Education the German way: lessons for Rwanda

Recently I had a chat with a friend who happens to be German. The conversation veered towards their reputation for efficiency. German efficiency is renowned.

Recently I had a chat with a friend who happens to be German. The conversation veered towards their reputation for efficiency. German efficiency is renowned.

It ranges from simple issues like time keeping to more complex ones like the famed ‘German technology’ in cars and other machinery. Mercedes Benz and BMW are famously top of the range among cars.

Even the once lowly Volkswagen which started off for the mass market (Volkswagen- literally; folks’ wagon- the people’s car) has transformed from the famous beetle and produces top-notch automobiles now- Passat, Toureg, Golf, among others.

The efficiency script continues even in sport.

We saw it last in last year’s World Cup when the efficient ‘German machine’ cut the mighty Brazil to smithereens beating them by seven good goals in their own backyard.

Naturally I had to ask what makes Germans so efficient. I also asked why they were able to handle the recent recession better than their European counterparts.

My prodding led to an unlikely answer; the education system. What came from that conversation plus further research yields some valuable gems that we can learn from and incorporate from this system into our own.

The first thing that is easily noticeable about German education is the relative freedom of choice involved.

Educational system follows the European model of free public education and a variety of secondary schools for academic and vocational education, rather a single comprehensive high school for all students.

Secondary education is divided into a less academic Hauptschule (to grade 10) leading to vocational education, an intermediate Realschule; leading to a technical or business school, and the academically oriented Gymnasium that leads to the Abitur or Matura diploma and a university education.

Special education classes or special schools are offered for students with mental or physical disabilities.

The German states – equivalent to our provinces – have a say on the education system to pursue in their areas. Taken in our context, if Eastern Province can decide that, based on their economic activities and preferences they would prefer a they have a certain system or variation of the system so that it suits them better, then they can.

The freedom of choice in education is further enhanced by the fact that education is free in Germany all the way to University. This is key because no smart and talented student can be locked out due to poverty.

The other factor that enhances German education is the ‘duale berusfsbildung’ (dual vocational education) concept. Businesses and schools work together to combine academic study with an apprenticeship (Berufsschule) which usually has a two- to three-year course of study.

Typically, students must have a diploma from a Realschule or Mittelschule in order to be accepted by a Berufsschule. From there school graduates are certified in a certain trade or industrial field.

With the increasing sophistication of manufacturing and other fields, Germany’s technical schools help fill an educational gap in a way that other nations could learn from.

This system is, undoubtedly, a cornerstone in embedding practical knowledge in the learners in a more impactful way than, say, internships. It also effectively bridges the gap between the academia and industry
Indeed, for Rwanda, it is for the same reason (of bridging this gap) that the Workforce Development Authority (WDA), and the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) were formed.

We meant to fill the skills gap. Rwanda has done a lot in this area already; there are vocational schools that have been upgraded and are supported by WDA. And yet a lot still needs to be done.

There is still a sense of elitism that seems to permeate and negate the good efforts and progress being made. People still prefer having a purely academic degree to practical training.

Effective involvement of the business and industry in education is also needed. This requires a lot of heart and mind. The key question is; how do we best prepare our young people to face challenges in our society and the world?

We can learn from the Germans. We need not copy and paste, rather adopt what is good and applicable to our context. In any case, it seems the Kinyarwanda word for school, ishuri, has German origins; schule.
The writer is a Project Management and Entrepreneurship Development Consultant based in Kigali.