Educational Opportunities: How Benjamin and Murrhem make it to high school

A great opportunity for the little ones: the tutoring project of the diocese and the RAG Foundation supports disadvantaged children in socially deprived areas.

Words with pf are hard. Apple, pot, paw, plaster. Eight-year-old Luisa sits concentrated in front of her worksheet and translates the symbols into the correct terms. Fote, she writes next to the picture. Then she shakes her head, erases the word violently, and then writes it down correctly. Benjamin (6) is sitting next to her in a glitter t-shirt and doesn’t want to be disturbed. “I’m working,” he says seriously and draws rows of large and small letters in his exercise book. Nose, can, sun – the whole page full.

There is a concentrated working atmosphere in the classroom the Karl School, a friendly yellow-painted brick building with sunflowers on the windows in the middle of Altenessen – a so-called social hotspot in the north of Essen. Around 15 children of all grades attend the support lesson with Heike Tomeczek and Anja Claus. “I like coming to the support lesson, especially when Ms. Claus is there. It’s fun and she’s not so strict,” says fourth grader Lionel. He practices presence and imperfect, because tomorrow is the German class. I learn – I learned. I go – I went. I stand – I stand. Not so easy!

Murrhem wants to go to high school

Muhrrem (10) bends over his paper and says quietly: “I can learn well here. Because I want to go to high school.” Anja Claus smiles and nods. “I know him since first grade. In the beginning he found it difficult. But thanks to the tutoring project, he is now a candidate for high school.”

The Karlschule is one of 15 schools taking part in the “tutoring project for elementary schools in a challenging situation”, initiated by the Education Council of the Bishop of Essen and financed by the RAG Foundation, and has children like Murrhem in mind. The overall project has been funded by the RAG Foundation since 2020 with around 730,000 euros so far, part of which also went to the Karlschule. “This gives us the means and the freedom to support the children during the holidays and during the school year as they need it,” says headmistress Christiane Gühmann.

15 elementary schools are participating

The children come to the remedial lesson twice a week. Without this help, the children’s performance would quickly drop again, the teacher is sure. The “lighthouse project” was started in the pandemic year 2020 with the aim of supporting disadvantaged children, who have developed knowledge gaps because of the school closures, on their educational path, explains Bärbel Bergerhoff-Wodopia, member of the board of the RAG-Foundation and spokeswoman for the Council for Education. The project has since been expanded from four schools to nine elementary schools in Essen and six in Mülheim.

In order not to lose contact with her students during the pandemic, Christiane Gühmann rode her bike home to the children during the lockdown and distributed learning packages. And when students were absent from Zoom lessons, she called or drove to the parents. “You have to keep at it,” she says. This also includes standing on the parents’ toes. “By now everyone has understood.”

More equal opportunities in the Ruhr area

In addition to the tutoring program, the Education Council works with other “flagship projects” for more equal opportunities in the Ruhr area. From the day-care center project “Zukunft Frühsicherung” (ZUSI) in Gelsenkirchen, to the “Joblinge” initiative, which supports disadvantaged young people with the start of their careers, to the “fashion and learning workshop nouranur” in Witten, which advocates more participation by women with history of migration begins – it is always a question of breaking down the connection between origin and educational success to a certain extent.

More equal opportunities in the Ruhr area, that’s what the Education Council has made a key issue for a number of years. Because the level of education in the district is below the national average, and more poor people live here, which exacerbates the problem of unequal educational opportunities.

Getting used to educational inequality

The situation is well known and has been proven by numerous studies, but a “fatal habituation” has nevertheless occurred. “It is particularly important for the Church and the socio-political actors from the educational landscape to take a stand and show that getting used to educational inequality is not a matter of solidarity,” says Bergerhoff-Wodopia, explaining the Council’s commitment.

And that’s why little Martinez is busy with crocodiles today. Which number is bigger, 3 or 4, 8 or 12? “That’s easy,” the six-year-old grins. “The crocodile always eats the bigger one!”

Council fights for more educational opportunities in the Ruhr area

Ruhr bishop Franz Josef Overbeck set up the Council for Education at the Diocese of Essen as an advisory body a good three years ago. Council spokesperson Bärbel Bergerhoff-Wodopia, Member of the Board of Directors of the RAG Foundation. In the interview, both explain their goals and motives.

According to the IQB school study, fourth graders have slipped further in German and mathematics. The social background has an increasing influence on educational success. What reasons do you see?

Overbeck: Yes, that’s right. Children from homes with social conflicts and economic hardships are also disadvantaged in terms of educational success. They often come to daycare with developmental delays. Education and support offers reach them late or not at all. And this problem is then exacerbated in the transitions, for example from daycare to primary school.

The connection between origin and educational success has been known for years, why has the situation actually gotten worse?

Bergerhoff-Wodopia: There are two main reasons for this. On the one hand, the corona pandemic has contributed to aggravating the situation. Those children who were already having a hard time were even more affected by the disadvantages of the daycare and school closures. On the other hand, many have come to terms with the inequality of educational opportunities.

The diocese and the RAG-Foundation want to improve equal opportunities in the Ruhr area – how can this happen in concrete terms?

Overbeck: The Education Council has a statement and a concept paper on the subject developed. In it, we show options for action with which educational inequality can be counteracted. The important thing is that the mammoth task of achieving educational equity requires many actors and good examples that set a precedent in the truest sense of the word.

Bergerhoff-Wodopia: The RAG Foundation is the largest sponsor of education in the Ruhr area. But we cannot do this alone either. However, we have been very familiar with the problem for many years and were able to contribute our experience to the Education Council.

What suggestions does the Council for Education formulate in its paper?

Bergerhoff-Wodopia: We clearly advocate a culture of success. In the promotion of education, action should be guided much more by what is successful, not by the orientation towards deficits. The right approach is to focus on successes and strengths. That also means not constantly developing new small-scale concepts, but making visible and transferring what already works. When it comes to education, there is no knowledge problem, but an implementation problem.

How can the positive examples in the Ruhr area be disseminated?

Bergerhoff-Wodopia: We urgently need more networking and exchange. One possibility will be the planned two-day specialist conference as part of the Talent Days Ruhr in September 2023. The conference is intended to make it clear that it is worth joining forces and learning from one another.

Overbeck: This is the only way we can reach our goal together, which must be: to create educational equity. Then origin is less important for educational success, more young people experience social participation and can lead a self-determined life.

The Council’s position paper is available online at

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