Nudge, nudge, here come the Germans

Peter Saunders

Okay, forget, for a moment the monumental folly of the European common currency, which wasn’t really the Germans’ fault. It was pressed on them by Mitterand as the price for French agreement to [German] reunification.

Consider, instead, German social policy. We might all learn something from the way the Germans tackle problems that the Brits (and to some extent the Aussies) struggle with.

Consider, for example, family policy, and the child support rules for absent fathers.

The German civil code establishes a principle called the ‘solidarity of the generations.’ This stipulates that ‘lineal relatives’ (children, parents and grandparents) have a legal obligation to maintain each other. The primary obligation to support dependent children falls on parents, but if they lack the means or will to pay, grandparents become liable.

While our politicians voice platitudes about strengthening family life, the Germans give extended families real duties. Before taxpayers are asked to contribute to the costs of maintaining other people’s children, German law insists that the extended family should draw on its own resources.

So if a father defaults on his child support payments, both sets of grandparents are required to pay. Grandparents know they may become financially liable for their grandchildren, so they do all they can to ensure that the parents discharge their responsibilities properly in the first place. Brilliant!

Another example of German ingenuity concerns education. Ever since Britain abolished state grammar schools, bright kids from poor backgrounds have been consigned to what one Labour minister infamously called ‘bog standard comprehensives.’ In many parts of Britain, the only way to get a good education now is to pay for it. Even firebrand Labour MPs pay for their kids to be educated privately.

The trouble with the old system was nobody liked the 11+ exam which determined whether you went to a grammar, technical or general (‘secondary modern’) school. Too many middle class children failed the exam, and pressure built to overthrow the whole system. But in Germany they still have it. So why do German parents still accept selection when British parents don’t?

A key reason is that German parents are offered some control over the selection process. Head teachers in primary schools recommend to parents which type of secondary schooling would best suit their child, but if a parent insists their dull child should go to a grammar school against the head’s advice, this can still happen. When such children then struggle (as they almost certainly will), they are transferred after a year or so, disrupting their education and fragmenting their friendship networks. Most parents therefore go along with head teachers’ recommendations.

A lot of policy wonks in Britain, Australia and the United States got excited a few years ago about the idea of ‘nudging’ people into doing the right thing, but these two examples suggest the Germans have been ‘nudging’ for ages.

If a father falls down on his child support obligations, the Germans don’t send for the bureaucrats at the Child Support Agency (CSA). Rather, they mobilise the extended family to put pressure on him.

And the Germans didn’t antagonise parents to the point where grammar schools lost public support and got shut down. Rather, they allowed parents the chance to discover for themselves that their dull children really are dull, which legitimises selection.


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