marginal; yet at the levels 3 and 4 mentioned earlier (see Section 2), there are great differences. Depending on the (political) direction and according to the way schools are organised there are two basic patterns: there are states with a directoral school model policy and those with a participational school conference model policy. Both models look upon parents as partners. The difference lies in their (legal) rights: in the first group of states, the parents’ point of view has to be recognised and considered; in the second group of states, they only participate in the regulation process.

4.1.1 Level 3: The county

At level 3 - putting it bluntly - it is mainly a question of money according to the law in all states the county is obliged to provide the financial frame (with the exception of the personnel costs) for the schools, e.g. buildings, maintenance, equipment, textbooks. At this level, parents are organised at county level (usually according to the type of school), but working together to elect a county school board. Efficiency - that means increasing the budget for the educational sector - is usually only to be achieved if the parents’ representatives work closely with the local political representatives: perhaps to get a new building approved, additional funding, new equipment.

A specialty in a minority of states is the procedure for electing new headteachers: in these states these elections are conducted by county boards, whereby half of the electoral body is made up of county political representatives, 25% teacher representatives from the school in question and 25% parents’ representatives from the school.

4.1.2 Level 4: The state

All states have some kind of parents’ representation at level 4, but their influence - in legal terms - varies. In those states who favour the directoral model of schooling this influence is a mere ‘state their opinion’ influence. States with legislation favour the school conference model (which plays a key role in, for example, inducting a new headmaster) give the parents a distinct role in decision making in education. Their representatives are legally installed (and financially supported) at the Laender (state) level, having - according to the type of school - an elected body, with clearly defined rights. For example, they advise the Minister of education on important questions concerning the school system and education that affect the parents, especially changes in curricula and regulations about teaching materials. The Minister of education must inform them about all fundamental questions affecting the schools and give them the necessary information.

Further, in the advisory board for school affairs in the local Ministry of education - a body of some 30 people representing relevant societal groups - the parents are represented with five seats: although such a board is advisory, not decision making, in practice no new syllabus or other regulation regarding school has ever been set in motion against this type of board. On the other hand, parent and teacher representatives must come up with good arguments in these board meetings to convince the other relevant societal groups (e.g. churches, unions, entrepreneurs, etc.) about their concerns.

4.1.3 Level 5: The federal level

The federal representation is rather weak. Due to the fact that according to the German constitution compulsory education falls into the exclusive jurisdiction of the Laender (states), there is no evident necessity of any legislation to have parental representation on the federal level. The Laender are very strict about this because it is one of their stronghold positions against federal supremacy.

Nevertheless, the parents’ representatives from the various types of schools at the Laender level saw the necessity of forming a board at the national level; this is organised as an association of Laender representatives, even with a secretariat - and who knows where the money for that is coming from.

This body is the contact for other national parents’ associations as well as a partner of the federal Ministry of Education and Science and of the Standing Conference of Laender Ministries of Education (KMK, see Section 1).

5.1 Some concluding remarks

From what has been said so far the differences in parents’ participation in school and their legal rights vary considerably among the 16 Laender. The main reason for these differences lie in how a school system in a specific Land (state) should be administered: who has the administrative power - the headmaster or a democratic elected body of the participants in such a system?

For the distribution of competence within a school (among the headmaster, teachers and parents) two basic models can be distinguished according to political preferences in the states: the directoral model and the school conference model.

An example for the first model is Bavaria, where control and school administration are almost entirely directed by the school head, though specific tasks may be delegated and the parents must be informed and have a right to be heard.

In the second model, to be found, for example, in Schleswig-Holstein and some of the new states in former East Germany, parents are regarded as important stakeholders whose support is vital for successful schooling (cf. Dodd 1998). Parents are mediators among the state school system, the out-of-school learning environment (cf. Toyama-Bialke 1998) and the impact on future careers (cf. Riquarts 1987). Although different in legal terms, the institutionalised participation of parents at all levels of decision making is understood as the only way to build up a partnership based on confidence - between the educational system and parents.

Kurt Riquarts

Legal Foundations

Federal level:
Grundgesetz der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany) vom 23.5.1949, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz zum Einigungsvertrag vom 23.9.1990.

State level:
Schulgesetz für Baden-Würtemberg in der Neufassung vom 1.8.1983, zuletzt geändert am 15.12.1997.

Bayrisches Gesetz über das Erziehungs- und Unterrichtswesen in der Fassung vom 7.7.1994, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 24.7.1998.

Schulgesetz für Berlin in der Fassung vom 29.8.1980, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 13.3.1997.

Brandenburgisches Schulgesetz vom 12.4.1996, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 10.3.1998.

Bremisches Schulgesetz vom 20.12.1994.

Schulgestz der Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg vom 17.10.1977, zuletzt geändert am 26.6.1989.

Hessisches Schulgesetz vom 17.61992, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 15.5.1997.

Schulgesetz für das Land Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in der Fassung vom 15.5.1996.

Niedersächsisches Schulgesetz in der Fassung vom 3.3.1998.

Erstes Gesetz zur Ordnung des Schulwesens im Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen vom 8.4.1952, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 17.5.1994.

Landesgesetz über die Schulen in Rheinland-Pfalz vom 6.11.1974, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 12.2.1997.

Schulordnungsgesetz - zur Ordnung des Schulwesens im Saarland vom 5.5.1965, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 27.11.1996.

Schulgesetz vür den Freistaat Sachsen vom 3.7.1991, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 29.6.1998.

Schulgesetz des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt in der Fassung vom 27.8.1996.

Schleswig-Holsteinisches Schulgesetz in der Fassung vom 2.8.1990, zuletzt geändert durch Gesetz vom 18.9.1998.


BMBW (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Wissenschaft) (Ausgabe 1997-98 and earlier editions). Grund- und Strukturdaten. (Basis and Structural Data). Bonn.

Dodd, A.W. (1998). What can educators learn from parents who oppose curricular and classroom practices? Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 461-477.

OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) (1998). Education at a Glance. OECD Indicators. Paris.

Riquarts, K. (ed.) (1987). Science and Technology Education and the Quality of Life. Vol. 1. Kiel: IPN.

Riquarts, K. & Wadewitz, C. (1997). Framework for Science Education in Germany. Kiel: IPN.

Statistisches Bundesamt (1998 and earlier editions). Bildung im Zahlenspiegel. (Education in Numbers). Wiesbaden.

Toyama-Bialke, C. (1998). Adolescents’ Daily Lives and Parental Attitudes Toward the School: A German-Japanese Comparative Study. Studies in Educational Evaluation, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 347-367.