Austria’s Lost Generation

Education policy is deeply polarised and drenched in ideology

Top Stories | Philippe Schennach | November 2013

If there is one thing that gets Austrians riled up, it’s education. So with Education Minster Claudia Schmied retiring and new coalition talks under way, a draft for the new teacher’s employment law was circulated for comment.

A mistake? A record-breaking response of 1,800, predominantly negative, comments flooded in – many of them from individual teachers.

The subject of education has become a political minefield in Austria. The system is expensive, inefficient and statistically one of the worst in Europe. But change has remained elusive.

Since the 1950s, educational politics has been entrenched in ideological squabbling. The Social Democrat/Conservative grand coalition has locked horns repeatedly and any viable reform has demanded too many concessions to have any meaningful impact.

This has resulted in an enduring political stalemate at the cost of the younger generations, which has continued to frustrate voters. But the general election on 28 September has brought the debate back to the fore. And for the first time, Conservatives are challenging their party’s traditional stance.

"We have to consider new approaches and models for education," said Governors Günther Platter (Tyrol) and Markus Wallner (Voralberg) in a joint statement, protesting their own party line and demanding "fresh wind to break the rigid front lines."

Getting a bad rap 

Internationally, Austria’s report card is poor.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows the Alpine Republic with one of the most expensive education systems in the EU, yet some 30% of 15-year-olds are below grade level in reading comprehension and with over 50,000 dropouts a year, nearly 80,000 under 25-year-olds have too few skills for the job market.

For years, the OECD has tried to convince sceptics that Austria needs to encourage "full-day pre-school education from age three onwards" and introduce a comprehensive school system.

Currently, children are segregated into a two-track system beginning at age 10. The Gymnasium is designed to prepare pupils for university and finishes with the Matura, while the Neue Mittelschule (formerly known as Hauptschule) prepares for vocational training.

The OECD has repeatedly warned that it is impossible to recognize talent at such a young age. Yet Austria and Germany remain resistant to change and separate children into higher- and lower-tier secondary schools.


Climbing the social ladder

This has further implications for social mobility. Whereas on an OECD-average, 37% of young people are better educated than their parents, here the figure is only 26%.

"Education in Austria remains hereditary," says Konrad Pesendorfer, Director General of Statistik Austria. For instance, only 5% of children of parents with mandatory schooling (Mittelschulabschluss) earn a Matura, compared with half from academic households.

Children with minority backgrounds are especially vulnerable because of the added difficulties of language. In Austria, a child born into a low-income household has little chance of reaching university.


Party politics

Unfortunately, given the ideological differences between the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Conservatives (ÖVP), it appears unlikely that the grand coalition will carry out comprehensive reform anytime soon.

The core of the ÖVP has defended its approach as performance-oriented and has criticised grading "on a curve" or lowering standards relative to classmates.

Their website discusses "Gymnasium and Mittelschule: Two approaches, one goal."

According to Gudrun Biffl, a labour market analyst formerly with the Austrian Institute for Economic Research (WIFO), 93% who attend lower Gymnasium switched to upper Gymnasium at the age of 14, compared to only 38% from other schools.

Even Austria’s Chamber of Commerce president, Dr. Christoph Leitl, has spoken out for comprehensive education.

But the stakes are high. Governors Günther Platter and Markus Wallner have warned their party and the current government not to "continue with the status quo."

Failure to make meaningful reform could further ostracize voters and open the door to the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May 2014.

The New Austria Party (NEOs), a pro-European party that made surprising gains in September’s election, could also benefit.

For the NEOs, education is a core message. They would like to see comprehensive schooling for 10 to 15 year-olds.

Their Party Leader, Matthias Strolz, calls for a second year of compulsory kindergarten. It is "tragic", he said, "that children have to attend Sonderschule (special school), just because they lack the necessary language skills."


Education as a way out of poverty

While OECD data continues to support a comprehensive school system, tradition is also powerful, and the politics of change are often mired in ideological rivalry.

Class-specific differences and unequal chances for children will always prevail, but comprehensive school reform may level the playing field for those born into low-income families, promoting support rather than segregation.

It’s a child’s best hope, says American economist Jeffrey Sachs: "A poor kid is unlikely to break free of his or her parents’ poverty without strong and effective government programs that support high-quality education."

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