Homeschooling verboten

I know I just recently wrote about the German School System, but a 2009 German court decision on homeschooling put that unique aspect of German education in the spotlight. A Bremen couple who have been trying to get permission to homeschool their two young sons had all their legal arguments rejected. A Bremen superior administrative court (Oberverwaltungsgericht) told Dagmar and Tilman Neubronner (and their two attorneys) that they must send Moritz and Thomas to a normal German school and not teach them at home.

Berlin classroom

A secondary school classroom in Berlin. Students in Germany have to learn in a classroom, not at home. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Unlike most European countries, including next-door neighbors Austria and Switzerland, Germany requires that children attend school, and outlaws homeschooling except in rare cases. The Bremen court ruled that the Neubronners had not demonstrated that they qualified for such an exception. This state ruling followed a November 2007 German federal court (Bundesgerichtshof) decision that termed homeschooling a form of parental child abuse! Most would-be German homeschoolers laid low after that, but not the Neubronners. They soon become Germany’s most famous (or notorious) Heimschul-Familie, determined to fight the Bremen state law (as in all of Germany’s 15 other Länder) that forbids homeschooling.

2017 Update
Although I originally wrote this blog post in 2009, nothing has changed except the names of the people still fighting in German or EU courts to get the right to homeschool their children. It is still against the law in Germany to school your children at home.

In an attempt to avoid the fate of other German homeschooling advocates, namely being thrown in jail, Herr Neubronner was living in France with his two sons, while his wife held down the fort in Bremen. Other homeschoolers in Germany have been forced to leave for Austria, Great Britain, or other countries where homeschooling is allowed. But if you thought that foreign residents and expats in Germany are exempt from the compulsory school attendance laws, you would be wrong. Americans and other foreigners living in Germany have also been prosecuted for homeschooling.

One thing that makes the Neubronner case unique is the fact that they have emphasized they do NOT want homeschooling for religious reasons. (Most of the other German cases have been argued on the grounds of religious freedom.) The Neubronners just think homeschooling is a good idea, and they didn’t want to send their sons to a German school.

Until recently, most Germans were unaware of the issue of homeschooling. After all, why would you not want to send your child to the generally excellent German schools? But when a 2000 PISA study (released in 2001) revealed that many German schools were weak in math, reading, and science, that embarrassing survey gave homeschooling advocates some good ammunition. Homeschooling became part of the German school-reform debate. But the German mind-set is not very open to the concept of homeschooling. Judges and politicians tend to reflect that attitude. It’s definitely an uphill battle for homeschoolers in Germany.

Many English-language blog and newspaper attacks on the German homeschooling ban like to blame it all on Hitler and the Nazis. While it is true that the Third Reich passed such laws in 1938 (and added criminal penalties), they were only an extension of education laws that have been around since 1871. (Prussia was also the first country in the world to require state certification of teachers, and was offering free, compulsory elementary education as early as the 18th century.) In 1919, the Weimar Republic re-introduced compulsory school attendance (allgemeine Schulpflicht). When the Federal Republic of Germany was created in 1949, the compulsory attendance idea made its way into Article 7 of the Grundgesetz (constitution). In September 2006, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the German ban on homeschooling, in a religious-freedom case that began in 2003. The European court argued that parents can’t use religion to justify homeschooling in Germany. (Under German law, parents can decide whether or not their offspring will receive the religious instruction offered in German schools.)

What about US military families and homeschooling? That appears to be a gray area. For military folks under SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), most people claim that German law does not apply. However, even the US Department of Defense (DoD) has not always supported homeschooling. A 1989 directive said children of military families were expected to attend the DoD dependent schools. More recent DoD directives have allowed homeschooling. But anyone living in Germany who does not fall under SOFA is subject to German law.

It used to be that it made a difference in which of Germany’s 16 states you resided. Certain states, including Baden-Württemberg (and its capital Stuttgart, home to US military installations), used to be lax about enforcing the ban on homeschooling. But when a new minister of education came in, that changed. Now Baden-Württemberg is also going after parents who dare to homeschool their kids — with the same high fines and threats of imprisonment common in Hesse and other states. So German homeschool families like the Neubronners, and non-German homeschoolers as well, have been forced to flee Germany if they insist on educating their children themselves — whether they live in Bremen or Bavaria.

However, we Americans should not forget that many US states also enforced compulsory attendance laws — until a 1972 Supreme Court decision (Wisconsin v. Yoder) cleared the way for homeschooling in the USA. There is still some controversy in the United States concerning the value and effectiveness of teaching children at home, outside the public educational environment. For Germans homeschooling runs counter to education laws dating back to 1871, the concept of the social contract, and the principle that schools are there to help encourage social cohesiveness.


Also see this GW article: Education: Schools and Universities in the German-speaking Countries

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6 thoughts on “Homeschooling verboten

  1. I am totally for a ban on home schooling in all cases where a safe school is available. Particularly in Germany, where school days are 4 hours long and therefore one can teach the children outside of school quite easily. It has always seemed to me that home schooling (where not for the safety of the child and where a school is actually available) is to allow the teaching of beliefs contrary to the welfare of society. Otherwise, charter a private school yourself.

  2. Hi G! As a former teacher, I’m not really a big fan of homeschooling, but I also don’t understand why Austria and most European countries can allow homeschooling, but Germany can’t. German democracy can be pretty dictatorial at times. – HF

  3. The real argument, as G has pointed out, is not trusting parents to properly school their child and particularly a risk of certain “indoctrination”. At first, this might seem like an unwarranted limitation of personal freedom (or what you, HF, describe as “dictatorial”).

    However, we have to recognize that modern “democracy” does not mean unlimited rule of the people in the sense the term was understood by Aristotle and Platon. Modern “democracy”, not just in Germany, but just as well in the US, is much more a balancing act of two fundamental elements: 1.) personal freedom (which is fulfilled by the democratic element; elections and such), and 2.) the provision of safety and a stable society (which is realized mostly through aristocratic elements (think parliament, political elites, interest groups) and monocratic (think the US President) elements.
    A stable state has to incorporate all these elements and, in particular, strike a balance between personal freedom and the provision of a safe and viable society.

    There are ruling elites. They are unavoidable. But in a democracy we need to tie their decision-making back to democratic process. And we need to guarantee the chance to guarantee access to these elites for all people. So there are certain principal conditions that need to exist for a democracy not to fail. Among them are a.) understanding of “citizenship”; b.) access to political elites

    Now your question will likely be: “What the heck does all this have to do with homeschooling?”

    My point is that democracy is composed of much more than providing a maximum of personal freedom. While there obviously are common elements across the full spectrum of modern democracies, there is a lot of dependence on historic and cultural factors.

    In Germany education is considered as THE way to access the mentioned elites and foster citizenship. It is in fact regarded as an integral democratic element. Therefore, weighing personal freedom against education is in fact legitimate, and a manifestation of the democratic element itself.

    Of course it is arguable, whether homeschooling fulfills this interest. Personally, I believe there is at least a significant risk that it will not. And this risk, arguably of course, can be significant enough to prohibit homeschooling not in contradiction to “democracy”, but in the very interest of “democracy” (whereas as a limitation to the element of personal freedom in democracy, in the interest of a stable society).

    Common schools also are a significant integrative measure to preserve a democratic society.


  4. My wife and I raised 5 daughters, the youngest of which is graduating from high school in OKC, OK, USA this May.  FWIW, her school has been on the “Newsweek” magazine’s ‘Top 100’ list of American high schools for several years and her acceptance to this public school prompted our buying a house and moving to be close to it.  We always enrolled our children in public schools – they were home enough, right! A brother of mine and his wife home-schooled three of his children for many years before sending them, and his youngest two, to public school. I also have many friends who have home-schooled their kids.
    One co-worker in particular did this. He left the teaching duties up to his wife. His (now 23-year-old) son could not pass the final examination required for graduation – he is now studying for his GED (high school equivalency) test and can only read, write and do math on a 3rd grade level!
    I think the American home-schooling ‘process’ (for lack of a better word) is totally out of control. Too much freedom is given to the (many times, unqualified) parents!
    Years ago we moved from Dallas, Texas to a smaller town with all 5 of our children because of the poor quality of the public schools we were near. For us, home-schooling NEVER was an option!

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