Why is vocational training no longer valued


Martin Baethge

Martin Baethge (†), was President of the Sociological Research Institute Göttingen (SOFI), Professor i. R. for "general sociology with a focus on educational and professional sociology, sociological methodology" at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Main focus of work: work, occupation and qualification research, vocational training and further education research in an international comparison. He was a member of the educational reporting group of authors, which is an independent scientific consortium and writes the national educational report "Education in Germany" every two years.

Institutionally, vocational and general education are particularly sharply separated in Germany. How is this isolation of the two major areas of education expressed? How did it come about and why is it still difficult to overcome today?

A vocational school teacher shows the trainees the functions of a milling machine. Vocational and general education are institutionally particularly sharply separated from one another in Germany. (& copy picture-alliance, Keystone)

Current structural problems of the German education system

The German education system, which has long been highly valued internationally, has come under increasing criticism in the past two decades. In the first third of the 20th century, higher education, especially the universities and research institutions, was considered exemplary and in the second half of the century until the 1990s, the dual vocational training of company and school instruction enjoyed almost undivided admiration at home and abroad , especially under the impression of different OECD studies (not only PISA) the perception has clearly clouded over. The main aspects of the national and international criticism of the German education system as a whole:
  • the continuing educational disadvantage of children from the lower social classes. This is also expressed in their lower participation in higher education (grammar schools, universities) and in an average lower cognitive level compared with children from the higher social classes, as has been proven time and again in the PISA studies (cf. Baumert / Schümer 2001 and other PISA reports, Maaz / Baumert / Trautwein 2010);
  • the low level of permeability from vocational training to higher education, which has remained more or less rigid to this day despite the administrative easing of the access routes to higher education: there are still only a few students at German universities who have obtained their university entrance qualification through professional training;
  • the barriers to entry that have become increasingly apparent in the last two decades for young people with no more than a secondary school leaving certificate themselves to vocational training at the middle level of specialist training in the dual and school-based occupational system and
  • Finally, the inadequate integration of children with a migration background or young people from abroad into the German education and training system.
These problems, which have accompanied the German education system for a long time and are still waiting for a sustainable solution to this day, can essentially be traced back to what can be called the German educational schism: a sharp institutional separation between general and vocational education, which began at an early stage arose in German educational history and has not yet been seriously addressed by any educational reform.

What is the German educational schism?

The term "educational schism" means the fundamental separation of higher general education and vocational training below the university level, which only exists in this form in Germany - at most in other German-speaking countries (especially Austria and Switzerland). The isolation of general and vocational education from one another is due to the fact that the two educational areas are organized completely differently. In the last century they have developed largely isolated from one another, each according to their own rules and logics, and have few organizational connections with one another, so that young people find it difficult to switch from one area of ​​education to the other.

Sociologists use the term "institution" to describe social structures that have existed for a long time and are based on shared ideas and perceptions about how certain things should be "best" organized, and thus the work processes and behavior of the in shape their acting members and users. In this sense, z. B. political systems, economic models, educational institutions or - as in our context - even entire areas of education as institutions. Institutions give social processes, which in principle can be designed in the most varied of ways, a very specific "institutional order", ie a basic logic according to which everything is organized. If we compare the institutional arrangements that characterize general schools / universities on the one hand and dual vocational training (as the dominant form of vocational training in Germany) on the other, it becomes clear in what respect the major areas of training differ ( see table) and why their isolation from one another is difficult to overcome (a brief overview of the origins and functioning of dual vocational training is available here):

Central ideas and learning objectives
The two major areas of education follow very different guiding principles. The higher general education is part of the German educational tradition and the idea of ​​the "educated personality" developed by it or - in more modern terms - the perspective that school should enable the individual to organize his or her life in society autonomously (cf. P. 2). The basis for this is a canon of representative knowledge - a more or less universal curriculum that is found in a similar form in all countries of the western world and is increasingly shaped by an orientation towards science.

In contrast to this comprehensive educational concept, vocational training is based on the central idea of ​​professional competence, according to which vocational training should convey the ability to perform professional roles in company work and to be able to move on labor markets (cf. Baethge 2007, p. 99). Accordingly, the curricula in vocational training are essentially based on the technical and social qualification requirements of gainful employment. They are more geared towards the direct applicability of what has been learned than the general curricula, but also more limited in terms of the range of systematic knowledge and cognitive competencies that are acquired.

Responsibility and Financing
At the same time, very different organizational settings correspond to the different guiding principles. The general education system is the responsibility of the state, more precisely the responsibility of the federal states. Their educational administrations (ministry and administration) are in turn subject to democratic control by the state parliaments. It looks completely different in company-dominated vocational training. Their design is essentially "corporatist", i.e. by the large interest groups representing employers and employees, with the participation of the federal government. At the federal level, the Ministry of Economic Affairs is primarily responsible because the dual vocational training is still organized today as part of economic and labor market policy and not of educational policy. This contrast to general education can be described as the political core of the German "educational schism".

The financing corresponds to this: the general education system is publicly financed by the federal states and municipalities and its development depends on their budgetary leeway. Vocational training, on the other hand, is primarily financed privately by the training companies [1], so that the supply and quality of training places are linked to the willingness of the individual companies to provide training. The close connection to the individual company financing makes the training offer directly dependent on economic development - for example, companies tend to offer fewer training places in times of economic downturn.

Organization of the learning processes
The organization of the learning and training relationships can be characterized according to the criterion of practical relevance. General education schools are institutions that are largely excluded from everyday life and work; they are solely dedicated to the organization of learning processes. In contrast to this, most of the learning in vocational training takes place in direct connection with work processes. The connection between learning and work has often been described as the great strength of German vocational training: the direct view of the usefulness of what has been learned and the experience of one's own productive contribution to the work process release a high level of learning motivation in young people, while the detachment of school learning processes from everyday life seem slightly demotivating. The downside of the close practical relevance is a relatively strong narrowing of the learning objects (see above).

Status of learners and teaching staff
The different legal framework for the two areas of education is also reflected in the definition of the status of the learner. The apprenticeship relationship is not a student relationship regulated by public law as in general education. In accordance with the law of work and the economy, it is rather an employment relationship subject to social insurance, in which the trainee also receives a wage, the so-called training allowance. There are also corresponding differences in the status and professionalism of the staff. Teachers are mostly employees or civil servants in the public service and have a university degree, i.e. they have a professional status and relatively high job security. In contrast, in-company trainers are employees of the training company and do not need to have completed a degree for their training activities. They usually acquire their training qualifications through professional experience, which can be supplemented by courses.

The educational schism as an obstacle to reform

Neither of the two institutional orders outlined is per se better than the other. Institutional orders simply serve the purposes for which they were created. If changes in the social environment require adaptation to new circumstances, internal reforms can occur - in the case of general education, for example, changes in the curriculum of higher education or in the administration of schools ("school autonomy"), in the case of dual vocational training, for example for the reorganization of job profiles. Internal reforms of this kind have taken various forms over the past forty years in both of the areas of education considered here.

Such reforms do not solve the problem of the educational schism. It only turns out to be a problem at all when the differently designed educational areas begin to overlap and educational policy is faced with the task of improving the Overall system - For example to improve the educational mobility of the next generation or to increase the student quota overall (or subject-specific quotas e.g. in the natural sciences and engineering) - cross-cutting reforms to carry out and to break the institutional isolation. In this situation, the institutional arrangements of the two areas quickly become a barrier to reform. Because they cannot be changed at will, but historically grown structures that as such also shape the viewing perspectives and interests of their wearers and users and shape them over the long term. For example, the social partners (employer and employee organizations) hold on to the design of vocational training, or high school teachers hold on to their social status, or the middle-class educated class on a privileged education for their children. Such group-specific interests and perspectives give institutional orders a strong persistence and make fundamental reforms difficult.

The historical roots of the educational schism

In the case of the educational schism, the roots of the "institutionalization" of both fields of education go back to the pre-industrial era without any relation to each other in terms of time or content.
  • For the dual vocational training, the core of your training model, the work-integrated in-company apprenticeship - i.e. the trainees' learning through participation in the work processes in the training company - lies in the pre-industrial craft vocational training. It was taken over by industry at the beginning of the 20th century and adapted to their needs and was given a school-based teaching organization at the side of the advanced training (cf. Greinert 1998), which later as a vocational school was supposed to impart theoretical knowledge in addition to the company, but always was subordinate to in-company training.
  • The higher (grammar school) general and higher education developed since the beginning of the 19th century apart from the emerging industry and the bourgeois trades under the influence of the new humanist educational concept (Humboldt). This was aimed at the education of people "per se", i.e. without considering their social origin and professional environment, and aimed explicitly at keeping learning content that related to practical life and professional issues out of the curriculum [2]. Both high school and university education, which are closely related to one another to this day, were conceived as the "purpose-free" education of a "moral individual", even if in reality the universities mainly train the civil servants of the state and high schools train for this training at the university should prepare (cf. Baethge 2007; Friedeburg 1987).
As a result, one can put it pointedly: the schism established itself between one higher general education that is not practical and one uneducated vocational training practice. The two educational areas, branded in by their historical origins, continue to act as dividing lines that are difficult to overcome and justify the weaknesses of the educational system as a whole outlined at the beginning. Their effects are not limited to the education system, but deeply affect the structure of society and the opportunities for the younger generation to participate in society.

Educational expansion and educational schism

In the wake of the mood of optimism in educational policy in the 1960s and 1970s, the social democracy and the trade unions in particular called for a stronger merging of general and vocational training. The "German Education Council" - a body which, with the cooperation of politicians and experts from science and practice, submitted numerous reports and recommendations for the further development of the education system - also worked out appropriate reform concepts. However, neither the groups of actors involved in vocational training, such as the entrepreneurial umbrella organizations and chambers, employer and employee organizations, nor the groups of actors associated with higher general and university education, such as the cultural administrations of the federal states and the middle classes, were sufficiently open to such a project . No political majorities were found to implement a cross-sectoral reform. The expectation that the educational reform would abolish the educational schism and the social inequalities in participation in education and counteract the lower social valuation of vocational versus university education was not fulfilled. Rather, the educational reform followed the tradition of the educational schism and privileged higher general education, which recorded a strong increase in learners in the years that followed. The systemic structural weaknesses of the isolation of vocational and general education were not addressed, so that in the end the old social divisions between those with vocational and academic training remained and were supplemented by new ones.

Go to article: Old and new inequalities in vocational training


Baethge, M. (2007): The German educational schism: What problems a pre-industrial education system has in a post-industrial society. In: Lemmermöhle, D./Has-selhorn, M. (Ed.), Bildung-Lern, Göttingen, pp. 93-116.

Baumert, H./Schümer, g. (2001): Family living conditions, participation in education and acquisition of skills. In: German PISA Consortium (Ed.), PISA 2000, Opladen.

Friedeburg, L. v. (1987): Education reform in Germany, Frankfurt / M.

Greinert, W.-D. (1998): The "German System" of Vocational Training: Tradition, Organization, Function, Baden-Baden.

Education Reporting Consortium (2006): Education in Germany, Bielefeld. Maaz, K./Baumert, J./Trautwein, U. (2010): Genesis of social inequality in the institutional context of schools: where does social inequality arise and increase? In. H.H. Krüger et al. (Ed.), Bildungsinleichheit revisited, pp. 69-102, Wiesbaden.

Michael, B. / Schepp, H-H. (1993): Schools in State and Society: Documents on German School History in the 19th and 20th CenturiesCentury, Göttingen.

Further literature on the development of the German education system and its schism:

Baethge, M .: (2006): State vocational training policy in a corporatist system. In: Weingart, P./Taubert, N.C. (Ed.): The Ministry of Knowledge. Half a century of research and education policy in Germany, Weilerwist, pp. 435-469.

Blankertz, H. (1982): The history of education from the Enlightenment to the present, Wetzlar.

Cortina, K.S./Baumert, J./Leschinsky, A. (Mayer, K.U./Trommer, L. (2008): (Ed.): The education system in the Federal Republic of Germany, Reinbek near Hamburg, pp. 541-597.

German Education Council (1970): Structure plan for education, Stuttgart.

Friedeburg, L. v. (1987): Education reform in Germany, Frankfurt / M.

Humboldt, W. v. (1920): Collected Writings, Vol. XIII, Berlin.

To the current situation:

Authors' group on education reporting (2016): Education in Germany 2016, Bielefeld.