Hats off to stress-free learning

Henning Kullak-Ublick

All of them did it: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Winston Churchill, the actor Harald Schmidt, the journalist Ul­rich Wickert and the comedian Otto Waalkes, but also the leading politicians Edelgard Bulmahn, Edmund Stoiber, Christian Wulff, Peer Steinbrück, Guido Westerwelle, Klaus Wowereit as well as, incidentally, the author of these lines: all of them had to repeat a year at school.

Ever since the state government of Lower Saxony has started thinking about whether holding children back a year should finally be assigned to the dustbin of history, a debate has flared up in which a surprising number of education politicians have felt called upon to stand up for this relic of a bygone age. The second most frequent argument, “It didn’t do me any harm”, is familiar from the debate about the value of corporal punishment – we need not bother with it here ...

Much more interesting, however, is the argument summed up by Josef Kraus, president of the German Teachers’ Association and a lobbyist for academic secondary schools, in an interview with the newspaper Welt in which he described the abolition of holding pupils back a year as a “naively pampering education”. Anyone who wanted a school without this sanction had a “totally idealised image of pupils”, Kraus said, many of whom “needed the risk of failure to make a greater investment in school”. The 170,000 pupils who were held back in Germany each year “truly represent a storm in a teacup” in the context of 11.5 million pupils.

If we add to this the words of the state premier of Hesse, Volker Bouffier,  that “anyone who abolishes holding pupils back a year robs children of life experience”, we are left with the convenient polarisation between the achievers in the one corner and the mollycoddling teachers in the other. So there is no need to change anything in a school system which is as famous for its obsession with selection as for its social impermeability, no need to think about the 1.5 billion euros spent each year to protect children against precisely this obsession with selection through private tutoring. And there is no need either to consider whether the billion euros which it costs, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation, to stop pupils advancing without any benefit whatsoever might not be better spent by investment in schools.

What would be the evidently desirable opposite of a “naively pampering education”? A “make-things-as-difficult-and-awkward-as-you-can” education? A “dog-eat-dog” education? The claim that holding a child back was a necessary guarantor of “life experience”, discipline or the willingness to achieve is an educational declaration of bankruptcy, nothing more.

Love of doing, experience based in reality and an enthusiasm for independent thinking should be the drivers of learning in school, not fear or the rivalry for opportunities in life. So: hats off to the Lower Saxony state government – and a whole factory full of hats to all the teachers who encourage their pupils to learn without fear and make them self-confident in what they do!

Henning Kullak-Ublick, class teacher from 1984 -2010 at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School; board member of the German Association of Waldorf schools and the Friends of Waldorf Education as well as Aktion mündige Schule (www.freie-schule.de)