The Austrian secondary-school system plays a key role in the preparation of students for further vocational, technical, and academic education. The fundamental philosophy is to provide a diverse spectrum of educational opportunities that accommodate the interests and aptitudes of all students. Since secondary schools are separated physically by academic type, each with distinctive academic programs, the issue of transfer from one type to another is an important one. Early tracking of students by aptitude and interest has historically limited opportunities for mobility through education. Moreover, such limitations tended to affect disproportionately children from rural and lower socio-economic backgrounds. Similarly, the children of educated parents were more likely to pursue academic courses of study. The two-track educational system, which fundamentally separated vocational and academic tracks in secondary education and which limited transferability, had the effect of perpetuating a student profile and placement, which was based more upon social and economic factors than assessment of student aptitude.
Fundamental reforms initiated by the 1962 School Organization Act, amended and revised though subsequent legislation, have sought to increase the permeability among types of secondary schools; expand the range of vocational, professional, and academic educational options available to students; refine student assessment instruments in the primary and lower secondary schools; and lengthen the period of observation and, hence, opportunities for optimal student assessment, before recommendations are made about student placement into vocational, technical/professional, or academic tracks. Postprimary education takes place in one of several types of secondary schools, which may in turn be grouped into two larger categories: general secondary school and the academic secondary school.
Students who have completed four years of primary school advance to the general secondary school. The four-year course of study at the GSS is similar to the primary school in the sense that it is designed to provide all students with a basic general education. Students are also prepared, however, for continuing education and training in vocations, or for further education. To that end, the GSS is divided into a largely uniform two-year lower level and a specialized upper level that includes further education or training ranging in length from one to five years. The upper-level secondary schools are distinguished not only by type, but also by name. In some cases the different names reflect traditional distinctions between vocational, technical/professional, and academic preparatory schools. In other cases, the names reflect particular courses of study that have been developed in response to changing economic and educational needs.
At the lower level, students are ability-streamed in German, mathematics, and foreign language. It is possible to transfer between ability groups at any time. Schools are free to modify certain aspects of their curriculum, within the context of legislated school autonomy, to emphasize particular strengths or specializations such as foreign languages, sports, fine arts, and computer science. Individual schools frequently profile an area of specialization on their web pages. During the third and fourth year of the lower general secondary school, increasing emphasis is placed on assessment of student aptitude and interest with respect to recommendations about the student's further education or training. To assist students in exploring appropriate vocational options, a number of programs are available, including career-guidance classes, on-site training internships, as well as regularly scheduled field trips to businesses and companies.
After completion of the four-year general secondary school, students have several options available for further training or education. The various types of upper-level secondary schools reflect differences in length of further study, as well as increasing specialization in the course of study offered. Moreover, the various types of upper-level secondary schools differ in the postsecondary higher education to which they provide access. The basic types of upper-level secondary schools include vocational track, technical/professional track, and academic track.
The prevocational year is designed to prepare students for apprenticeship programs in specific careers and for possible further education after apprenticeship or employment. German, mathematics, and English, the required modern foreign language for the prevocational year, continue to be taught in achievement groups. Students also have the opportunity to visit companies and businesses, vocational schools for apprentices, and to attend special vocational training workshops. The mixture of academic and practical learning is designed to prepare students for future careers, to nurture individual abilities, and to provide students with the necessary skills to pursue vocational certification.
In addition to required core courses, the prevocational year offers instruction in fields of specialization, which correspond to the major vocational employment sectors, including: metalworking, electronics, civil engineering, timber and woodworking, commerce, secretarial work, service-sector employment, and tourism. Given the emphasis on vocational preparation, all students have access to computers. While most graduates of the pre-vocational year continue their training by entering an apprenticeship program, students who meet admission requirements may apply for further formal education in various technical and vocational schools or colleges, or to transfer to a secondary academic school.
Various types of technical and vocational schools are designed to prepare students for careers which require more advanced qualifications and skills. Students who enter one of the Compulsory Vocational Schools, usually in conjunction with an apprenticeship program, receive an optimal blend of up-to-date theoretical and practical learning. This dual system also offers advantages to Austrian employers, since vocational schools can often provide the kind of training that is difficult to impart on the job or that companies cannot always afford to provide. The relationship between the educational and employment sector is, therefore, mutually beneficial.
The curriculum of the technical and vocational schools is designed under the auspices of the Vocational Training Act, the Commercial Code, and the accreditation of vocational qualifications rests with the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Vocational Training Act is the legal basis for business-based apprentice training. There are some 240 legally recognized, accredited, and protected skilled trades in which apprentices may be trained. Technical and vocational schools specialize in a variety of areas, including engineering, business, tourism, fashion and clothing, agriculture and forestry, and social service professions.
The most popular apprenticeship trades for females, who account for slightly more than 30 percent of all apprentices, are in retail merchandising, hair styling, and office staffing. Almost half of male apprentices are concentrated in the skilled-trade sector. The most popular career is auto mechanic, followed by electrician.
Approximately 40 percent of Austrian students enter apprenticeship programs after compulsory schooling. Some 120,000 apprentices are trained in approximately 40,000 companies. Slightly less than half of apprenticeship program graduates continue to work for the company in which they were apprenticed. At the end of the contracted apprenticeship period the apprentice may take the Apprenticeship Leaving Exam, which is divided into a written and oral practical and theoretical examination. The Apprenticeship Leaving Exam qualifies students for admission to the Master Craftsman Exam and subsequent certification, and it provides access to further education. Students who do not immediately pursue the dual system of apprenticeship training may continue their education in Medium and Higher Level Technical and Vocational Schools. Depending upon particular fields of study, technical and vocational schools offer three to five-year programs. They are organized variously as full-time secondary or postsecondary schools. Working students may participate in evening courses. Distance-learning opportunities further increase accessibility.
The most important fields of study in medium and higher-level technical and vocational schools are three-year programs in social work, family services, counseling, elderly and handicapped care, as well as one-year pre-nursing and forestry service programs. Programs available at Medium-Level Agricultural Colleges vary depending upon field of concentration and previous training.
Higher Level Technical and Vocational Schools offer both a broader general education and more in-depth theoretical preparation in certain professional fields. The five-year programs of study culminate in the Matriculation Exam, which is prerequisite for admission to highereducation courses of study.
The introduction of the Technical and Vocational Education Examination in 1997 has added a fundamentally new dimension to certification. It is recognized to be equivalent to the Matriculation Exam and consists of a four-part examination in German, mathematics, a modern foreign language, and a subject area of the candidate's choice. The subject area is one in which the candidate has professional experience. The importance of the Reifeprüfung and TVE as a broadly recognized diploma is underscored by the fact that, since 1995, the European Union has accepted the equivalency of these secondary-school diplomas to qualifications acquired through technical and vocational training in other EU member countries.
The third form of secondary school, Academic Secondary Schools (or AHS), has traditionally been the university-preparatory track. The AHS comprises an eight-year course of study beyond primary school and ends with the Reifeprüfung (Matriculation Exam). The AHS is divided equally into a lower and an upper level Admission to the AHS from primary school requires a grade of "very good" or "good" in the key subjects of German, reading, and mathematics. In the event of inadequate grades, a positive written referral by the primary school may be accepted. Students who wish to transfer into an AHS from a general secondary school must give evidence of excellent past achievement and likely placement in the highest general secondary school achievement group in German, mathematics, and a modern foreign language. The minimum grade in other subjects is "satisfactory." Consistent placement in the top general secondary school achievement group is prerequisite for transfer into the upper-level AHS. The AHS may require a placement or entrance exam in one or more subjects of students wishing to transfer from a general secondary or other school. Required core courses for AHS students include: German, two foreign languages, history and social studies, geography and economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and ecology, psychology and philosophy, music education, art, crafts, and computer science, beginning in the ninth grade.
The first two grades of the AHS are uniform. Thereafter, students continue for the next two grades in one of three basic types. The different designations for the AHS do not reflect qualitative differences, but rather differences in curricular emphases: Gymnasium, general comprehensive with Latin as one of the foreign languages; Realgymnasium, with greater emphasis on science and technology; and Wirtschaftskundliches Realgymnasium, with greater emphasis on economics. During the last four years of the AHS, students in the Gymnasium add Greek or a second modern foreign language. Students in the Realgymnasium add Latin or a second foreign language, along with more specialized courses in science and technology. Students in the Wirtschaftskundliche Realgymnasium add Latin or a second foreign language, along with more specialized courses in domestic sciences, nutrition, and economics.
In addition to core courses, AHS students are required to take additional specialized courses ranging from 8 to 12 courses per week, depending on AHS type. Three special types of upper-level AHS are available for students with particular aptitudes or interests: upper-secondary academic school for science, upper-secondary academic school specializing in instrumental music, and upper-secondary academic school specializing in fine arts. Finally, evening courses and, under selected pilot projects, distance-learning opportunities are available to non-traditional students or working students to complete the requisite course work for attaining the all-important Matriculation Exam.
The Matriculation Exam is a school-leaving certificate that provides access to higher education. It emphasizes practically oriented learning, independent working, general command of subject matter, and foreign languages. The tests include both written and oral exams. The subjects in which the students are tested differ with respect to the type of secondary school attended. Each student, however, has to do a written exam in the core subjects of German, mathematics and foreign language. Students who opt for a fourth written exam only have to do three oral exams, all others have to do four. In addition, students' individual interests are accommodated by offering a choice among various types of written and oral exams. Instead of doing a fourth written exam, students may also choose to do a written project in the first semester of the eighth year. The written project becomes the basis for discussion during the oral exam and is designed to prepare students for independent university-level study. The oral exam, furthermore, comprises a combination of specialized subject matter and general knowledge in selected required and elective courses. The Matriculation Exam certifies that the student has acquired a broad general education and has thus met standard entry qualifications for university study. The student has also acquired specialized knowledge and skills for more specialized education or training in postsecondary courses, at a postsecondary college or on the job. Finally, the Matriculation Exam indicates that the student has learned a number of important life-learning skills, including study habits and the ability to work both cooperatively and independently.
In that context, the Matriculation Exam is not only the indispensable prerequisite for university study but is also a key qualification for entry into higher management, civil service, and technical careers. In recognition of the important role that the Matriculation Exam plays in the opportunities open to students, the Austrian educational authorities continue to explore options for making the process of attaining the Matriculation Exam more permeable without jeopardizing the traditional commitment to academic excellence which characterizes the AHS.
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