Suddenly, teachers at Berlin’s Ruetli school decided enough was enough. They would no longer tolerate being spat at, insulted and attacked by pupils, some of whom spoke hardly any German and many of whom carried knives.
Things had deteriorated to such an extent at the state school – in a district where 80 per cent of pupils are from Muslim immigrant families – that it had become virtually impossible to teach, and some staff feared for their lives. At the end of their tether, staff wrote to the authorities pleading for the school to be closed.
Led by Petre Eggebrecht, the acting head teacher, their letter said: “We are desperate. Our teaching is met with flat rejection. The mood in the classrooms is one of aggression, complete lack of respect and ignorance. Instructions are ignored. Few students bring relevant material, and many of us will only enter a lesson with a cell phone in order to call for help in an emergency.”
Students carried knives, supposedly “to defend themselves”, and many came from families with no breadwinner and no hope for the future.
When the letter – sent in February – was leaked to the press last month, the extent of the crisis in the country’s once-prized education system finally burst into the public arena.
Remarkably, the furore has coincided with the release of the German film Brutally Tough, a fictional portrayal of the criminal youth subculture in Neukoelln, the Berlin neighbourhood where Ruetli school is situated. It tells how the son of a German prostitute is terrorised by Turkish drug dealers. In one scene, a waste bin is placed over his head and beaten with a baseball bat.
Detlev Buck, the director, said his film was meant as a wake-up call to the German authorities about the parlous state of the nation’s immigrant communities.
For the staff of the school, the film has proved eerily realistic. “In many families, the pupils are the only ones who have to get up in the morning,” one teacher told the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “I feel as though we are raising criminals and terrorists here,” he added. The teacher wrote anonymously after education authorities banned staff from talking publicly, ostensibly to avoid inflaming the situation.
The school’s language problems were highlighted last week when a pupil, interviewed on television, was barely able to answer questions put to him. Teachers said that the few German students at the school had resorted to “pidgin German” to fit in with the majority. Last year, not a single pupil passed enough examinations to graduate into employment.
When police and teams of social workers and psychologists were dispatched to the school last week, in an attempt to answer the teachers’ calls for help, television crews following them were pelted with cobblestones by “gangs of marauding, hooded pupils”.
Since the teachers spoke out 10 days ago, headmasters, staff and pupils at secondary and comprehensive schools across Germany have complained of similar deficiencies in the state system, caused by decades of failed immigration policies and diminishing prospects on job market.
Christian Pfeiffer, the head of Germany’s Criminological Research Institute, echoed the teachers’ sentiments. “German secondary schools have degenerated into schools for losers,” he said.
Stung into action, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government last week launched an action plan to try to come to grips with the problem amid warnings that the immigrant rioting witnessed in France last year was imminent in Germany unless drastic measures were taken.
Turkish leaders say the problems in areas like Neukoelln are to do with deep social problems, not simply the fault of the immigrant population. “Young Arabs who live in Germany are raised in an authoritarian manner. The problem is that the school authorities are weak,” Nazar Mazood, the head of an Arabic culture institute in Neukoelln said.
Most of Germany’s 3.3 million Muslim immigrant population are of Turkish or Lebanese descent. Critics note that for decades the Turks – by far the country’s largest immigrant group – were officially regarded as “guest workers” who were in the country on only a temporary basis.