Founded in 1854, the German School of Belgrade is one of the oldest existing educational institutions in the city, but also one that is growing and expanding as Serbia advances towards the European Union. Here we talk to senior school staff about the unique qualities of the school and future plans for its development. Our interlocutors are Stefan Wiedenhofer, Director of the German School of Belgrade, and Dr Natalie Ebert, Chair of the Board of the German School of Belgrade. In this interview their responses are preceded with a letter for ease of navigating this interview.
There was a big re-opening ceremony of the German school in Belgrade last September. Could you tell us about it?
E: Yes, we held a big event in autumn last year in the presence of Mr Srđan Verbić, Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development. This event took place in the wake of extensive refurbishment, including additional construction to our new school building, the former Sportska Gimnazija in Topčider. This project was financed by the German government and by German, Austrian and Swiss companies. As a result, the German School Belgrade, an institution with the highest teaching standards, is now operating in a state-of-the-art environment. We are grateful to the City of Belgrade, the Municipality of Savski Venac and the Serbian and German governments for their support in realising this important educational project.
Children with Serbian as their mother tongue need to attend at least two years of pre-school education in order to acquire satisfactory knowledge of the German language
How did the school develop in the last couple of years? Is your project now complete?
W: Places in the German school are in high demand, as parents seek to enrol their children in our school. We currently have around 220 students. In our new building we can meet all educational challenges and live up to our commitment, which focuses on the individuality of our pupils. We believe that diversity and inclusion are the key drivers of creativity and innovation.
E: Our project is almost complete. We are now looking forward to being able to relocate our kindergarten, which is already situated nearby, onto our school grounds. We are in close contact with the business community and authorities to finalise this last step.
What kind of education does the German School of Belgrade offer?
W: The German School of Belgrade offers education at all levels, from kindergarten to school leavers’ diplomas, with all subjects taught in German and all exams subjected to German standards. It is as if the students were attending a school in Germany. Our teaching is certified and regularly inspected by German authorities. At the same time, we are of course also a Serbian school. We are officially licensed by the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development. But the German School Leaver’s Diploma, the Abitur, qualifies all students to attend universities in all European Union countries. The Abitur is the future key to German and European universities.
What makes the German School of Belgrade unique compared to other international schools?
W: Firstly, we teach our students the German language. In addition, we not only make sure that the student curricula are up-to-date and based on modern knowledge, we also concern ourselves with how pupils learn. We feel we have something to offer when it comes to modern teaching. We encourage active and social learning in class and in projects. Throughout the school year, teachers offer workshops focusing on specific themes, e.g. the Danube or Environmentalism or historical issues, both German and Serbian, which are selected by students. The idea is to motivate students and provide a fresh look at the curriculum. It should also be mentioned that we teach our students Serbian at two levels: as a native and as a foreign language.
Does the school mainly serve the needs of the German expat and business communities and their families?
E: Not only. German-speaking families from Austria or Switzerland, who have relocated to Belgrade, are also interested in sending their children to a German-speaking school. But about 50 per cent of the pupils are from Belgrade families. An important part of the backbone of the school, i.e. its pupils, their families and many teachers, are from Serbia.
W: We work closely together with other schools in Belgrade on different issues. Our students also take part in national maths or reading competitions and participate in MUN (Model United Nations). All our students are required to learn Serbian and immerse themselves fully in the national culture. We highly value our dialogue with local teachers and local schools, as well as with international schools.
The German government supports the school very generously, and as a result the school fees are 50 per cent lower than those of comparable international schools in Belgrade
How do you finance such a comprehensive offer – what about your school fees?
E: It is expensive to run a school that offers international education at the highest level. Regarding finance, we have two sources. We are partially funded by the parents via school fees, but I would like to emphasise that the German government supports us very generously, covering 50 per cent of our budget. As a result, our school fees are 50 per cent lower than those of comparable international schools in Belgrade.
You personally decided to enrol your three children in this school. Which factors influenced your decision?
E: First of all, the classes are small, so teachers can spend a great deal of their time with individual pupils. At the primary education level, the school also offers individual remedial teaching for German, maths and other subjects. Also, it was important for us that our children have access to an education that would conform to other international curricula, in case we move to another country before their graduation.
How does the integration of children from Serbian families work?
W: Admission to the school is only possible if a child’s competence in German satisfies certain standards. So, we start early on, from day one in kindergarten. Children with Serbian as their mother tongue need to attend at least two years of pre-school education. It is amazing to see how much children can learn within those two years. Of course, this kind of learning also includes play and fun, but our experience shows that any child can progress very quickly, even if nobody else in the family speaks German. And, believe me, this makes a child proud! Later it is, I confess, rather difficult to transfer from a Serbian school to DSB.
Where do you see your role in the European integration process that Serbia is going through?
E:Serbia is advancing decisively towards the European Union. I hope that the German School can act as one more bridge towards the European Union – attracting families from EU countries to come to Serbia and preparing Serbian children for the opportunities offered by the EU.
W: It is clear that education will be key. The majority of young people in Serbia will certainly benefit from increased exchanges with their counterparts in other European countries. This is where the German school can help – mainly through our graduates serving as builders of bridges to a new era, but also by organising exchanges, meetings and debates within the country. We are optimistic and excited to continue our close cooperation with our Serbian partners.