School Reform: Austria Petitions for Change

Over 380,000 Austrians have signed a petition calling for a more egalitarian education system, but critics fear that their demands will cause the reverse. Now the Parliament has to decide

“Don’t worry, we’ll sign very quickly”, calls out a lady in her 60s queuing outside the  darkened Magistrat building at Elterleinplatz in the 17th District. There are 45 minutes left for her to sign a petition demanding radical reform of the Austrian education system. At 20:00 on 10 Nov., when the polling station closed, 383,820 Austrians had signed.

Compared to other petitions, this support from 6.07% of the electorate is rather modest. But by surpassing the 100,000 signatures necessary to force a discussion in parliament [see box below], the “Education Initiative” (Bildungsinitiative) has kicked off a polarising debate that questions a central tenet of Austria’s identity: its ability, as a modern meritocracy, to provide equal life chances to its young generation.

The petition was initiated by Hannes Androsch, a former SPÖ politician and vice chancellor. He managed to assemble an alliance of over 80 organisations across the political spectrum representing science, education, and business. Usually antagonistic groups – such as the Industriellenvereinigung (Federation of Austrian Industries), the Wirtschaftskammer (Chamber of Commerce), and the Arbeiterkammer (Chamber of Labour) – agreed early this year on a catalogue of 12 demands for the petition.

Among them is the demand for comprehensive schools for all students up to the age of 14, as well as a longer school day, which now ends in the early afternoon. The petition also demands that the government increase its spending on public universities to 2% of the GDP by 2020, from the 1.2% recorded in 2008 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international think tank.

For Androsch, these measures aim to mend an education system that “doesn’t ensure equal opportunity or social mobility”, and whose quality has “plummeted dramatically”. But the aim of equal opportunities mingles with business interests: Full-day schools redress a disadvantage faced by the children of immigrants, whose parents are often unable to help with homework due to a lack of German. At the same time, a longer school day enables parents – especially mothers – to have an uninterrupted working day.

Yet, as the modest participation suggests, the Education Initiative does not enjoy unrestricted support. One of the critical voices is Günter Schmid, former headmaster of the Sir Karl Popper School in Vienna and an expert in supporting highly gifted learners. He agrees that reform is needed, but thinks that comprehensive schools are exactly the wrong way to go. With their one-size-fits-all approach, they would condemn the able to mediocrity, and deprive the less-able of tailored educational care.

Currently, at the age of 10 students  choose between Gymnasium – the classic route to university – and Hauptschule, which completes compulsory education at 15, enabling further vocational training.

For the petitions’ supporters the separation is too soon. They argue that 10-year-olds can’t know what profession they want to have later in life.

Johanna Zauner of the Bundesjugendvertretung, the National Youth Council, says that educational achievement in Austria is “inherited”. Speaking at a rally of the public sector workers’ union – the Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst – in early November, she said that often it is not a child’s abilities, but their social background that determines their educational path.

Indeed, there is a certain correlation between education and class. In Döbling, Vienna’s wealthy 19th District, 66% of 10- to 14-year-olds are in Gymnasium, while in poorer Simmering, 60% of students in same age group attend a Hauptschule, Falter reported in November.

The difference is particularly pronounced for the children of immigrants. According to the Österreichische Integrationsfond (Austrian Integration Fund) they are over-represented in middle schools and special-needs schools, so-called Sonderschulen. Also, in 2006, 28% of second generation immigrants ended their education after compulsory schooling, twice as many as the children of Austrian parents.

Thus, the critics claim that working class and immigrants’ children are condemned at an early age to lower chances of going to university as well as to lower lifetime earnings.

However, statistics also show that Austria has greater educational mobility than most European countries. In a 2009 OECD ranking measuring the difference in probabilities to go to university for a young person whose father completed only compulsory schooling, compared to a young person whose father himself had a university degree, Austria had the lowest gap in such chances of 14 Western European nations.

In 2009, 33% of all Austrians aged 15–34 held a higher degree than their parents, as opposed to 53% who attained an equivalent degree, according to Statistik Austria.

As such, Schmid argues that the current system indeed provides for educational mobility. Comprehensive schools, he believes, would only worsen class segregation. Following the British model, wealthy parents would send their children to private schools, while state schools would increasingly be seen as a social service for the poor, jeopardising middle class taxpayers’ support for the system.

Hence, Schmid has started his own movement – Bildungsplattform Leistung und Vielfalt (Education Platform for Performance and Diversity) – promoting a school system that offers learning options tailored to students’ abilities.

Back at the polling station, two students, Markus and Cornelia, are going to sign the petition: “Because education matters!”

This is the one thing that the motley group of initiators as well as the critics can agree on. As parliament is now obliged to discuss the matter, the debate is only just starting. To its merit, the Education Initiative has delivered the spark.

See also: Signing On for Austria, Background: Popular Petitions in Austria, The People May Petition

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