History of Education in Austria

Before 1774, education in Austria was a task of the church, convent schools were therefore the only educational establishments, and school fees were charged. This is why only the ones who could afford to pay these fees were educated, whereas poorer people remained illiterate.

Mandatory primary education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1740-1780), mandating in 1775 that all children of both sexes from the ages of six to twelve had to attend school. Furthermore, textbooks were unified and teacher education was regulated. Even though schooling became compulsory for both girls and boys for a time period of six years, girls were not allowed to attend professional or secondary schools. The Austrian literacy rate became one of the highest in the Habsburg Empire during the beginning of the 19th century due to the general development. The first secondary school for girls was opened in 1868, the first gymnasium for girls was founded in 1892. From 1872 girls were also allowed to graduate, yet remained excluded from universities. From 1901 young women who had graduated were allowed to attend certain universities, with restrictions considering the fields of study. In 1910 girls were admitted to boys' gymnasiums, but they were neither allowed to participate actively in class, nor to take part in exams.

The history of the Austrian education system since World War II may be characterized as an attempt to transform higher education from a traditional entitlement of the upper social classes to an equal opportunity for all social classes. Before the School Act of 1962, Austria had a "two-track" education system. After four years of compulsory primary education from the ages of six to ten in the elementary school, or Volksschule (pl., Volksschulen), children and their parents had to choose between the compulsory secondary level for eleven- to fourteen-year-olds called the middle school, or Hauptschule (pl., Hauptschulen), or the first four years of an eight-year university preparatory track at higher schools of general education (Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schulen, or AHS). An AHS, also known as a gymnasium, is an institution providing different fields of specialization that grant the diploma (Reifeprüfung or Matura) needed to enter university. (Other than Berufsbildende Höhere Schulen, which also allow access to university, they do not provide graduates with any specific skill immediately useful on the labor market, but concentrate on general education in the humanities, science and languages).

Before the 1962 reform, the great majority of children, more than 90%, attended the compulsory Hauptschule, where they were divided according to their performance in elementary school into two groups: an "A group," which was directed toward two- to four-year vocational-technical training schools after graduation from the Hauptschule; and a "B group," which was required to complete one additional year of compulsory education before entrance into apprenticeship programs or the work force. The remaining elementary-school graduates--less than 10%--enrolled in the AHS at age eleven. Children attending these university-track schools also had to choose a specific course of study.

The rigidity of the two-track system required that the most important educational decision in a child's life--with all of the implications it had for the future--be made at the age of ten. The decision depended to a great extent on the parents' background, income, and social status. Children from agricultural backgrounds or of urban working-class parents generally attended the Volkschule and the Hauptschule and then entered the work force. Children having lower-middle-class backgrounds frequently received vocational-technical training after the Hauptschule, while children from the upper-middle and upper classes, boys in particular, attended the AHS, which gave them access to university-level education.

The early selection process meant that children of the largest segment of the population, farmers and workers, were grossly underrepresented at higher schools and universities, whereas the children of a relatively small segment of the population, those who had attended higher schools or the universities, were overrepresented. Consequently, the education system tended to reproduce or to reinforce traditional social structures instead of being a vehicle of opportunity or social mobility.

The Act of 1962 and subsequent amendments require that all state-funded schools be open to children regardless of birth, gender, race, status, class, language, or religion. The law also attempts to introduce more flexibility into the traditional two-track system and to provide students with a greater degree of latitude within it so that educational (and hence career) decisions can be made at an older age. Although the primary and secondary school system continues to be fundamentally based on the two-track idea, after a series of reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, ten- to fourteen-year-olds are no longer streamed into A and B groups in the Hauptschule. Graduates of this kind of school also have the opportunity to cross over into certain branches of the AHS track at the age of fourteen or to attend a series of different "higher vocational-technical schools" (Berufsbildende Höhere Schulen and Höhere Technische Lehranstalten), which have five-year programs of specialization in various branches of technology (HTL = Höhere Technische Lehranstalt) and in business and commerce (HAK = Handelsakademie). Other than the less prestigious three-year Berufsbildende Mittlere Schulen, those schools allow graduates to move on to university.

Shifts in enrollment patterns reflect these changes in the school system. In the mid-1960s, less than 10% of all students finished the university preparatory AHS track, and more than 66% of them were male. By the early 1990s, more than 30% of all students finished the AHS track and just above 50% of them were female. Furthermore, a second educational path was developed that permitted some students without a diploma from the university-track AHS to enroll in a university.

As a general rule, the quality of Hauptschule education is high, especially in rural areas and small communities, where the schools have maintained their traditional social importance and where attendance at an AHS involves commuting considerable distances, or, for the inhabitants of more remote areas, boarding. In urban centers with a full spectrum of educational opportunities, the Hauptschule has become less popular, and parents who would not necessarily have enrolled their children in an AHS a few years ago have begun doing so. The increased enrollments have overburdened the AHS and created a shortage of students at the Hauptschulen and at vocational-technical schools.

In some areas, this trend has been strengthened by the number of children of foreign workers in the compulsory schools. In 1991, for example, almost 30% of all school-age children in Vienna were children of foreign-born workers, whose mother-tongue was not German. In some districts of the city, these children exceeded 70%. Although the children of long-term foreign workers frequently speak German well, the numbers of classes in which students with inadequate mastery of German are overrepresented has overburdened the Hauptschule system and made it a less desirable alternative than it used to in the past. Therefore, special remedial and intercultural programs are being developed so that the compulsory school system in Austria can continue to fulfill its educational and social roles.

The SPÖ has continued to press for further reforms of the school system. It argued for an abolition of the two-track system for ten- to fourteen-year-olds and for combining the Hauptschule and the first four years of the AHS into a new comprehensive middle school. As of 2007, however, this alternative has been limited to a number of experimental schools. Other political parties, the Austrian People's Party in particular, remain firmly in favor of the current system, claiming that a comprehensive middle school could not accommodate for different levels of capability and giftedness. They fear a general "dumbing-down" of secondary education as a result. Owing to the particular nature of Austria's educational laws (a two-thirds majority is required, see above) a multi-party agreement is needed to change the status quo.