Back to Belief in German Schools

Berlin, Germany - Last week's emotional outpouring following the pope's death has sparked excited calls from the faithful that Christianity is back 'in'. A trend towards Christian schooling in Germany might just substantiate that belief.

It's a fact that both Catholic and Evangelical schools in Germany are flourishing. There are almost 2,000 Christian schools scattered across the country and an increasing number of children waiting patiently to be given one of the highly coveted places. Demand far outstrips supply and progressive parents are taking it upon themselves to found a new generation of denominational schools. But is the upturn really a reflection of a born-again faith?

The answer is no, at least not exclusively. In fact it seems to have more to do with a belief in a better education than a belief in God. Jürgen Frank, head of education for the Evangelical Church of Germany says there are three main reasons for the recent rise in enthusiasm for Christian schooling.

"Firstly, families are generally smaller and parents want to provide their children with a good education. Secondly, they want the education their children receive to meet their individual needs, and thirdly they want a progressive, modern education system," he said.

Andreas Verhülsdonk, an expert on religious education in the Catholic Church, says that parents are drawn to Catholicism because they know their children will be taught values and morality.

"We run a project called "compassion" in which pupils spend three weeks with homeless or sick people," he said. "The point is not just to help the needy but to give the children the chance to see the world through the eyes of people living on the fringes of society."

But Christoph Hermann, who sends his son to an Evangelical school in Berlin says it is simply important to make Christianity a part of daily life.

"I wouldn't consider myself particularly religious, but the Christian faith was a part of my upbringing and that is what I want for my son," Hermann said. "We live in an increasingly secular society and I don't want him to grow up seeing Christianity as something fundamental because he hasn't been exposed to it in an everyday kind of way."

There's more to it than just religion

That, however, is not to say that denominational schools neglect reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact they are legally bound to provide pupils with the same curricular options as state schools, with the only difference being compulsory religious education for an average of two hours each week. Hermann believes his son is getting a good deal.

"Christianity is helpful in learning to understand our culture and it equips children to better understand art and history as well," he said.

And that is not all. According to Frank, children at Evangelical schools in Germany learn to read and write better than their state school counterparts.

"A study we carried out after the publication of the Pisa report revealed that the educational climate at Christian schools is better than in state schools, and that the quality on offer at demoninational schools genuinely does live up to its reputation," he said.

Indeed, that reputation appears to have run away with the imagination of some determined and diligent parents. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the church has given its blessing to the founding of some 70 new Evangelical schools and there are 50 more would-be's waiting in the wings. But getting such a venture off the ground is no easy feat.

"We have to clear a lot of hurdles, many of them financial, before a new school can be founded," Frank said.

Hurdles to new beginnings

New school initiatives receive a grant from the Evangelical Church to see them through the first three or four years until the government starts paying an annual subsistence worth some 90 percent of the regular state school budget. But Frank says church funds are running dry.

"We used to pay start-up schools some 240,000 euros ($309,000) for those first few years, but now with so many waiting, we can't afford to do that," he said.

Children can be non-denominational and still attend a protestant school

Most of these projects depend very heavily on the driving parental force behind them, not only to put sponsorship or financing in place, but to find and renovate premises, to interview and hire staff, and of course to handpick the protégées.

The selection criteria vary from school to school, state to state and church to church. In the case of Catholics, the emphasis is on accepting children who are being brought up within the framework of the faith, whereas the Evangelical Church takes a more relaxed approach to the religious background of its recruits. What they want to achieve, they say, is a good social mix.

But is it illusory to think that's really possible in schools that require tuition? Frank says that although parents who send their children to Evangelical schools are expected to pay a monthly fee of between 40 and 120 euros -- based on what they earn -- those who can't afford it are exempt without a battle. But that said, he thinks Germans should be prepared to dig deeper into their pockets for a good education.

"It's horrifying how little people are prepared to invest in learning," he said. "They spend ten times more on entertainment than they do on education."