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Global education lessons: Germany’s respected voc-tech path with Meisters

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While most European nations try to track all students into college, Germany sends a majority to vocational training. Rooted in the guilds of the Middle Ages, the system offers training by – and, often, a job with – a Meister (professional).

"Most German company leaders or owners have gone through the system and are proud of it," says Jens Schneider, a University of Osnabrück sociologist. "Meisters used to be apprentices first, then journeymen, and now they own the shop; they are the guys doing the training."

Germany's education system tracks students by the age of 10 into one of three systems: the Gymnasium, for careers in academics; the Realschule, for white-collar jobs; and the Hauptschule, the trade-track school. For a long time, early tracking worked. Indeed the Hauptschules produced the specialized workforce that rebuilt the country after World War II and still feeds the strong small-business economy. Vocational training in Germany, unlike in most of Europe, is a respected, solid alternative to the traditional university path.

But now, the early tracking system can fail its weakest members – immigrants, particularly because they are often not prepared to learn. Vocational schools have become a "dumping ground" for immigrant children like Mateusz, says Bernd Nürnberg, principal at Bergius.

Only 15 percent of those leaving vocational schools have an apprenticeship in their hands, according to federal statistics. "What about the other 80 percent? What can we do to help those people find an apprenticeship?" asks researcher Mr. Schneider.

Bergius tries to bridge the gap with intensive support. Small classes are hands-on, and teachers, counselors, and work mediators follow pupils' progress. But, says Mr. Stuhlmann, who gave up his own bakery to teach, "It's not as though all children come to school beaming and saying, 'Let's bake Brötchen!' "

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