Think differently


25 July

Inequities in private-school attendance are increasing – it’s worth taking a closer look!

Inequities in the utilization of educational options exist in numerous areas – they already begin with attendance at child day care facilities, the utilization of more

Inequities in private-school attendance are increasing – it’s worth taking a closer look!

Inequities in the utilization of educational options exist in numerous areas – they already begin with attendance at child day care facilities, the utilization of whole-day options, or also the use of leisure options conducive to a child’s overall development, and range all the way through to attending a grammar school and a university: for all these options, it has been evidenced that children from socio-economically advantaged families are more likely to utilize them than children from socio-economically less-advantaged families, i.e. particularly children from families with less formal education utilize these options to a lesser extent.
In some cases, these differences have even increased over time. This applies, for example, to the utilization of child day care center options by children below the age of three – with the expansion of child day care center options the inequities in utilization have increased: higher-income families, in particular, have benefited from this expansion. Thus educational inequities begin very early, and are continued in many different areas.

One area to which this also applies and which is attracting particularly significant attention in the medial discussion is private schools. And this although “only” about one in eleven pupils attends a private school (9.1 % of all children attending mainstream schools). In the case of children aged under three, it is after all almost one child in three who attends a child day care center. Inequities in this very early stage, however, receive far less medial attention. This is putatively attributable not least to the widespread supposition that better formally educated households “purchase” better education for their children through private schools, and are thus abandoning the public-sector school system in increasing numbers. It remains to be clarified whether this is actually the case. It is at any rate evident that a society which is pursuing the goal of shared learning by children from all social groupings would be well advised to actually take a closer look at the trend towards social segregation in terms of private-school attendance.

So much, then, for the empirical findings: in actual fact the number of private schools and the children being taught in them has risen continuously in recent years – particularly in the east of Germany, where prior to German reunification there were more or less no private schools. There are many voices advocating that the east of Germany must therefore “catch up” – thus implicitly presupposing that a certain proportion of private schools is, as it were, the “norm” for a society, which is generally regarded as far from being the case. It is more correct to say that in the east of Germany, since reunification, a steep rise from a very low baseline is observable.

In the 2017/2018 academic year, there were 5,839 mainstream and vocational private schools in Germany, 81 % more than in the 1992/1993 academic year. It is notable that the number of private schools still increased when the total number of all schools declined in the late 1990s due to falling pupil numbers. For example, the total number of schools decreased by 19 % from 2000 to 2017. The number of private schools, by contrast, rose during the same period by 43 % – according to the figures of the German Federal Statistical Office.

There are private schools in both the mainstream and vocational categories, though the proportion among the mainstream schools, at 11 %, is significantly lower than among vocational schools, at 25 %. In addition, there are large regional differences: the proportion of private mainstream schools was highest in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, at 19 %, and smallest in Lower Saxony, at 6 %. In all, about 1.0 million pupils were attending a private school. Here, too, there were significant differences between the individual states when it came to the proportions of private pupils: they range from 4 % in Schleswig-Holstein to 10 % in Saxony. Of the pupils at private mainstream schools, the largest proportion (36 %) are taught in grammar schools. As far as the funding organizations of the private schools are concerned, religious schools account for the largest proportion (mostly Protestant or Catholic faith schools), followed by schools espousing a progressive educational concept, such as the Waldorf schools or also Montessori schools. There also exist international schools and other philosophically based private schools. So the private school scene is pretty diverse.

Parents frequently opt for private schools, since they expect to find more favorable teaching conditions there. One indicator for this is the class size: in primary schools, grammar schools, and schools for children with learning difficulties, in the 2017/18 academic year the classes in private schools, however, were only about one pupil smaller than in public-sector schools – this is not a significant difference. In some cases, it is supposed that private schools achieve better learning successes. If the school-leaving qualification is taken as the indicator for the success of a school education, the official statistics show that the proportion of pupils passing the Abitur (roughly equivalent to A levels, the qualification for university entrance) lies at 87 % for private grammar schools, and at just under 86 % for public-sector schools – i.e. it is not significantly different. In addition, recent analyses based on the IQB (German Institute for Educational Quality Improvement) state trends by Klaus Klemm and colleagues reveal that the competences achieved by pupils from private schools and from public-sector schools deviate from each other only slightly on average. Only in a few competence categories do private pupils perform better. The analyses allow for the fact that the pupils at these schools differ in regard to important features like socio-economic status, family language, and gender, all of which are relevant to learning and performance.

It is precisely this that constitutes the inequity in the utilization of private schools, which has progressively increased over the years, and which we mentioned earlier on. Since, however, when these differences are factored in, the learning successes do not differ significantly among the pupils, it might be thought that these differences are not significant, or of only minor relevance. However, what is involved here is not only the learning successes recorded, but also multifaceted other aspects of shared learning. And as we have noted, at primary schools, particularly, the socio-economic differences in utilization are deleterious to the aspiration of shared learning by children – on the contrary, they prevent school from being the place at which children from highly disparate groupings can come together. Primary schools, in particular, though, claim to do this. The official statistics, too, reveal significant differences in the pupil mix: almost 6 % of all foreign pupils attended private schools in the 2017/18 academic year, compared with a proportion of almost 10 % of German pupils. Besides these cross-sectionally measured socio-economic differences in the utilization of private schools, which in addition have long since been known, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that these have further increased over time. And this is what makes extrapolation of this trend a particularly explosive issue.

For example, analyses based on longitudinal data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) for children attending mainstream schools reveal the following findings: together with Katja Görlitz, we can demonstrate with these data that private-school utilization by pupils from higher-income households in which the parents have higher formal education has increased more steeply over time than that of all others. In the west and east of Germany, accordingly, increasing utilization disparities for children have been observable in recent years when they are differentiated in terms of their parents’ education. Whereas in 1995 the utilization differentials were still moderate, it is notable 20 years later that in the west of Germany the utilization ratio among the children of academics has risen to almost 17 %, und in the east to about 23 %. The rise in the utilization ratio for other educational groupings is significantly lower: among children of parents without a vocational qualification it has in the west of Germany risen from almost 4 to 7 %. In the east of Germany, their utilization ratio has in the last 20 years even fallen, by 1.5 percent to 4 %. The utilization differential between children whose parents have a university degree and children whose parents have no vocational qualification was during 2015 in the west of Germany 10 percent and in the east of Germany 19 percent, whereas in the preceding years it was very much lower. This means the social selection between private and public-sector schools is steadily increasing. In the east of Germany, this also applies to the differences between children from households with very high and low incomes. In 2015, 21 % of all children from high-income families attended a private school, whereas the figure for children from low-income families was only 8 %. In 1995, private-school attendance was still approximately equal for both groupings. This increase in social segregation is in the west of Germany primarily evident in secondary schools, and in the east of Germany above all in primary schools. This development in regard to education and parents’ income can also be confirmed using more complex analyses, which incorporate a multiplicity of factors relating to private-school attendance.

So if further social segregation between private and public-sector schools is to be prevented, then firstly private schools will have to make more efforts to attract pupils from formally less educated and in the east of Germany from lower-income families as well. Secondly, public-sector schools will have to become more attractive again for pupils from families in which the parents have a higher level of formal education. This is essential if shared learning by all groupings is to be achievable in the long term. How this can be accomplished, and what protagonists will be called upon to contribute, are not easy questions. The answers involved are multi-layered and multi-faceted. For example, the schools, the school boards and the Ministries of Culture are called upon – educational politicians on all levels. One option might be for all German states (as some are already doing) to lay down maximum amounts or income-graduated cost contributions for school fees throughout their jurisdiction. In Rhineland-Palatinate, for instance, private schools are subsidized by the state government only if they do not charge “any school fees or other fees”. Marcel Helbig and co-authors show that for the 2015/16 and 2014/2015 academic years, in both Rhineland-Palatinate and Berlin – where this kind of arrangement does not exist – the proportion of children qualifying for free teaching materials in private schools is in fact lower than in public-sector schools. The difference between private and public-sector schools in Rhineland-Palatinate, however, is smaller by comparison. Overall, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia are so far the only German states in which low-income parents do not pay any school fees. But if it is recommended that private schools reduce their fees more substantially than hitherto for the lower income groups, it has to be assured that for private schools equitable competition with public-sector schools remains possible. In Germany, private schools receive for each pupil two-thirds of the governmental funding for which public-sector schools qualify. This entails a financing shortfall that has to be filled by the private schools themselves. In other countries, such as Sweden and the UK, government-subsidized private schools are 100 % state-funded. And in Berlin, too, the current state government is planning to subsidize private schools more substantially if they accept a higher number of children from low-income families.

Appropriate arrangements would accordingly ensure that low-income families would not rule out using private schools for their children because of excessive costs. However, other areas of the educational process also appear to indicate that it is not the costs alone that lead to particular options’ not being utilized. In many cases, it’s also imperative to provide information on the specific options involved, and to publicize them among all groupings. In addition, public-sector schools can also, as some of them are already doing, by means of specific offers, such as increased language coaching or multifarious other specialisms, win back certain pupil groupings that by attending private schools have opted for a specific curriculum. At any rate, further social segregation in private-school utilization needs to be avoided by a judicious choice of measures.

It is beyond doubt, however, that there are a large number of other educational areas in which this increase in social segregation is at least equally relevant. More attention should be paid to early education, in particular, in order to prevent educational inequities from accumulating still further over the pupils’ lives. But other areas, too, should be scrutinized in detail when it comes to countering a rise in educational inequities in different areas.

This report is based on the following sources:
Görlitz, Katja, Spiess, C. Katharina and Elena Ziege (2018). Fast jedes zehnte Kind geht auf eine Privatschule: Nutzung hängt insbesondere in Ostdeutschland zunehmend vom Einkommen der Eltern ab. DIW-Wochenbericht, 85(51/52), 1103-1111.
Helbig, Marcel, Nikolai, Rita and Michael Wrase (2017). Privatschulen und die soziale Frage: Wirkung rechtlicher Vorgaben zum Sonderungsverbot in den Bundesländern. Leviathan: Berliner Zeitschrift für Sozialwissenschaft, ISSN 1861-8588, Nomos, Baden-Baden, Vol. 45, Iss. 3, pp. 357-380.
Helbig, Marcel and Michael Wrase (2017). Übersicht über die Vorgaben zur Einhaltung des Sonderungsverbots in den Bundesländern: Aktualisierte und ergänzte Fassung auf der Grundlage der in NVwZ 2016 entwickelten Kriterien. WZB Discussion Paper, No. P 2017-004.
Klemm, Klaus, Hoffmann, Lars, Maaz, Kai and Petra Stanat (2018). Privatschulen in Deutschland. Trends und Leistungsvergleiche. Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
Nikolai, Rita and Michael Wrase (2017). Faire Privatschulregulierung: Was Deutschland vom europäischen Vergleich lernen kann. WZBrief Bildung, No. 35.
Statistisches Bundesamt (2018). Private Schulen Schuljahr 2017/2018. Fachserie 11 Reihe 1.1, Wiesbaden.

Prof. Dr. C. Katharina Spieß and Elena Ziege, German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin)