The Austrian educational system reflects three distinct learning stages and educational philosophies. Compulsory education for all children who are permanent residents of Austria, regardless of national origin, ranges from ages of 6 to 15. Compulsory education is divided approximately between a uniform four-year primary school, a minimum of four years at a secondary school, and, depending on aptitude and interest, a minimum of one year in a pre-professional program.
The secondary schools reflect differences in aptitude and interests in their curricula, length of study, admission criteria, and diplomas. Secondary schools are generally divided into a lower and upper level. Given the different emphases of the various types of secondary schools, and the qualifications to which they lead, the issue of tracking students at a relatively young age into academic, technical, or vocational secondary schools requires that important decisions about a child's educational future must be made relatively early. In its attempt to provide a more permeable secondary educational system for children, Austria continues to develop alternative means securing the necessary qualifications to transfer among available types of secondary schools.
The postsecondary schools include universities, colleges, academies, and professional institutes, access to which is based upon successful completion of requirements for graduation from secondary school. Since the secondary school diploma is sufficient entitlement for most university study, there is in most cases no separate academic entrance requirement or admissions test. The postsecondary schools, like the secondary schools, have sought to liberalize access to university-level study by establishing equivalency criteria for alternative admission and providing greater access to non-traditional students.
Although Austrian schools are co-educational, traditional patterns of enrollment continue to reflect gender-based disparities. The number of females who complete no more than compulsory education, for example, is still considerably higher than males. Lack of apprenticeship opportunities for vocational qualification likewise affects females more than males. Finally, females continue to limit selection of vocational, professional, and academic programs of study to more traditional areas, thus avoiding educational and career opportunities in fields like mathematics, computer science, and engineering.
In response to such gender-based disparities, the government has developed special initiatives, the most comprehensive of which is the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Cultural Affairs' Action Plan 2000, which includes "99 Steps for Promoting Equal Opportunity in School and Adult Education" and calls for such measures as targeted educational advising, increased school autonomy, and administrative decentralization, as well as a comprehensive survey of parents and students on specific issues of educational quality.
The school calendar varies somewhat from province to province, and with respect to certain specialized schools, but the academic year for primary and secondary schools lasts from September to July. The school week includes regular instruction on varying Saturdays. The school day generally ends in early afternoon and by noon on Saturdays. Not all classes are taught every day, and students must pay relatively close attention to their respective schedules. The calendar for Austrian universities is divided into two semesters, with the academic year beginning in October and ending in June.
The primary language of instruction is German, although there is emphasis at all educational levels on learning foreign languages. More than 90 percent of all 10- to 19-year-old students are trained in at least one foreign language. There are opportunities for learning subject matter in a foreign language at secondary schools, including general subjects like history, economics, and geography. In addition, there are opportunities for ethnic minorities to receive instruction in their native language. Bilingual education has been introduced through pilot projects such as the International Bilingual School in Graz. The grading system in Austrian primary and secondary schools is based upon a numeric scale ranging from 1 (very good) to 5 (failing), with 4 generally considered to be a passing grade. The reliance upon numerical grades as the principal assessment instrument contributes to a relatively high rate of repeaters. In the 1994-1995 school year, 2 percent of students in compulsory schools, approximately 8 percent of students in general academic secondary schools, and 13 percent of students in postsecondary vocational schools had to repeat a grade.
Certain optional courses, particularly at the primary level, are not graded. These include cultural enrichment courses like choir and drama. On the other hand, certain required courses, particularly at the academic secondary level, are weighted in terms of their importance. In addition, such weighted courses are important when students wish to transfer into a higher-achievement secondary school or pursue study at specific postsecondary institutions.
Private schools, which provide primary and secondary education, as well as some teacher training, are administered primarily under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. They account for roughly 10 percent of Austrian schools and teachers. Since there is no history of private universities in Austria, the federal government maintains a virtual monopoly over higher education.
Austria fosters a number of initiatives to integrate modern technology and practically oriented principles into the academic and training curriculum. In seeking to promote foreign-language education, general textbooks increasingly include material written in a foreign language. Multimedia and Internet-assisted language instruction is promoted to bridge the access gap between urban and rural schools. Austria also aggressively pursues opportunities for international exchange programs.
The integration of new technology into the classroom is furthermore aided by ancillary educational innovations like "training firms," in which schools provide a base for carefully supervised student business ventures. Business operations encourage the practical application of information technology on behalf of an optimal transition from school to career.
Although such initiatives are presently coordinated and initiated through the central authority of the federal and provincial governments, there is indication that the movement toward school autonomy is gaining more wide-spread acceptance. Such movement toward autonomy has already been largely accepted for technical and vocational schools, on which the pressure to adapt to rapidly changing conditions is particularly great. It is hoped that increased autonomy will not only allow the Austrian educational system to adapt more flexibly and efficiently to the demands of the future, but that an enlarged and diversified marketplace of ideas will promote the kind of healthy competition that will benefit Austria's economic and cultural position in the world.
Foreign influences on Austrian education have increased in recent years on the strength of several impulses, the most important of which has come with the admission of Austria into the European Union in 1995 and the EU's ongoing initiatives to coordinate key activities of member states' educational policies for optimal transferability within the EU.
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