In prosperous Germany, school buildings are in disrepair. Plaster is crumbling off the walls, toilets are broken and gymnasiums are closed for repair work. Many don't have Wi-Fi and computers are scarce. Teachers are exhausted, and more and more students are at risk of being left behind after schools were closed for weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sorry state of Germany's education system is the result of mismanagement and poor planning, say education researchers, and it comes at a time when schools face new challenges as they are expected to help with the integration of more foreign students.
A majority of school administrators say the shortage of teachers is the biggest challenge, according to the latest German school barometer published this week by the Robert Bosch Foundation.
"We believe there are 30,000 to 40,000 teaching positions that are not filled," Dagmar Wolf, an education researcher at the Robert Bosch Foundation, told DW.
Education policy is the remit of Germany's 16 state governments, whose conference of education ministers has put the number of unfilled teaching positions at a much lower 12,000. But the German Teachers' Association said those figures have been embellished by the fact that some schools list parents and other helpers as teachers in the statistics.
Most dramatic teacher shortage in decades
"The alarm bells have been ringing for a long time. However, I don't recall such drama and severity as we are experiencing now," Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of the German Teachers' Association, told DW.
He sees several reasons for the current situation. Despite increases in the birth rate, the number of teacher trainee positions has been massively reduced over the last 20 to 30 years, and job security for young teachers is no longer a given.
And then there have been the influxes of refugees. Most recently, over 200,000 children arrived from Ukraine needing school places, as German law requires all children between the ages of 6 and 16 to attend school. "Schools were not prepared for that," said Meidinger.
The German Economic Institute has estimated that if 3.5% of Ukraine's 7.5 million children eventually come to Germany, the country will need 13,500 additional teachers.
Up to 80,000 unfilled positions by 2030
Yet the biggest teacher shortage is still ahead, with the teachers who were born in the early 1960s entering retirement age. "We are entering a time when the baby boomer generation stops working," said Wolf. "That will dramatically exacerbate the situation."
Some researchers estimate that by 2030, there will be more than 80,000 unfilled teaching positions. Not only that, there will also be a shortage of social workers, school psychologists and school support staff to implement the "inclusion policy," which is meant to ensure that all children are accepted into regular schools.
As things stand, only 7% of German students are studying to become teachers. And of those, many drop out or pursue other career paths later on.
How can more young people be encouraged to take up teaching? "If you ask teachers what they want most, it's not more pay, but more time for their core tasks," said Meidinger. They are being saddled with organizational tasks and extra projects. "Of course, digitization also requires a lot of training and support, which is often lacking," he added.
States competing for teachers
Individual states, increasingly desperate for teachers, have begun a fierce competition. Brandenburg has begun offering teachers extra job security, promising them civil servant status as soon as they have their bachelor's degree. The wealthy southern state of Bavaria offers teachers from other states a handsome relocation allowance and higher salaries.
"If you look at Bavaria, it's the strategy of State Premier Markus Söder to try to poach as many teachers as possible from other states next year," Wolf said.
A commission instituted by the education ministers' conference put forward its own proposals on Friday, which included encouraging teachers to come out of retirement, allowing teachers to work longer hours, increasing class sizes and employing graduate students as assistant teachers. The conference also wants to limit part-time work.
"Some 49% of teachers work part time, and this is where the greatest potential for tapping resources lies," the commission said in a press release.
Astrid-Sabine Busse, who chairs the commission, also said more teachers should be trained to teach those subjects that are particularly in demand. What German schools need the most is teachers for mathematics, chemistry, physics, music and art. She also encouraged more psychological support for teachers and the establishment of crisis hotlines.
Teachers from abroad?
The trade unions were quick to lambast the proposals as helpless attempts that would put more pressure on teachers. The Education and Science Workers Union recently published its own "15-point plan against the shortage of teachers," which called for additional administrative staff and IT specialists at schools so that teachers could concentrate on teaching.
But Germany has a shortage of skilled labor across all sectors, and encouraging skilled immigration is seen as one factor in solving the problem.
Both the ministerial commission and the Education and Science Workers Union agree that making it easier for other professionals to enter the teaching profession and facilitating the recognition of teacher diplomas from other countries would help alleviate the problem. Currently, most of the few thousand teachers with foreign citizenship in this country are from other European countries, with neighboring France topping the list.
"The problem is not that too few apply, but that foreign teachers have little chance in Germany because of the very difficult recognition process," said Dagmar Wolf.
"We have the problem in our federal system that there are no uniform regulations," Wolf added, so while there is a lot of interest from teachers who have earned degrees abroad, "in the end, very, very few end up in the system because of the bureaucratic hurdles."
This article was originally written in German.