I alluded to the fact that our ongoing school traumas were only part of a wider picture with schooling here in Germany and our experiences of it. So I thought I'd try to put pen to paper as it were and explain how we have found the system here and what we have done.
Formal learning in school doesn't begin in Germany until you are at least six. Unlike the UK where you would go into reception the year you turn five, here you enter the 'first class' the year you turn seven. Until then, there is Kindergarten, this is predominantly a 'daycare/nursery' type establishment rather than a learning place. So, at the beginning of the school year before you go to school, you apply to your preferred schools for a place. In our case, we applied to our village school and were asked to come to meet the headteacher - as is fairly standard I believe. Well, that was when our problems started. Number 1 son you see was apparently completely incomprehensible, no-one could understand a word he said and so, said the headteacher, he would need further investigation.
We duly relayed this information to our kindergarten and they couldn't understand what the school were talking about. Neither could the Doctor at his pre-school medical, in fact everyone we spoke to thought we were blowing the matter up out of all proportion and misunderstanding what the school were saying to us. The school however, were still not happy and asked for an assessment by a specialist in speech development. This was duly undertaken - at which point we (and she) were amazed to discover that the matter that this was not our son's first language had not been made clear. But, despite the fact that he was learning a second language and despite of the supporting evidence from kindergarten, they felt it best that he be enrolled in a 'special school for the speech impaired'.
Well as you can well imagine, we were somewhat poleaxed by this decision - as was everyone else we spoke to or asked their opinion, even our own paediatrician who had prescribed us speech therapy sessions for some minor tweaking felt it was a gross over reaction. So we decided that we would not do this - if anything, being around other children with speech problems would not help in correcting some of the pronunciation issues we had. What he needed was complete immersion in a proper German speaking environment, as he was experiencing in Kindergarten. However, as the village school was so anti him joining them, we decided therefore to do our own thing and withdrew our application from the village school and told them where to stick their recommendations for the special school.
Well, you'd have thought we'd have lit the fuse and retired at that point. The headmistress from the village school told us that we couldn't withdraw our application - and that if we didn't go to the special school, then we would have to go to her school and she would have to take us.....
It would seem that as we didn't fit any of their existing support programmes, they were unable to see how we could fit into their school. We have since heard from other parents at the school that the fact we are English was also another problem as the English teaching at the school is not strong and they felt we would be a hindrance here - you'd have though having a native speaker in the class would help and having a mother who would be able to help out with reading etc, but oh no, this is too much of a threat to the status quo of teachers who have been there for eons and are somewhat stuck in their ways.
Anyway, we decided that we would look at other options. These are not many in Germany. You cannot home school as it is illegal (and I don't think I'm committed and motivated enough to make it work anyway) so that leaves the private system, which is not very big. We were fortunate to have an International School in the next town - however, this was itself not without issue.
Being the good middle class parents we are, we researched the school online as well as visiting it and allowing our son to have a trial week there. He was a different boy during that week, much more engaged and involved. I don't know if this was due to the fact that most of the lessons were conducted in English - or whether it had just caught his imagination and away he went. This left us with a difficult dilemma - for what we had read online was not particularly supportive of the school and more than hinted at a lot of problems in the school. However, we felt we had no other option, and duly signed him up for the International school.
Despite our misgivings, he has had two very good and successful years there. He has come on fantastically and in the two years he has been there has been learning Chinese as well as English and German, has learnt the violin and his reading and writing and maths skills are unrecognisable from before. It was definitely the right decision at the time.
So after a stressful time at the beginning of school we were fairly settled and things were going well. We had a new and very proactive headmaster in place at our school and the whole school was buzzing with promise and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, due to a series of personality clashes, broken promises and financial problems, the school is now on the brink of closure. We are unsure from day to day as to whether we will have a school to go back to the next day. It is a very sorry state of affairs and given the promise at the beginning of the year has been a very swift downfall. At Easter, we made the difficult decision to look for a new school and found a place at an English school a bit further away. At that point, we were not aware how serious the problems we were facing were and are pleased that we acted when we did. We were fortunate to have secured a place before this latest crisis came to light. I dread to think how much more stressful this time would have been without a confirmed place for next year. All we need to do now is hope that the current school limps on for the next three weeks until the end of the year.
If we don't make it that far, then a potential issue raises its head. After the age of 7 you become 'Schulpflichtig' which means that you must attend school. It is a legal requirement. As stated above, you cannot home school, so that would leave us needing to find a school spot for the last four weeks of the German year (- our school dates were slightly different). No-one can seem to tell us what that means in practice for us - and fingers crossed we wont need to know - but potentially it would mean us needing to go back to the village school to ask for/demand a place for the remaining few weeks. Now that is not something I want to contemplate....