Kindergarten: Free For All

The Viennese Ministry for Education wants children from all backgrounds to start school with the same advantages

News | Eva Mansieva | February 2010

For Viennese parents, one dream has finally come true. In September 2009, the city implemented a revolutionary program offering a free kindergarten year for all children in their last year before elementary school.  The project aims to relieve Viennese families financially and to boost integration in the Austrian capital. The free kindergarten applies only for the final pre-school year and has been introduced in the whole country. Still, Vienna is the only place where the model has been implemented to the fullest.

"We want to make a change in the quality of education, and for us this investment is absolutely justified," explains Christian Oxonitsch, Vienna’s Executive City Councilor for Education, Youth, Information and Sports. The city has invested €455 million into the preschool program, including the training of teachers and assistants.

Viennese kindergartens are the only ones in Austria that are "parent-friendly," catering to the work schedules, Oxonitsch says. Elsewhere in Austria, lunch breaks and early closing hours continue to present obstacles. Additionally, lunch is not included in the free kindergarten program – feeding their children costs parents €56 a month. Moreover, parents are not allowed to provide children a home-cooked lunch. Children with allergies or health requirements can make special arrangement.While the new move does bring relief to families, its burdens the state, which has received 13,000 requests in 2009 for free kindergarten slots – 2,700 more than the previous year. In addition, there have been at least 150 new teachers and 85 more assistants than 2008.

Despite the cost, the state is committed, as it believes the program will help children integrate more fully into Austrian society. "We though it would be proper to establish the kindergarten as an early education base, to prepare the ground properly. Of course, the integration issue is a main concern here," says Oxonitsch. The model is indeed a revolutionary one, saving families up to €250 per month, and will  include intensive language programs for migrant children.

Parents, Oxonitsch asserts, prefer public kindergartens.

"Finally! This should have happened long ago," said Christa Janout, a 41-year-old single mother of a 4 year old who goes to public kindergarten.  Janout, a native Austrian, is one of the many in Vienna who raise their children alone and work or finish an academic degree at the same time. For this group, the free kindergarten will be what one young mother called "a life saver."

In Vienna districts with the highest immigrant populations, many kindergarten groups have no native Austrians, which can make language acquisition more difficult. Others, however, see this potentially as a plus.

"I’m happy that my child has the opportunity to grow up in a multi-cultural environment, and encounter new cultures from an early age," Janout said. "This breeds tolerance, and now – it’s also for free."

The "Free Kindergarten Year" project is part of a bigger initiative by the Office of the Viennese Counsellor of Education ("MA10"). Beginning in Fall 2010, the final year of kindergarten becomes obligatory, ensuring all children know German by age six. Another model being crafted will provide for two children sharing one kindergarten place – one in the morning, the other in the afternoon.

Whether or not the project will achieve all its objectives will require time and experience. While the financial relief is apparent, the extent to which it will assist integration remains unclear; however the first results will be evaluated in June 2010, based on the number of applications.

But still, the initiative adds yet another link in the strong social mesh available to families in Vienna. The city recently polled as No.1 in the preferred places to live across the world – not least because of programs such as these.

Kindergartens aside, further changes in the early schooling system are also being discussed, especially in relation to the disputed "Comprehensive School" model (Gesamtschule).

"The state definitely sees the model of the comprehensive school as a successful sequel to the elementary school (Volkschule)," Oxonitsch said. No matter where they come from, children will attend the same school together until the age of 10 (Elementary School), and then decide in which direction they want to continue.

"The age of 10 is too early for a child to decide which way to go," Oxonitsch said. "So for me, a comprehensive school model for 10-14s is absolutely logical."

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    the vienna review February 2010