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What about that short school day?


“Women 'still stuck at home with the kids'” (9/25/12) “Long school days 'hinder new sports stars'” (4/20/12)

These two simplistic headlines from The Local, Germany’s News in English bookend Germany’s* struggle with increasing demands for longer school days and entrenched cultural norms. The “mommy wars”, the economy, the shortage of day care, are all familiar touchstones in debates about schooling kids in the U.S., but here in Germany the short school day just really puts these topics under a harsh, glaring spotlight. Even for a stay-at-home parent it’s barely enough time to get the groceries before having to turn around and go back to school.

Traditionally, women stayed at home and tutored their kids in the afternoon, working in music and sports lessons. This does not mesh with what I see around me. We live in an apartment complex surrounded by research institutes and medical clinics and there are young women everywhere preparing for their careers. As in the U.S., more women than men are enrolled in the universities.

Schools here change slowly, adapting to the increasing numbers of women with advanced degrees and the increasing numbers of women who want to or have to go to work; and yes, the debate here also focuses on women as if they are the only member of the species capable of caring for children. While I have read that in other German cities, for example Berlin, afternoon programming has increased in the public school system - hence the concern expressed by the second headline - this is not the case here in Heidelberg. Well, that is not entirely true; at our daughter’s school some “afternoon” programs do exist. For instance, I enthusiastically suggested she play rugby for 30 minutes after school on Mondays, but was thoroughly drubbed with a heavy dose of eye rolling. I moved on to Tuesday’s offering of theater. I folded after a horrified look and seeing that theater class did not start until 1:30 so I’d have to pick my daughter up at school and have her back an hour later having fed her lunch. The hour and a half of basketball on Wednesdays likewise does not start until 45 minutes after school ends. Resigned to her “it will be good for you” fate, my daughter will join choir and instrumental music on Thursdays which starts when compulsory school hours end, and will keep her at school until 2:00.

So, if you really need your child to be somewhere other than at home with a nanny so you can have a job, your options in Heidelberg are to send your kid to a private school with longer hours, pay for one of the few day care slots available for school age kids, or pay for what appears to be a Boys and Girls Club type operation called Päd active. Päd active is a non-profit organization that operates on school grounds and charges parents by a sliding scale for one to four hours of after school activities and homework time. This will get you to 5:00, at some schools.

  • Interesting note: Communist East Germany had all-day school and free day care centers. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, female employment in the East was near 90 percent, in the West 55 percent (NYT, 1/17/10).

Other notes:

The school day here is short compared to the U.S., but don’t German kids spend more days per year in school? Yes, but the more apt comparison is the number of hours in school.

Kansas: 186 school days; 1,116 instructional hours (KS Dept. of Education) Germany: 220 school days (average); 641 instructional hours for 7-8 year olds, 793 for 9-11 year olds (OECD)


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