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School must be different
by Philipp Dehne
Economization doesn't just affect cleaning. Schools as a whole are required to distinguish themselves in a competitive environment and to score points in school rankings through good "key figures," such as high school graduation rates.
Yes, this is a blatant stress for everyone. Education is supposed to enable participation in society.
School must be different

Talk about education, class relations and organizing
Conversation with Philipp Dehne
[This conversation published in Oct 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

You co-founded the Berlin campaign "Schule muss anders." How did you get involved?

I enjoyed working as a teacher for several years. But more and more often I asked myself what I was actually doing here: good educational and relational work or managing structural grievances? It became clear to me that the fundamental problems of the education system cannot be solved in an individualized way in the classroom. That was the reason to quit and think about how we can organize across schools.

Who exactly is part of the campaign?

We bring parents, workers and students* together. It's a simple but powerful idea, but one that no one in Berlin has effectively pursued in recent decades. The campaign was launched by the initiative "Schule in Not" (Schools in Need), in which I am active, the "Berliner Bündnis für schulische Inklusion" (Berlin Alliance for School Inclusion) and the "Berliner Bürgerplattformen" (Berlin Citizens' Platforms). Then other actors such as the GEW Berlin or the student teacher initiative "Kreidestaub" joined (cf. Sagasser/Zielke in this issue) and recently also the Berlin-Brandenburg state association of daycare and school support associations and the Berlin state student committee. But the majority of those active are individuals who are involved with schools in one way or another, have not been organized before, and want to change something.

What are your concerns?

We are concerned with good learning and working conditions. We are fighting for a fair and inclusive school for all. The German school system is characterized by strong segregation, a blatant lack of staff and equipment, and an often old-fashioned, deficit-oriented view of the students. Young people tell us about great pressure to perform and "bulimic learning". Those who suffer most from staff shortages are those who are already disadvantaged, which further exacerbates educational inequality. From my own experience, I know that too often in everyday life there is no time to respond to each child according to their needs. Issues like inclusion, anti-discrimination, and building a democratic school culture also tend to fall by the wayside. These are not just icing on the cake, but the cornerstones of the kind of education our society needs (see Seifert in this issue).

What exactly are your demands?

We have agreed on four points: First, we need more time for relationship work with students and parents and for teamwork among ourselves. So far, too little time has been allotted for this in the teachers' hourly quota. It is therefore a matter of relieving the pressure and taking it off. Secondly, schools need not only better staffing ratios for teachers, but also more educators, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, health professionals, etc. - depending on the needs of the school. Many of the problems that kids come to school with and that are reinforced by the institution cannot be dealt with in the classroom alone. But this is a prerequisite for them to be able to learn at all.Third: We absolutely have to train more teachers. There is already a glaring shortage of personnel. In addition, about 40 percent of teachers in Berlin will retire in the next eight years. To compensate for this, we would have to recruit at least 3,000 teachers each year. However, Berlin only trains 900 teachers a year, even though there is a great deal of interest in teacher training programs. The situation is similar for educators and social workers. And fourth, we also need qualitative changes. We need to focus much more on anti-discrimination and participation. This requires, for example, counseling and complaints offices that are well staffed and also have enforcement powers.

What drives you personally?

I think it's absurd what we're doing to children and young people, but also to our society, with this school system. It follows a conveyor belt logic: we bombard students with 45-minute modules and the more they get, the "better" they come out the other side. Many colleagues have long since changed the way they teach, but in the corset of overloaded curricula, lack of resources and a fear of sanctions, it's not so easy. The worst thing I find is that the school system simply has nothing to offer so many children and young people. They fall through the cracks, no one has the capacity to catch them, and that takes away opportunities for the rest of their lives. All of this affects children from poorer families in particular.
You started with the "School in Need" initiative. It was about remunicipalizing school cleaning. Why did you start there?

Even then, we wanted to improve learning and working conditions. But at the beginning we were a small group and had to choose a topic that we could work on. But the goal was always to follow up with a larger campaign. Besides, the filthy schools are a symbol: In one of the richest countries in the world, we're letting local governments become so impoverished that they can't even guarantee halfway clean schools. That alone is a symbol of how little schools are worth to those in political power. But we are also concerned about public services in general. Privatization has created thousands of precarious jobs. Through the outsourcing of public tasks, tax money is passed on to companies that line their pockets by having their employees work unpaid overtime. On behalf of the public. And no one checks it.

How far have you come with this?

We have succeeded in getting eight out of twelve Berlin districts to decide to return school cleaning to public responsibility. The implementation is now dragging on, but it's a great success to have set the issue in this way.

Economization doesn't just affect cleaning. Schools as a whole are required to distinguish themselves in a competitive environment and to score points in school rankings through good "key figures," such as high school graduation rates.

Yes, this is a blatant stress for everyone. Education is supposed to enable participation in society. Instead, there is competition at all levels: Between schools, for good or bad teachers* and for students who deliver good averages; but also among parents for the supposedly "good" school places, for which many even re-register, move or sue - and then of course among children for good grades and future opportunities. This competition individualizes everyone involved and leads to a desolidarization in schools and in society.

This regime affects everyone, but is of course permeated by class relations.

Yes, it is mostly educated bourgeois parents who specifically inform themselves about which schools have which reputation. A third of Berlin's parents try not to enroll their child in the school in their catchment area. Not all of them succeed, but this exacerbates segregation. Of course, parents suffer from the fact that they are increasingly held responsible for the "school success" of their children. But these strategies ultimately result in the pressure being passed downward (see Kollender in this issue). Therefore, we need a serious discussion that deals with structures instead of questions of "personal guilt".

What is it like for teachers?

They, too, are under enormous pressure and face the dilemma of having to participate in this madness through grading. Young people are forced into a regime that sorts them according to supposedly innate abilities, assigns them a later place in society, and then also claims that things could have turned out differently if they had tried harder. Teachers know that they are measuring children with unequal abilities against the same yardstick and that this is unfair. But the school system compels them to do it that way.

Many place their hope in reform schools with committed staff.

Unfortunately, small changes are not enough - especially if they only affect one school at a time. This is exactly the nonsense that is demanded of schools in Berlin: "Write this concept, advertise better so that more students apply to you, etc." I'm all for school autonomy, but when it's used to make schools complicit in deficiency management, it's irresponsible.

Of course there are great approaches being tried in many places, and these are also important impulses for a different school system. But anyone who believes that we will achieve more equality of opportunity as a result has a false power analysis, in my opinion. We need to fundamentally transform schools, and we need to do it together and across schools, in solidarity with parents, students, teachers, educators and social workers.
Does the competitive regime you describe limit these possibilities to change things together?

On the one hand, yes, but more and more people are realizing that the system is simply dysfunctional and can't go on like this. In the meantime, there are so many deficits even at "good schools" that resentment is growing there. For many, it is no longer enough just to fight for themselves and their children; they want to change something more fundamental. We are noticing this in the campaign. We have to change course now.
How are you doing that?

In Berlin, the new House of Representatives will be elected on September 26. Our concrete goal is to get the four campaign demands into the coalition agreement. To do that, we have to build up as much pressure as possible. One element is a so-called majority petition, which colleagues can sign to support our demands. Ultimately, the aim is to win over the majority of employees at as many schools as possible. So it's also an organizing tool. The petition will be handed over at our next demonstration on November 6. There are similar participation opportunities for parents and students* - open letters and video formats. We are also building a decentralized structure with local groups in the districts. This is already going quite well in some districts, and is just getting started in others.

How well is the collaboration with parents and students going?

I once heard that parents were the most difficult group to organize. But our experience is quite different. I'm impressed by how many parents still put time into the campaign in addition to their paid work and care work in the family. And also how many parents, in addition to wanting a better education for their own child, are clearly showing solidarity and saying: Every child has the right to a good education. That is a very encouraging experience for me. It is difficult to find dates that fit in with the different family schedules.
Logically, there is a high turnover of students. Some of those who were very active last year are now doing their A-levels and are under a lot of study stress. Others think the campaign is cool, but then don't actively participate. We need to develop more formats to better involve students and give them more space.

From the outside, it appears that the GEW is acting rather hesitantly. Is that right?

The unions are absolutely central, they are the ones who have the right to strike and can build up power through this. And the GEW Berlin joined the campaign right at the start, the cooperation is mostly going well. What we notice, however, is that the organizing and participation-oriented approach that we pursue as a campaign is not as strong within the union. For a long time, people thought that collective bargaining was only about wages. But that is no longer the case, as can be seen in nursing. Wage demands are important for educators, but less so for teachers. Colleagues tell me that better working conditions and more staff are currently more important to them than two percent more pay.

Does it also have something to do with the fact that teachers were civil servants for a long time and the majority of them still are in other federal states?

Certainly. In other countries, there are other traditions of conflict- and participation-oriented trade union work. On the other hand, there have been civil servant strikes here as well. The key question is how well and strongly we organize. This was also seen in the education protests in the USA. Despite the ban on strikes, people were able to walk off the job and push through their demands because the majority of them were organized. Another point is that a strike, as in other care sectors, first affects the weakest, in this case the students, and not those who are responsible for the educational misery. This increases the inhibition threshold for some colleagues to strike. In the long term, however, a tough strike will do more for the quality of education than is lost through a few cancelled lessons. Whether education or care: the problem is the normal state, not the strike. It is also important to get parents and students on board for public support.
How, for example?

As part of a week of action, parents and students could also get involved with the strike and support it. As a campaign, we have the opportunity to formulate the issue in a socio-political way that goes beyond a professional concern. This is important because it is not only the conditions of school that need to be changed, but also the question of what is actually learned there and for what purpose (cf. Demirović in this issue).Although the education system is an important pillar for cementing class relations, education is not a central issue for the LEFT. Why?

It will become more important - I am sure of that. People often think of education as a rather bourgeois issue, but I see it differently. We won't solve the injustices of our social order through the education system, but it can help lay some foundations for a fairer society.

So far, the Left Party has rightly been associated with the important issue of community schools, but also with the project of free lunches for all students. The latter is good and important, but it does not get to the heart of the education crisis. That's exactly where we need to get to work, and that's still happening too little. Even on the social left, other issues such as climate or anti-racism seem more interesting than education policy. But anyone who wants to strengthen climate education and anti-racism and fight for a different, just society must also recognize education policy as a central political field.

The interview was conducted by Barbara Fried.
Philipp Dehne

Philipp Dehne was a teacher and helped build the "Schule muss anders" campaign. He is active in the "Schule in Not" initiative and in the DIE LINKE party.
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