The complicated and daunting Berlin school system suddenly becomes clear, calmly untangled and explained by expert expat, parent and long-time journalist for the Times Educational Supplement, South China Morning Post and DailyTelegraph, Yojana Sharma.
International schools: Private and State
The number of international schools in Berlin compared to other German cities gives the impression of a thriving expat community. In reality, Berlin has been unable to sustain so many international schools. Some set up in the heady days after reunification, hoping to attract diplomatic families as the capital shifted from Bonn, and corporate relocations to Berlin as a base for serving the East European heartland.
These schools were barely established when a flat German economy (lasting a decade) and the wholesale movement of industries to Eastern Europe and Asia meant difficult years for private international schools. Several closed (Erasmus School), and others changed owners more than once (Berlin-Brandenberg International School, and Cambridge International School) within a short space of time.
Without the increased interest by local German families willing to pay for an IB diploma so that their offspring can attend foreign universities and escape the long German degree courses, the private international schools would be on even shakier foundations. Some believe large numbers of local pupils dilute the ‘international school’ experience. Alternatively, parents say it is far easier than in other cities to integrate and get to know local families. Either way, it is more important than in other cities to get a feel for whether a private international school’s rolls are rising or falling – a sure sign of financial viability or otherwise.
The private international schools sector in Berlin is relatively young – most schools were established only after the German capital moved from Bonn in 1999. Some have yet to see the first cohort take the International Baccalaureate or other school leaving examinations, others have such small numbers taking these exams, test score comparisons become very difficult.
The word from expat parents, particularly those posted to Berlin after a stint in Asia or London, is that international schools in Berlin lack the buzz and the intellectual excitement of international schools elsewhere. Well-equipped science laboratories, in particular, appear to be a rarity. However, others (particularly academics and visiting professors to Germany’s Max Planck Institutes and Universities) praise the standard of teaching as ‘solid’. Standards in upper primary (age 9-11) are particularly praised.
Private (Independent) International Schools
The Berlin International School in the southern Berlin suburb of Steglitz is run by the private Kant foundation, with a reputation for running academic local schools (grammar schools). BIS charges fees but these are lower than at comparable international schools, as it has a partial government subsidy. The school has grown rapidly and has a popular and well-run early years programme. The downside is poor outdoor play facilities considering the size of the school.
Although run by a German foundation, it is closer in feel to an international school than John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela International School, but without the higher fees of international schools like the Berlin British School and Berlin-Brandenburg International School.
Pupils take IGCSEs at 16. The schools has the largest numbers taking the IB in Berlin (approximately 50 a year) with exam results rising year on year. The average IB point score in 2006 was high - 33 points, but with many scoring much higher. Students go on to German, British, US and Canadian universities. The school has been recently inspected by ECIS.
On the same site is the confusingly-named International School of Berlin which takes German pupils and teaches a German curriculum with a number of subjects taught in English by immersion. Not strictly an international school, it provides additional financial stability for Berlin International School.
The Berlin British School in Charlottenburg, is another private school, established in 1994 by local British businessmen on the site of the former British Military School. It shares the site with the popular Charles Dickens state bilingual primary school (a ‘Europe School’, see below).
BBS offers the British national curriculum to IGCSE at age 16, but recently abandoned A levels in favour of the IB. Popular with Anglophiles and with about 600 pupils it is a well-resourced and solidly run, if slightly unimaginative school, with excellent teachers (it runs a thorough programme of in-service teacher training for all its staff). It is not clear how well it will sustain a full IB programme as there is tendency for British parents (mainly diplomats who live in the surrounding houses) to favour UK boarding schools at 13+. Takes some special needs and dyslexic pupils.
Disregard all you are about to learn about the Cambridge International School (formerly the British International School), because it has now closed again! But we leave in this paragraph in case you've heard about it and wonder what happened.
It was located in a beautiful wooded site on the western outskirts of the city, and was the only international school offering A levels as a qualification after IGCSE. It tried (obviously without success) to overcome disastrous management despite (or because of) two changes of ownership within just a few years, which pushed it to the edge of bankruptcy. The number of pupils at the school dwindled from about 300 a few years ago to just over 100 overall (ages 4-18), with some very small classes in secondary. The head has now moved to another Berlin international school. There was talk that under a new head the school might move towards a bilingual model to attract more locals, but alas...
Its advantage for international families was a good ESL (English as a second language) support programme, which tends to be lacking in other schools.
The Berlin Brandenburg International School (Formerly Potsdam International School) recently moved from its somewhat isolated locale in Brandenburg, to Kleinmachnow in the Southern part of the city close to the expat enclave of Zehlendorf, offering the IB primary years programme, IGCSE and IB. It is gaining in popularity, having, it seems, at last achieved a measure of financial stability after several years of problems. Kleinmachnow is an area very popular with expats and the move appears to have won BBIS a ready clientele.
State Bilingual Schools
The private international sector is not the only option. One of the best-kept secrets of Berlin is the quality of state-run bilingual schools, which are free of all tuition fees and therefore give the private international schools a run for their money (although some say they have a different clientele, less diverse than international schools). Competition from these schools is often cited as a reason why some private international schools have failed to thrive in Berlin.
Prime examples of such state-run schools are the John F. Kennedy School and the State International School, Berlin (recently renamed the Nelson Mandela International School). They employ German teachers alongside international staff, usually half the pupils are local, and they run hybrid curricula, at least until pupils begin to prepare for specific school-leaving examinations. The curricula can be very varied and difficult to compare with each other although usually of a good standard and with teaching comparable to good international schools (and often better as they draw on some of the strengths of the German system).
The John F. Kennedy School is Berlin’s oldest international school (founded in 1960 as the American Community School) and remains one of the top Berlin schools, if not the top before the fall of the wall. It continues to be one of the most sought after schools among both local and international families, with outstanding results and an impressive array of extra curricular options. It is a well-endowed school for ages 5-19 in Zehlendorf a southern suburb in the former American sector popular with expats.
Supervised by a board of American and German officials and parents, it likes to describe itself as ‘bicultural and bilingual’ rather than ‘international’, but to all intents and purposes it is an international school free of all tuition fees.
Half the staff are German, and lessons conducted in both English and German throughout the school. Parents warn that some subject classes at secondary level are sometimes offered in German only, which can cause problems for newly arrived expat children. The German Abitur and US high school diploma are offered as leaving examinations. Advanced Placement is also offered and students go on to a variety of universities in Germany and the USA.
American citizens are automatically allocated a place. German students make up about 60 per cent of the student body and are admitted by lottery due to massive demand by local parents looking for a bilingual education. The remaining 10 per cent are ‘international’ students (neither American nor German) and tend to be the brightest bilingual students who have equal proficiency in both English and German.
They are admitted on interview and test scores from previous (usually bilingual English-German primary) schools. Bright English-speaking pupils of many nationalities have also been known to secure a place on the basis of an academic interview and previous school reports (the school is unashamedly selective when it comes to non-Americans). Parents’ advice to those coming from abroad, particularly if your child is bright and a fluent English-speaker, is: “always give it a try, just in case. It’s worth it.”
Those without an American connection, or looking for a more ‘European’ feel, head for the State International School, Berlin (recently renamed the Nelson Mandela International School) founded in 2000, and now taking pupils from 5-18. It takes pupils across the ability range and offers the International Baccalaureate (first cohort due to graduate in 2007).
Set up by a highly respected head, Michael Hertz, with years of experience in overseas European and international schools, it has quickly become very popular, with long waiting lists and a lottery to admit German pupils. Following a pattern much favoured by the Berlin education authorities, each class consists of half local German pupils and half international. English-speakers must pass an English competency test to gain admission. Currently, as the school is expanding, it is easier than John F Kennedy to gain a place.
There are no tuition fees, but it has none of the down-at-heel shabbiness typical of cash-strapped Berlin state schools (eg. the Europe Schools). “A school that seems to be getting it right,” is the verdict of one discerning mother, while the support of the Berlin authorities means it will continue to have a solid basis for growth in the future.
Also typical of the hybrid model are the ‘Europe Schools’, state schools set up around a decade ago and designated by the Berlin authorities for this model of state bilingual school (they all have a special “Europe School” logo, whatever the language combination). [NB Not to be confused with European schools run by the EU commission for employees of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and European Patent office in Munich and offer the ‘European Bac’ as a qualification. There are no EU-funded European schools in Berlin].
Originally the Europe Schools were based at former military schools for British, American, French and Russian personnel and converted to state bilingual schools after the troops departed, post-reunification. The English-German, French-German and Russian-German primaries have been so successful the model has expanded to Italian, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Spanish and Portugese bilingual primaries with classes of 50 per cent German and 50 per cent of the other nationalities.
However it is the German-English primaries that are the most sought after by international families; they’re a good option for those hoping for their children to become bilingual (easier than many expect, particularly since several subjects are taught in English).
In the past, the Europe primary and secondary schools have suffered from budget cuts due to the parlous state of the Berlin economy. Those used to well-resourced international schools may find them sparse. Unlike normal state schools, however, class sizes are small for English mother-tongue pupils. Parents’ main complaint is the shortage of relief teachers. Particularly in the winter months, lessons may be cancelled when teachers are off sick.
Getting into English-German Europe schools:
Europe primaries take pupils aged 5-12. Europe secondaries are for pupils age 12-19. At present the only school leaving diploma available at Europe secondaries is the German Abitur. However, unlike the Abitur at other state schools at least half the subjects are written in English.
There are long waiting lists (places are allocated by lottery for German pupils for admission, particularly for the youngest age groups). British and American families have priority for admission and other English speakers, eg. Canadian, Australian etc are next, then English speakers from the Indian subcontinent and Africa, particularly if one parent is German.
But it is very difficult for parents with a non-Commonwealth or non-US background who may be looking for an English bilingual education. Dutch and Scandinavian families are regularly turned away. Other Europeans (eg. Hungarians, Italians) whose children may be transferring from international schools abroad and who have good English also have no chance.
Siblings of existing pupils have first priority and at the youngest grade levels they are tending to take up large numbers of places. In recent years, there have been waiting lists for five and six year-olds (in practice it is almost impossible to get a place for a six-year old in Grade 1).
The Berlin government has been expanding the two English-German Europe primaries and is trying to accommodate as many English speakers as possible, so if waiting lists build up, new classes open up at pre-school level (five year olds). Departures among international families open up places in the higher grades; particularly in year 4 and above, there are always places for English-speaking pupils.
Note: you can only apply to a Europe school when you are already officially resident in Berlin. Unlike the private international schools they will not promise a place before you relocate.
Two Europe schools, Charles Dickens School in Charlottenburg (near the Olympic Stadium – but pupils travel in from across the city) and Quentin Blake School in Zehlendorf, combine elements of German and the British primary national curriculum. English-speaking pupils and German pupils are taught reading and writing in their mother tongue separately and the two groups come together for subject lessons, with mathematics taught in German and the humanities taught in English.
Parents praise the teaching; however, there have been rumblings of discontent, particularly from British parents, over the German style preschool curriculum which postpones reading and writing to age 6 in favour of developing motor skills and ‘social preparedness’. By years 5 and 6, however, parents are delighted as the pace zings along compared to international schools. “The maths is fantastic, even the weakest are taught to master mental arithmetic,” says one contented parent. Class sizes are much smaller than in other local schools, for English mother-tongue pupils classes of 15 are the norm.
Both Europe schools are busy, happy schools. Unlike other state primaries in Berlin, lunch is provided at the Europe schools and an array of supervised extra-curricular activities is offered after school till around 5 pm for all children. The primary Europe Schools feed into secondary Europe Schools intended to continue the dual-language model until the pupils are completely bilingual in both languages, usually by age 14 (year 8), after which transfer from outside the system is very difficult.
Schiller Gymnasium, for pupils who are the top 20-25 per cent of the ability range (pupils may be admitted for a year’s ‘probation’), takes English mother-tongue pupils, usually transferring from Charles Dickens and Quentin Blake primaries. Some Zehlendorf parents choose Schiller over John F. Kennedy School, even if the latter is closer to them, usually for a more ‘British’ or ‘European’ feel.
The school is different from other Berlin secondaries that offer a so-called ‘bilingual’ programme, in that it has native English-speaking teachers and English mother tongue pupils (by now usually as proficient in German as English).
Although the principal of Schiller will take bright pupils with little or no German in years 7 and 8 (the first two years of secondary), in practise few international families join the English-mother tongue section after year 7. The school follows the Europe School pattern of teaching some subjects in German (mostly maths and the sciences) and some in English (humanities and biology) and is particularly strong on modern European languages.
Some parents report very little support from teachers for those with little or no German, and students can struggle to fit in to what is already an academically selective school. Parents also complain of a limited subject range for English-speaking pupils when vital subject choices must be made for the school leaving exam, and limited extra-curricular activities – although the norm in Germany is for after school activities at the many ‘Vereine’, rather than school-based clubs.
At present only the German Abitur (school leaving exam) is available at age 19 (first cohort due in 2007 after 2 pupils graduated from the pilot class in 2006) with those considering the IB currently transferring to the Nelson Mandela International School at 16 (and very welcome there). Many parents opt for the more academically rigorous programme at Schiller till age 16, before transferring to IB programmes elsewhere.
Overall, Berlin’s international schools are down to earth without the flashy parents evident in international schools elsewhere. Neither pupils from private international schools nor the state run bilingual schools wear school uniform and it can be hard to distinguish between the pupils. Unlike other cities, parents remark that there can be surprisingly affluent families attending state-run schools, with pupils happily mixing across a wide social range. Parents also report that Berlin life is less of an expat bubble. Teenagers, in particular, love the city. Excellent public transport and a low crime rate give them the freedom to ‘hang out’ and enjoy the town. Many families follow the German pattern of allowing their children to travel to school unsupervised on public transport at a young age.
Drugs problems are also less prevalent; although these do flare up from time to time in some of the larger state schools, parents say this depends on the school size and the fact that it is less likely to be hushed up than in the private international schools.