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Christian hybrid school forcibly closed by German authorities to protect “state’s educational mandate”

Laichingen/Germany (19 October 2023) –Germany’s education authorities have forced the closure of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer International School, an innovative Christian hybrid school offering an award-winning pedagogical model combining in-school and at-home learning for children. In a letter to the school’s lawyer, the authorities write that “the immediate enforcement of the prohibitions is ordered”, preventing students from attending the new school year. The school also has been ordered to pay 600€ in administrative fees to the government. An urgency lawsuit to reopen the school is currently pending. 

In the letter demanding the closure, authorities stated: “The prohibition … serves to protect the state’s educational mandate. In the now-closed school, the state’s educational mandate … would be completely displaced.” Furthermore, the school has been ordered to give up its internet domain as this would constitute “advertisement for the impermissible school.”  

“Parents are the first authority for the education of their children. And parents have the right, enshrined in international human rights law, to choose the kind of education that is best for their children, including by embracing innovative approaches like hybrid schooling. Germany has one of the most restrictive educational systems in the world. The ones who suffer are the children and their families, whose longstanding and beloved school was forced to close,” said German lawyer Dr. Felix Böllmann, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International, who filed the case regarding the accreditation at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). 

Successful and innovative hybrid school restricted and closed 

The Association for Decentralized Learning, a German education provider, operated the Dietrich Bonhoeffer International School (DBIS) for 9 years as a “supplementary school”. In the German system, schools classified as supplementary do not require accreditation. Nevertheless, the school now has been forced to close. 

The DBIS combined in-class learning with digital online lessons and independent studying at home. The system has proven its success: students maintain above-average grade points in state examinations. DBIS also employed state-approved teachers. 

“Children have a right to a first-class education. At our school, we were able to provide families with an education that meets their individual learning needs and allows students to flourish. It saddens me deeply that our students and teachers had to leave our school community,” said Jonathan Erz, head of the Association for Decentralized Learning and school principal. 

Additional schools rejected – case pending at ECtHR 

Since 2014, the education provider repeatedly has filed for accreditation for two additional hybrid schools based on the same pedagogical model. These would be “substitute schools” requiring official accreditation so that students could attend in place of a state school. 

The administrative courts acknowledged the satisfactory level of education but criticized the model on the basis that due to the hybrid nature of the school, students spend little time together during breaks and between lessons. Therefore, the state’s “educational mandate” could not be satisfied, and accreditation was again and again denied. 

On 2 May 2023, ADF International filed a case on behalf of the Association for Decentralized Learning at the European Court of Human Rights, citing an egregious violation of freedom of education for the inability to open and run its schools. 

Böllmann stated: “It is our hope that the ECtHR will take this crucial opportunity to bring justice to the Association for Decentralized Learning and its students, parents, and administration. In so doing the court would take an important step toward a reform of freedom of education in Germany. We are honored to defend parental rights and the freedom of education in this important case.” 

“We hope that Europe’s top human rights court takes this case and acknowledges that our substitute schools provide innovative and high-standard education through modern technology, individual student responsibility, and weekly attendance hours. Our school fulfills the educational mandate – we educate kids to be responsible democratic citizens,” Erz further noted. 

Germany in violation of international and national law 

Germany, with a ban on homeschooling and severe educational restrictions, is in violation of the right to educational freedom as enshrined in its own constitution and in international law. International law specifically recognizes the liberty of bodies, such as the Association, to establish and direct educational institutions without interference, subject to “the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State”. (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 13.4)  

Governments are obliged to respect “the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”. (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 13.3) 

The German Basic Law (Article 7 of the Constitution) guarantees the right to establish private schools—however, the domestic courts’ interpretation renders this right ineffective. ADF International lawyers argue that this, in turn, is a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights. Time and again, the European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that the Convention rights must be practical and effective.   

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