Germany’s Volkshochschulen are celebrating their centenary – but who are they?

1919 was the first year of the Weimar Republic, and of course the year in which Germany concluded a peace deal with the Allies. It also witnessed the foundation of many Volkshochschulen, a term which literally translates as People’s High Schools (or universities) but is usually understood to mean adult education centres.

The VHS in Cologne

The VHS are widespread across Germany; the total number in 2017 stood at 895, but most of these will have several centres in their local area. The vast majority are part of the local government system, with the Gemeinde and Kreisen (urban councils and rural districts) playing the dominant role. Overall political responsibility for education, including adult education, lies constitutionally with the Land, with the federal government playing an important supporting part.

Adult basic education, including literacy courses and refugee integration programmes, are an important component of the typical VHS offer. Languages remain the largest programme area (Hamburg’s VHS even offers courses in Plattdeutsch, which I usually think of as a dialect, but some argue is a language). Beyond that the range would be very familiar in most Northern European countries, from local history or adult work skills through ICT to creative writing.

As elsewhere the majority of learners are women (around three-quarters nation-wide). Most fall within the 35-64 age group. My personal impression is that both patterns may have changed slightly since 2015, as the vast majority of the refugees taking integration courses are young men.

Annually the VHS are said to cost around 1.35 billion euros a year. Around 198,000 people are employed in the sector, 95% of whom are on part-time or casual contracts.

Figures from,volkshochschulen_fakten-100.html

Sampling private adult education: a beer seminar


Last night I headed to the Malzmühle, one of Cologne’s venerable brewhouses, famous for dining Bill Clinton after another Brauhaus had refused him entry. I was there, not to honour the former President, but to take part in a Bierseminar on the topic of German craft beer.

It was a two-hour event, which involved lots of hands-on (or tongue-on) activity in the form of sampling, with a beer-master who introduced the six craft beers and placed them in the wider context of the thriving phenomenon that is German craft beer. We also snacked on “Kölscher tapas”. You won’t be surprised to learn that I enjoyed it enormously.

It’s interesting to reflect on it as an adult education experience. There was a lot of humour, initiated and led by the beer-master, who made light of his considerable knowledge, claiming that it was based mainly on having drunk 27,000 litres of beer. There was a touch of subversion, with an informed critique of the famed Reinheitsgebot, and a rather sharper mocking of the dominant Lager industry. The highly sociable event was high on learner involvement, increasingly noisy as the evening went on.

The thirty-plus learners, I ought to say, were mostly in their thirties, with some in their twenties or forties (I was far the oldest).  Two thirds were male and one third female, and one family had brought two young children. Beards were plentiful but not as frequent nor as ferociously clipped as I’d expect to see in the UK. And in one of Germany’s most multi-cultural cities, and indeed in the middle of a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, all were white.



I don’t want to get too serious about what I had attended mainly as a bit of fun. Still, I learned quite a bit about the science of brewing, the shortcomings of the Reinheitsgebot, and the relative uniformity and blandness of most (not all) German lagers. My expectations had been modest in this respect: what could I learn in Germany about craft beers that I didn’t know already? Well, I was happy to be proven wrong.

Pleasant though it was, the evening wouldn’t be worth blogging about were it not that it exemplifies one of the largest and most diverse but most neglected areas of adult learning: privately-run educational activities that are sold on a commercial basis and promoted in terms of the benefits to customers. Very often they are conducted as a by-product of the core business, as was the case with the Malzmühle – which also represents a highly-trusted brand.

Yet we know very little about this part of the adult education sector, and what we do know is often anecdotal, completely subjective, and unsystematic. And we have little or no knowledge of the wider effects of this growing consumer-oriented private sector.

I want to end, though, by celebrating the German craft beer industry. I had some great IPAs, including a wheat IPA, and a wonderful Imperial Stout. Star of the show for me, though, was a Gose Bier (known also as a Goslar Bier), an acidic ale which had been brewed from a mix of malts, complemented by a small about of lactose,salt and coriander. It completely failed to meet the Reinheitsgebot criteria, and packed a mighty punch of fruity flavour with a bitter, hoppy finish. Prost! 


An educational response to violence against women – women’s self-defence classes

women fight

By women for women!


The New Year’s attacks on women in central Cologne have left a lasting mark. Cologners tend to see their city as a haven of tolerance, and of safety. And this open-minded spirit has largely characterised the continuing debate about what the attacks mean for society, with most people challenging racism and sexism alike. At one meeting I attended, for example, a number of women who had been harassed by intolerant male Muslim neighbours over their or  their daughters’ clothing and behaviour came to the conclusion that what they wanted is a ‘Reclaim the streets demonstration for the new millenium’.

There has also been a huge rise of interest in women’s self-defence courses. This poster is typical of many that covered the whole Innenstadt where I live in the aftermath of the attacks. Like many similar posters, this one is advertising a programme offered by a Turkish voluntary association. All-Aacht is a particular type of martial arts (don’t ask me any more about it, because that’s all I know), and the poster promotes it both as a form of self defence and as a way of staying fit and healthy, run “by women for women”. I photographed it outside a lesbian dance bar, just along the street from my apartment.

I imagine that some people would see this entire development as based on false assumptions. Surely women should be able to go where they want in Cologne, or anywhere else, without being threatened by men. You might also question the imagery. So are courses like this part of the problem, by encouraging women to adapt to a world in which some men think they have the right to attack women? Or does this sort of activity contribute, in however limited a way, to women’s empowerment?

Cologne’s Continuing Education Trade Fair: quality sells


Berufliche Volltreffer – Career Bullseye

This weekend saw me attending the Cologne trade fair for continuing education. It took over two floors of the Gurzenich, a splendid venue which combines a medieval hall, substantially restored following bomb damage during WW2, with modern exhibition and meetings spaces. As you’d expect, it was a lively and well attended event, with some 60 exhibitors along with a series of talks and seminars.

I’m familiar with similar events in the UK, often held during what is now called the Festival of Learning (previously Adult Learners’ Week). Nevertheless, a couple of things struck me. The first was the sheer range of the organisations who attended. As well as the ‘usual suspects’ like the Volkshochschule, or VHS), those present included the Federal Labour Agency, and the Archbishops’ Trades College, as well as many higher education institutions and private providers, and a language school called the English Institute of Cologne.

The German Army and Deutsche Bahn both had stalls; their staff said they were major providers of in-work training, and saw this as a attraction for new recruits. Details for all the exhibitors and associated talks were listed in a colourful and informative brochure.

Something I always found interesting when I used to take part in these exhibitions was the different levels of interest that the various stalls attracted. I visited on the Sunday morning, and although it wasn’t heaving, there was a steady flow of visitors.And they were relatively young (by contemporary European standards – ie almost all under 50), which is probably because this event focused on work-related education. Liberal adult education has its own event, Lernfest Köln, which takes place in September.

The city adult education service, the VHS, unsurprisingly had the largest numbers chatting to staff or browsing the literature. Some exhibitors had proven less popular and they were chatting across the stalls (such networking by providers is always a valuable, if unrecognised, part of these events) or gazing forlornly into space.


The other thing to strike me was the importance accorded to quality assurance. Several of the exhibitors made a point of saying, in the brochure and in their own material, that they were ‘recognised’ by the ministry of education and culture of the Land Nordrhein-Westfalen. I don’t know what this involves, though I strongly suspect that the recognition process is a little more rigorous than anything that our own education ministries undertake in the UK.

In addition, the organisers went to some pains to let you know whether exhibitors had satisfied the quality criteria of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Berufliche Bildung Region Köln (‘Quality Community of Vocational Education of the Region of Cologne’). This association came into being in 1991, and is administered by the Chamber for Industry and Trade. It doesn’t cover the higher education sector, where private providers – and there are a lot of them in Germany – have to apply to the ministry for recognition.

The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, counts the VHS and various other public bodies among its 130 members. However, the large majority are private providers, most of whom seem to be for-profit bodies. The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, operates through a series of working groups, and regularly submits its processes for national recognition. Its web site and publications tell you how to make a complaint if you feel let down by one of its members.

With such a large number of private training providers, a well-publicised quality system clearly makes sense. Learners who feel ripped off are hardly the best advertisement for the joys of learning, so a system designed to secure high standards is in the interests of all the honest providers.You could argue that the quality problem is caused by having a market in the first place, but that boat sailed long ago.

All in all, then, it was an interesting morning. The trade fair was bright, colourful, well-organised and very focused on advice and recruitment. And it made a welcome break for a hot and sticky Brit on a day when the temperatures outside hit 30 degrees.





Vocational education on parade: a microcosm of German’s dual system


I’m currently living in Cologne, where I’m fortunate enough to have a visiting post at the university. My blog in the coming months will likely contain more pieces on German education than usual.

This time I want to write about Karneval, supposedly a way of marking the onset of Lent, but actually a massive celebration of everything Kölsch. The central features of Karneval are that five days of fancy dress, drinking, and parades. The parades range from local neighbourhood activities through to the four-hour march and ride by members of the Karneval associations (many of whom dress in eighteenth century military uniforms). In the middle comes the Schulzöch, or schools parade, involving secondary pupils and members of various local clubs, wearing home-made fancy dress.


Among the 49 schools who paraded this year were the staff and pupils of Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. The Berufskollege in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen are secondary level institutions who accept young people who have completed their ten years of compulsory education, most of whom will have an apprenticeship contract with a local employer, and leads to a formal examination and certificate on completion.

This represents a highly structured pathway into skilled employment. Pupils can expect a combination of college-based and work-based learning, with a mixture of vocational and general education. On conclusion they can, if they wish, move on to higher education, through a Fachhochschul (broadly, a technical university).

Let me take the role of baker, a trade which requires three years of workplace experience, combined with college instruction in work organisation, production techniques, and sales, as well as politics, social science, German, sport and health, communications, and religious studies. In short, the aim remains that of a well-trained baker with a rounded skillset.

From a UK perspective, two things stand out about this pattern. The first is the specialist nature of the Berufskolleg, which is defined as a school with a specific purpose; to our eyes, it would look like a form of streaming, in which kids are placed rigidly at age 16 on different pathways. Second, the highly structured combination of academic and workplace learning over three years, including continuing experiences of general education, is a long way from the mishmash of programmes of different lengths and types that are branded as apprenticeships in the UK.

The German system has its critics, but it is generally held to be a gold standard against which other European transitions are judged. Naturally I can’t speak for the quality of the training and education at the Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. What I can say is that the bread in Ehrenfeld is, as almost everywhere in Germany, wonderful.

A mosque that enhances social capital

How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.

Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.

In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.


What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.

I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.

For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital.

However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.

For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.

Update, December 2016: At the end of 2016 the mosque was still unfinished. It isn’t unusual for large building projects in Cologne to fall behind schedule (and over budget), but in this case it also seems that the project has fallen foul of the conflict within the Islamic community between supporters of Turkey’s president Erdogan and his critics. At present, the local committee seems fully supportive of the original “mosque for Cologne”; they opened the building for visitors on the Day of German Unity, under the theme of “Hijra: migration as challenge and opportunity, and were overwhelmed by curious locals. According to the local press, the mosque is now scheduled to open some time in 2017.