This week is Berlin's school application week for all the little children due to start school in September 2012. And to be honest I never thought that I would need to be bothering with school options in Berlin - given that I was gently told which school Orla would go to, but in the past few weeks a number of things have happened that suddenly jolted me out of my blissful ignorance, and set me on a trail of investigation on this very subject.
First off, we have been talking about whether on not we will be in Berlin next September. Stevie has floated the idea of having his contract extended to his boss given that budgets will be decided in the near future, but we have heard that you don't tend to hear if you have had your contract extended until very nearly the last minute. As in, a months notice or less. The hope is that you'll crumble early and take a local contract. But we are very much still undecided about our future here. And school is becoming the number one deciding factor in that decision.
If we don't get an extension, and decide to stay then Orla needs a new school. I had thought of that and casually thought 'oh well, I guess I will just take her along to the Nelson Mandela school and get her in there'. Patently, I am very naiive. I haven't been through the school application process in the UK before but I had heard it can be pretty nerve-wracking, but somehow I just thought it would be less problematic here in Germany. Especially as the school of my choosing is a bilingual school - how many people would honestly be needing that? I think the current figure is kazillions.
I met up with a friend for an early morning beer in the top floor bar or the KaDeWe. The beer it became apparent was essential as she told me of her sleepless nights worrying about whether or not she'd be able to get her child into a school in Berlin. By the end of our conversation I was a bundle of nerves (especially as the application window was to start before we got back from our October break) and all of a sudden the poster in the lift at Kita heralded information I knew I just had to be able to read and understand before it got me to the 4th floor. In fact, I considered stealing it to translate at my leisure, but it would have poked out of my bag, so they would have had me pegged as the Schulanfanger Poster Dieb before the half term holiday even started.
Luckily for me I found it on the internet as I was Googling like mad to find out what I needed to do. It's a good place to start if you need information on what you need to do. But here's my guide to applying for bilingual schools in Berlin.
- School Open Days start in October and these are useful to get a feel for the school and it's culture if nothing else. You can also learn more about the application process from the staff. Most of the Open Days are scheduled before the registration process starts, but funnily enough, occasionally they are slap bang in the middle of the registration period. Why? Nobody knows.There are theories but who can say...
- You should (not) expect a registration form through your door about now. I say 'not', as quite a few people have told me that their registration forms arrived too late and they just went to the school regardless during the registration week to register their child.
- You need to find out what your catchment school is. I hadn't a clue. And after a long search I eventually found a page where I could enter my street and postcode and it told me. And now I can't find that page again...but I will if it kills me!
- If, like me, you failed to go to any Open Days, you could in theory have a look to see what people on ToyTown Berlin are saying. But, it's a bit frightening. Honestly, I probably wouldn't look if I were you. I looked and then I didn't sleep very well. Admittedly, you probably wouldn't sleep very well after reading the thread on where you could find American beer in this city, but that's Toytown for you. There's a market right there for a Toytown Berlin Anger Management course.
- The best thing I have found is to speak to people: kids in the park, parents at parties, friends of friends - it's actually quite a small expat world out there, and there's bound to be someone who has kids at the school you want your kid to go to. You hear good stuff and bad stuff of course: someone stopped us outside a cafe in the summer and warned us that we should never send our kids to JFK as unless we were with the US Embassy our kids would be treated as second class citizens. On the other hand there's a German woman I know whose son has started there and he loves it. Can't say anything against the place. Everything about it is fantastic. And the same goes for all the schools. You have to just make a decision and go with it.
- Registration: So then what you need to do is go to your local Grundschule where you would register your child if you wanted them to just go to the local school. But, if like us, you feel that your child needs to be in a bilingual school then you need to ask for the following: "Antrag zur Aufnahme eines Kindes in eine andere Grundschule" which is a form you need to fill out giving your reasons why you want your child to go to another school. You will still retain a place at your local school until you tell them in writing that you are not taking it up. (Though someone has told me that some of the local schools are also over-subscribed - it's a joy, isn't it?). Oh and you need to take your passport and the child's passport and your registration document (the one where you had to register into your local area) and any other relevant papers.
- Then once you have your 'release' form completed, you then need to go to the school of you choice and register your child there. If it's a bilingual school then you need to register them (and possibly have the child tested) as either a native English speaker or as a native German speaker. And here's the rub. These schools are very popular. Hideously popular. There's no point putting more than one school in the boxes where you can list 3 options. The bi-lingual schools won't even consider your application if they are in 2nd or 3rd place. It's first choice or no choice.
- Most of the schools have an equal split between places that are given to Germans and places that are given to native English speakers. With a maximum of 28 in a class that means there are 14 places up for grabs. And with an awful lot of Germans competing for those 14 German places and far fewer English speaking expats competing for the other places what's happening now is that German parents are training their kids up to pass the test to be classed as a native English speaker, and thus increasing their chances of a place. So, it's not just a case of turning up and thinking you'll get a place automatically.
- And then you wait to find out if you have been granted a place. Presumably if you don't get a place you can go on a waiting list and in the mean time your child would go to the local German Grundschule and receive 'language support'. Home-schooling is not an option even if you fancied it as it's illegal here.
Admission by birthdate: In my haste to find out all about the process I didn't read the poster correctly. Here's one thing to note. The admission criteria based on the child's birthday is different in Berlin to England. I simply assumed Orla would be going to German school next year but it runs from 1st January 2006 to 31st December 2006 births and not end of August 2006 to beginning of September 2007 as we would have in the UK. On the poster it does say that children can be enrolled with birthdays up until 31st March 2007 (which is the bit I read and the bit that would seemingly say that Orla should start school) but this is only if "your child has no need for language support.".
And because of that, yesterday instead of running around with my German-English Dictionary and all our passports in hand, I managed to relax and was able to let out a sigh of relief that I don't have to go through this... just yet.
We still have an issue with what we do if we want to stay and a local contract for Stevie is the only way to do that. It would mean that Orla would drop out of school and have to return to kita (nursery) for another year. And that doesn't really sit well with me given that she had a bad experience getting bullied in her German kita, so I wouldn't be happy sending her back to one to struggle with her German again which puts her in a difficult position of not being able to defend herself, and so if I then have to go into battle for a bilingual kita place and don't succeed in getting one then what do I do? Go home? Maybe. It seems odd too to take her from school where she has been learning to read and write and do maths to then put her back in a 100% play environment. I don't know that that's a bad thing, but it just seems odd to stop their learning once they've started.