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Business in a class of its own

Rural firms can find it hard to attract skilled workers, so one in the Swabian Alps set up its own primary school.




The problem with Albstadt becomes clear once you try to describe where it is: 70km south of Stuttgart in south-west Germany is true enough but gives a misleading impression. Because whether you take the train or drive, it will take you an hour and a half to get from Stuttgart to the Swabian Alps. Or two hours on a bad day. The meadows, orchards and hills may be pretty and the houses with their pointed gables may look idyllic, but fewer and fewer people want to live there. The population has been in decline since the 1970s and the medium-sized family firm Groz-Beckert is feeling the impact. The company has been manufacturing sewing needles in Albstadt since 1852. Today, it has an annual turnover of €665m (£609m) and is the global market leader in needles for industrial sewing, knitting, weaving, felting, carding and tufting.

While the parents are working at Groz-Beckert, the children are at the firm’s primary school

“The infrastructure here doesn’t exactly give us an advantage,” says Thomas Lindner. He is the chairman of Groz-Beckert’s executive board and a descendant of the founding Beckert family. It’s his job to attract as many of the region’s skilled workers to Groz-Beckert as possible. And that is a tall order, because he has to bring in specialists from far and wide, including metallurgists, who are much in demand. He long ago exhausted all the obvious methods, such as paying good wages and sharing profits. Harder to solve is the much discussed problem of reconciling work and family. “Flexible working hours are important for families, but much harder for a manufacturer to implement than firms that only have office workers,” says Lindner.

Then the training manager, Nicolai Wiedmann, organised childcare for the school holidays one summer. It was a huge success and gave Lindner an idea. Wiedmann had rented an empty primary school. So what if Groz-Beckert were to help out with looking after children, not just in the holidays but all year round? Plenty of firms offer daycare facilities; sometimes they operate them themselves, but more often they buy into them and book a certain number of places for their employees. But that was not good enough for Groz-Beckert. In September 2013 the firm opened not just a daycare centre but the first corporate primary school in Germany.

It all started with holiday childcare: Nicolai Wiedmann

Open for all

The company has spent €17.5m (£16m) on the building, which is on one side of the firm’s main premises. At first, there was also an annual seven-digit figure for operating costs but, after the minimum three years, the primary school was officially approved and since 2016 it has been receiving a grant of €3,600 a year per pupil. That means Groz-Beckert now only has to contribute a six-figure sum. Parents pay fees on a sliding scale according to their income.

Compared with other private schools, the fees are very reasonable. A family with a gross annual income of €30,000 pays €75 a month, rising to €266 for a family on €100,000. “The money is usually not the problem as long as people are convinced by what is on offer,” says Wiedmann, managing director of the Groz-Beckert subsidiary, Malesfelsen daycare and primary school.

The school is open to all families in the district, not just Groz-Beckert employees. That was one of the conditions for receiving state support. Of about 70 children in the four primary school classes only 20 are children of Groz-Beckert staff, and the picture is similar in the kindergarten.

A pioneering entrepreneur in childcare: Thomas Lindner

In the preparatory stages, before the school opened, the firm consulted local teacher-training authorities and a Stuttgart-based educational publisher, Klett. They can be proud of the results: as in most of the state of Baden-Württemberg, English is taught from the first year and exclusively by native speakers. Mandarin might be added in the future, but that is just a vague idea at the moment, says Lindner. “You cannot start with the frills.”

With its “earlier the better” approach to foreign languages, the school is bucking current trends. Though Baden-Württemberg was Germany’s first state to introduce foreign-language teaching in primary schools (French near the French border, otherwise English), it is now considering deferring foreign languages to Year 3. The reason is that pupils from Baden-Württemberg recently scored less well in reading, writing and arithmetic compared with other regions. It’s a problem that should not affect the Groz-Beckert school too much, which already devotes more time to German and mathematics – the subjects that seemingly suffered from the early foreign-language teaching.

The children also get more intensive support. Most lessons are given by two teachers working together and classes have a maximum of 25 pupils. “We actually restrict our classes to 20, although we could take up to 25. So we still have room when a new member of staff wants to enrol his children,” says Wiedmann. The facilities are good. There is a music room with instruments, a theatre space with numerous props, a movement and motor activity room, an art studio, a workroom with little workbenches and a “snoozing room” for the occasional nap.

Teaching in Malesfelsen primary school, which is named after a nearby peak, is topic-based, with the content of various subjects taught in a joined-up way. Once a week, there is an interdisciplinary topic day. This cuts across all classes, tackling issues from pupils’ everyday lives and helping them develop their own answers, especially in science and technology. The school’s conception of teaching is based on this research and development learning, which is not only intended to make it easier for children to understand things but also for them to retain it for longer.

Looks like a normal day in the classroom: lessons at the firm’s school

German and mathematics are timetabled for early in the morning when the children can concentrate best. Lindner believes it is also important that the school should not merely teach the curriculum but also a certain “training for life”. That means that from a certain age pupils help lay and clear the tables, and teachers eat with the children at midday like a family. It’s a way of learning social togetherness. This training for life also sees pupils go to a children’s kitchen in the afternoons to learn about nutrition and cooking.

Unlike many German schools, the day is not split between lessons in the morning and play in the afternoon. “The children don’t have to concentrate for six periods non-stop. We alternate more flexibly between pressure and relaxation, between focus and free time,” says Wiedmann. Many educationalists reject the traditional rhythm of German schools, in which the children are crammed full in the morning but just supervised as they busy themselves in the afternoon with homework workshops, clubs and activities. Not that there is always even supervision in the afternoon: other kindergartens and schools often close at midday or early afternoon. But in Albstadt the children can be looked after from 6.50am until 6pm, which is convenient for parents who work shifts at Groz-Beckert.

All-day care is not available for 44% of German primary school children, although a quarter of parents say they need it, according to a Prognos Institute study commissioned by Germany’s family affairs ministry. Of those parents whose primary school children do receive after-school care, 18% rate it inadequate. That affects the parents’ working lives. According to the study, about 96,000 women with children of primary school age work part time only because afternoon care is either unavailable or unaffordable.

Another problem is school holidays and times when daycare facilities are closed. Parents elsewhere often wonder who is going to look after their children during the 13 weeks of school holiday each year, but in Malesfelsen the daycare and primary school only close for 23 days a year – corresponding with the Groz-Beckert company holidays. 

It all started with holiday childcare: Nicolai Wiedmann

When the company announced its plans to run not only daycare but also a primary school, it met with some scepticism. Many parents were worried that their children’s grades or behaviour might end up in their own personnel file. Groz-Beckert sought to allay these fears by appointing a subsidiary of the school textbook publishers Klett to operate the school. From September 2017 this firm will step back to a purely advisory role and Groz-Beckert will be solely responsible for the daycare and school. But Wiedmann promises there will still be a strict separation between education and employer. “We have no insight into that side and we do not want one.”

But there was also concern from mayors and schools in surrounding areas. While classrooms in big cities are overcrowded, there are too few children for all the schools in Albstadt’s Zollernalb district. So if a new private school siphons off children from state schools, class sizes might drop below minimum levels and schools would be forced to close. Lindner thinks this concern is unfounded. “Our catchment area comprises all the areas where our employees live and so it is much bigger than that of the individual schools,” he says. “So if a state school really does have fewer pupils because of us it is only one or two at the most. No school will have to close because of us.”

He does not see his school as undermining what is already on offer. “I am absolutely in favour of an open education sector,” he says. “What gave us the greatest pleasure was that after we opened, the surrounding areas also modernised and expanded their daycare facilities.” He sees that as useful competition. In the end everybody benefits, including people who do not work at Groz-Beckert.

Prospective imitators come – and end up just looking

Many people have come to take a look at the school. “But in the end, nobody wants to copy us,” says Wiedmann. “It’s much too expensive for them.” Some of the staff also complain about the school fees, he adds. “Some of them don’t see why they should have to pay for something they can get free elsewhere, at least in part,” he says. “And naturally there are a few people who are completely opposed to full-time daycare and think that is the wife’s job: ‘A woman’s place is in the home, thank you very much’.”

However, enthusiastic parents have collected signatures asking Groz-Beckert to set up a secondary school to run alongside the daycare and primary school. But Lindner and Wiedmann dropped that idea long ago. “The flexible transition after the primary school to one of the different types of state school is ideal for re-integrating the children from our system back into the state system,” says Lindner.

He prefers another idea: a daycare centre for the elderly. “Along with caring for children, a lot of families face big challenges looking after aged parents.” So perhaps one day the grandparents will be looked after near their grandchildren – by the employer of the parents.