Last night I watched the third and final episode of BBC2’s Germany series. After dealing with German cars (a German’s favorite child) and then German cooking, they got down to brass tacks: Why is Germany more successful than Britain?
To find the answer they sent Justin and Bee Rowlatt and two of their children to Nuremberg to live for two weeks as Germans live. All fine so far. Except two weeks is no where near long enough to make anything but superficial generalizations. For Justin, a BBC journalist who took up a job in a pencil factory, it seemed to be a great adventure. He investigated what makes a German worker more efficient and more satisfied than a Brit.
For Bee, stuck at home with her two youngest children, it seemed a drag. I’ve just read about her on her blog (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/posts/Make-Me-A-German) and although she is half German, she had never lived there. She reckoned she was “predisposed” to liking what she saw, but it didn’t seem to me to be the case. The attempts to do everything that the average German does in a day or week left her wanting in the cleaning area. It’s a shame to have reduced “being a German Hausfrau” to the amount of time spent on housekeeping, laundry and cooking. There’s only so much of it in a two-bedroom apartment that’s only yours for two weeks.
Bee was greatly impressed with the Waldkindergarten that her 4-year-old attended but had no comprehension of why so many mothers stayed home not only with the under-threes but also with older children . She soon learned why: short school hours and no provision for nurseries for the under-threes. Everything in the system is geared to stay-at-home moms.
Of course, she was in Bavaria, the most conservative and Catholic Bundesland in the country. While Germany has just passed the deadline set for creating sufficient nursery capacities for a third of all children aged 1 and two, the Bavarian sister party to the national Christian Democrats blackmailed the federal government into paying mothers “care money” for staying home and minding their children there. To use Bavaria as a measure for all of Germany was perhaps a poor choice.
I’ve raised three children through the Kindergarten and school system in Germany and I was continually annoyed about so many aspects that they hold dear. To broach those issues would turn this blog post into an entire book. Suffice to say that since I had my kids in the system, the various counties and Bundesländer (the federal states are responsible for education policies – that means 16 different school systems!) have made huge (by their standards) strides forward. Kindergärten have become all-day affairs if you need it. Many elementary schools offer care till late afternoon. They call these all-day schools. However, the afternoons are not given over to class lessons. The kids are offered some crafts and sports options as well as help with their homework. It certainly isn’t a perfect solution but it’s progress nonetheless.
Going back briefly to my own experience: Firstly, we had kids because we wanted a family. What’s the point of giving birth only to drop the kid off at the child-minder for the first five years till school starts? There wasn’t a job out there (that I was qualified to do) that would have tempted me to leave my kids regularly with someone else. Especially since, as non-Germans, we had no family here to support our child-rearing. Most of our friends did have parents or siblings nearby to jump in when needed. Many moms did go out and do part-time jobs because they wanted to or had to.
Secondly, the system here is such that all sports, music and whatever extracurricular activities are all run independently of the schools by clubs and take place in the afternoon. Thus I spent my afternoons driving my kids to music lessons, football training, tennis, horse-back riding, judo, etc. If I’d had a full-time – or even a part-time job, who would have done that?
Bee and Justin’s experiment was a noble one. It was no doubt interesting to British audiences to have a look at how Herr & Frau Durchschnitt (average) live. How much the Brits can learn from it about competing with the Germans is a different question. I am left questioning the validity and value of many of their conclusions. In the end the Brits have to find their own modus vivendi.