Better learning without school?

Better learning without school?

Timetable at the schulfrei-festival. Photo: silvio duwe

Free learners, unschoolers and homeschoolers – a small group of opponents of compulsory schooling refuses to accept the education system of the federal republic of germany

If you don’t go to school, you stay stupid: what is a truism for most people, a small group of opponents of compulsory schooling sees things completely differently. They are convinced that it is even better to learn without school. And they take their education into their own hands – and accept trouble with the authorities for violating compulsory schooling. The scene in germany is becoming more and more organized, but no one knows exactly how big it is.

To leave for school every morning from monday to friday: for most children and young people in germany, this is part of everyday life. And although some of them are reluctant to go to school, simply staying at home does not seem to be an option: no school, no qualifications, no work, no work, hartz IV. These gloomy prospects then drive the schoolchildren to class every morning after all.

However, a small group of opponents of compulsory schooling refuses to accept the education system of the federal republic of germany. These are not the classic school dicks, but free learners, unschoolers and homeschoolers. It is unclear how many of these there are in germany. Although the scene is becoming more and more organized, even insiders can only speculate how many young people prefer to learn at home despite compulsory schooling.

The reason is simple: many families live in hiding, sometimes living underground, just to avoid problems with the authorities. Due to the fear of being discovered, they sometimes only make contact with like-minded people years later.

Nevertheless, the scene is not completely shielded. This is how the schulfrei festival took place in westfeld near hildesheim in september. It was organized by karen kern, a former elementary and secondary school teacher who has now been supporting children and young people who want to learn without school for a decade. The reasons why children and their parents decide not to go to school are many, she reports:

This may be that the children do not cope at school. Be it in the social area, be it that they do not keep up in learning or are over- or underchallenged. Be it that they have some kind of diagnosis like asperger’s or similar.

Kern is one of the most important figures in the german independent learning scene and heads the german section of the clonlara school – a school without a classroom, without a fixed curriculum and without recognized final exams. The guiding principle of the freilerner is to give children and young people the opportunity to decide for themselves what, when and how they want to learn.

The focus is not on achieving a goal set by auben by a certain date – mastering differenatial calculus or passing the abitur, for example. Instead, the "students" have time to develop their own interests, to discover their talents and to develop their own educational path from them. Those who are then interested in a particular profession, training or study will be motivated to learn the necessary things on their own in order to achieve the goal they have set themselves, according to the philosophy of.

The path to graduation

Compulsory schooling is not fulfilled by pupils of the clonlara school. The school is also unable to award degrees recognized in germany. However, if you meet the requirements, you can get a certificate that allows you to study in the USA. A part of the clonlara schools in germany has chosen this path. But even those who have never attended a state-recognized school can end up with a recognized german school-leaving certificate.

Better learning without school?

School free festival. Photo: silvio duwe

Through so-called external examinations, which take place once a year, they can take a secondary school leaving certificate, but also the abitur, in order to apply for an apprenticeship or university place. The clonlara school also offers help in this way.

However, this path to graduation is more expensive than at a state school: the registration at clonlara alone costs 165 euros, plus annual fees of at least 625 euros and, depending on requirements, additional fees, for example for the registration for the high school diploma.

The problem of compulsory education

One of the most serious problems facing truants is compulsory school attendance. But if you look around among the participants of the school free festival, you will also notice that the authorities do not always take a firm stance against families who do not send their children to school out of conviction. In some cases, they meet understanding officials with whom they can reach a compromise, so that the authorities do not impose fines and other coercive measures.

But not everyone manages to come to an agreement with the authorities. Some families want to avoid the potential problems in the first place and move abroad as soon as they have decided not to go to school. Many countries in europe do not have compulsory education and allow children to be educated outside of state-approved institutions.

Countries like austria, france and great britain are popular destinations for german truants. The rules that must be observed vary from country to country and are sometimes more, sometimes less restrictive.

In austria, for example, children who do not attend school have to take an exam once a year to prove that they have the same level of knowledge as the children in their grade. If they do not pass the exam, they have to repeat the school year at a regular school. If they pass the school year, they are allowed to study at home again.

In france, home schoolers receive regular visits from the authorities – this is to ensure that the children and young people are actually making progress in their learning. In great britain, on the other hand, the controls are rather weak: parents do not even have to inform the authorities that they have decided against a state-approved school. The controls are correspondingly weak.


In order to circumvent the german compulsory school attendance, which is seen as a constraint by freelancers and homeschoolers, many of the school rebels resort to tricks: time and again, families manage to swap authorities by moving their primary residence abroad – without actually relocating.

Karen kern. Photo: silvio duwe

Formally, the children are then obliged to attend school in their new home country, and the german authorities no longer have any possibility of taking action against the truants. Sometimes the families actually commute between france, austria or switzerland and germany.

Still other families stay in germany and live a double life in order to meet the expectations of acquaintances and authorities. Helge reports on his time as a free learner at the schulfrei festival:

We have made it just also in view of the legal situation secretly and were then also always in the morning for the public not to see. We have also told people very close to us that we go to school. And the more precisely they asked, the more precisely I explained my school life to them. And that was just the point where we said, this is the price we have to pay.

Everyday learning

The daily learning routine of children and young people also differs greatly. On the one hand, there are the homeschoolers, who try to replicate the school day within their own four walls. Homeschoolers have a schedule and fixed class times, and parents take on the role of teachers. Strictly religious families, who are dissatisfied with the content of regular schools, opt for this form of learning.

On the other hand, there are free learners and unschoolers. For them, learning is a natural process that happens in life as it happens. They trust in people’s curiosity – and their urge to teach themselves the things they need and find interesting. Laura belongs to the group of unschoolers – she has never attended school.

So with me personally it was so that I have actually very much quite freely and myself have chosen and have done what I wanted. Now and then there were phases where we said, for example, that one day a week was a school day, a learning day, and then we did things like that.

But those were very low phases where it was really structured like that. And now and then I read through textbooks or worked through workbooks or something with rough enthusiasm. But these have been phases of 1 or 2 weeks.

Today she works freelance as a graphic designer. And thus disproves the prejudice that you are on the street without a school degree.