Chapter 3. Organisation of the school offer in Austria1

This chapter focuses on the organisation of the school offer. It analyses the distribution of schools across the country and the size of schools and classes as well as the distribution of responsibilities for maintaining schools and their infrastructure and facilities. It examines recent reforms to change the organisation of the school offer towards greater equity with the New Secondary School reform and the expansion of all-day schooling. Furthermore, it briefly describes how the school offer seeks to facilitate the inclusion of students with special educational needs and to meet the needs of greater diversity in schools and classrooms. It considers strengths and challenges, paying particular attention to the structural obstacles for a more rational organisation for the school offer in rural areas, the remaining equity issues of early tracking and selection, and the difficulties for the introduction of integrated forms of all-day schooling. It concludes by proposing different policy recommendations to address these issues.


Context and features

From an international perspective, one of the most salient features of the school offer in Austria is the very small average school and class size. These features are particularly pronounced in rural areas, especially in the many mountainous areas. The distributed and somewhat fragmented nature of decision-making in education, combined with limited school autonomy, particularly for resource management, is another important contextual aspect influencing the organisation of the school offer in Austria (Chapter 2).

Distribution of schools

Schools in Austria are very unevenly distributed. Figure 3.1 shows that in terms of the number of schools per population there is a large gap between the Burgenland (and to a lesser extent Tyrol), on the one hand, and Vienna, on the other.

Figure 3.1. School density
Number of schools per 100 000 inhabitants, per province, school year 2013/14

Source: Bruneforth, M. et al. (forthcoming), OECD Review of Policies to Improve the Effectiveness of Resource use in Schools: Country Background Report for Austria, Bundesministerium für Bildung und Frauen, Vienna.

This is reflected in a wide variety of average school sizes across the provinces (Figure 3.2). In part, this is a consequence of geographic characteristics: thinly populated areas tend to have smaller schools, particularly for primary education. Hence, while average primary school size is 107 students per school, the variation is large: average school size is 57 in Burgenland and 248 in Vienna.

Figure 3.2. Average school size
Average number of students, per province

Source: Bruneforth, M. et al. (forthcoming), OECD Review of Policies to Improve the Effectiveness of Resource use in Schools: Country Background Report for Austria, Bundesministerium für Bildung und Frauen, Vienna.

When analysing the development of student numbers per school, it is clear that the differences between urban and rural areas with respect to school size are increasing due to urbanisation. Since the mid-2000s, schools in thinly populated areas show a distinct decrease in student numbers, while schools in densely populated areas are declining less, on average, and larger schools even show increasing sizes (Bruneforth et al., forthcoming: 77). The steepest decrease can be observed in Salzburg, with a decline of 10.3 students per primary school, on average, between the school years 2006/07 and 2012/13. In Vienna, on the other hand, the number of students in primary schools increased over the same period (an increase of 8.4 students per primary school on average). These phenomena vary across the provinces: while the effect is substantial in Salzburg and Carinthia (a mountainous province characterised by strong out-migration), demographic change does not influence school sizes that much in Upper Austria, Tyrol and Vorarlberg.

Small community schools are a pressing, but sensitive issue in national and regional politics. The term “small-sized schools” (“Kleinschulen”) is typically used to refer to those schools with at most one class per year. These are a wide-spread phenomenon in Austria’s rural areas. Topographical features in connection with regional development objectives based on a belief in the broader social function of schools for their community appear to have an influence on average school size across the provinces. Large mountainous areas, notably in the central and Western parts of Austria, complicate the streamlining of the school offer, as they require students to commute to school over longer distances.

Class size and student to teacher ratios

Austria has one of the lowest student-teacher ratios among OECD countries (Figure 3.3). In primary education the average student-teacher ratio is 12, 20% below the OECD average (15 students per teacher). The average class size of 18 is also well below the OECD average (21 students per class) (Figure 3.4).

Figure 3.3. Ratio of students to teaching staff in educational institutions, 2013
By level of education, calculations based on full-time equivalents

Note: Countries are ranked from smallest to lowest student-teacher ratios for primary education

1. Includes only general programmes in lower and upper secondary education.

2. Public institutions only. For Israel, public institutions only for upper secondary education. For Belgium, data do not include independent private institutions.

3. Year of reference 2012.

4. Primary includes pre-primary.

5. Includes data on management personnel.

6. Upper secondary includes programmes from post-secondary non-tertiary education.

Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators,, Table D2.2.

Figure 3.4. Average class size, public and private institutions, by level of education, 2013
Calculations based on number of students and number of classes

Note: Countries are ranked from lowest to smallest class size in primary education.

Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators,, Table D2.1.

In 2007, the federal government introduced federal regulations with the aim to decrease class sizes for pedagogical reasons to a recommended level of 25 students. This was quickly interpreted as an absolute maximum class size by the provinces. Following the implementation of this regulation, between 2007 and 2013, average class size decreased from 19.9 to 18 in public primary education and from 24 to 21 in public lower secondary education.

Classes in urban areas are typically much larger than in rural areas and provinces with many rural schools tend to have more schools with small classes. However, when considering student-teacher ratios the differences between urban and rural schools are less striking, suggesting that schools with bigger classes do not necessarily have much fewer human resources, but use them in a different way. This phenomenon is more pronounced for primary education than lower secondary education (Bruneforth et al., forthcoming).

Catchment areas and school size

Generally, there is little freedom of school choice at the compulsory school level in Austria. For reasons of administrative planning, families are expected to enrol their children in a school within the catchment area (Schulsprengel) they live in. Every public general compulsory school (Allgemeine Pflichtschule, APS) is assigned a certain school catchment area, which is defined by the provincial authorities. If a catchment area comprises several schools, provincial law regulates how to assign children to these schools. In Vienna, for example, the municipality in consultation with the school board assigns children to schools on the basis of criteria like the distance from their home to school and enrolled siblings.

In several places, there are developments that have loosened the system of school catchment areas in compulsory education. In Vienna, catchment areas are quite large, consisting of the municipality district the school is located in as well as the neighbouring districts. Catchment areas can have several hundreds of thousands inhabitants, and they also overlap. In Linz, the capital of Upper Austria, the catchment area principle has been entirely abolished. Families can freely enrol their children in the school of their choice, and only if there are too many applicants for a specific school, the distance from home and the presence of siblings in the school of choice are considered as factors for admission. The loosening of the catchment area regime is a reaction to demand from families. Enrolment in a school in a different catchment area or municipality is generally possible, but it requires permission from the concerned authorities, since in that case municipalities have to transfer compensation payments for the students concerned to the receiving municipality. Schools with specialised curricula, such as music or sports, are exempt from the catchment area principle.

For enrolment in academic secondary schools (Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schule, AHS), families can freely decide which school they want their child to enrol in within the province. In schools where demand exceeds supply, students can be assigned to another academic secondary school based on distance to school, siblings enrolled and ability. Depending on the provincial regulations, parents can indicate their preference through a list of alternatives to their school of first choice.

The introduction of a certain degree of school autonomy in the 1990s, which included partial autonomy over curriculum development, has encouraged schools to develop pedagogical priorities and specific subject-related profiles to become more attractive for (high achieving) students and their parents. As a consequence, growing competition between schools could be observed, which came along with certain selection effects (see Schratz and Hartmann, 2009). But competition is not actively facilitated by education policies. For example, while aggregate results of national assessments at the province and national level are available to the public, results of individual schools in these assessments are not published in order to avoid school rankings and potential segregation effects.

Governance of the school offer

All provinces have established minimum student numbers as a legal requirement for maintaining a school location. However, many schools continue to be operated by the municipalities even when their student numbers have already fallen below the defined threshold. The Austrian Court of Audit noted the difficulty to balance the challenges of maintaining very small schools with the interest to offer schooling within reasonable distance (Rechnungshof, 2014:  34).

The closure of a school requires a complicated administrative process that involves the municipality, the provincial government and the federal level represented by the provincial school board – all with potentially diverging interest. This requires intense political dialogue with concerned stakeholders and responsible authorities sometimes even offer financial or other incentives to municipalities to gain their consent for closure. In some cases where no consensus had been reached, the process of school closure stretched over several years due to administrative court proceedings initiated by the concerned municipality (Rechnungshof, 2014).

A closure of a school in one municipality can require also new infrastructure investments in the neighbouring municipality to adapt its school location to a larger number of incoming students. School transport is generally provided free of charge to students (apart from a small contribution) by the Federal Ministry of Family and Youth (Bundesministerium für Familien und Jugend) through a family compensation fund (Familienlastenausleichsfonds). There are no figures available on the cost of school transport which may accrue for the municipality in the context of school closures. The municipality in which a school has been closed down usually has to transfer a per-student compensation to the absorbing municipality to proportionally cover infrastructure and non-teaching staff expenditures for its students. Despite the compensation transfer, the sending municipality has no say on decisions regarding the school in the receiving municipality.

Another challenge for small communities is that there is often no clear concept for the use of redundant school facilities while the cost for basic maintenance to avoid decay of buildings may continue to burden the municipality’s budget. For example, the government of Upper Austria has discussed potential use with the municipalities concerned, and solutions included infrastructure-utilisation by other schools, childcare facilities, associations or churches, while in other cases the school buildings had to be sold or demolished (Rechnungshof, 2014). Also, private initiatives are addressing this challenge and developing innovative concepts for the use of closed down school buildings.2

Building and renovating schools

The federal law on the maintenance of compulsory schools (Pflichtschulerhaltungs-Gesetz) states that the provinces are responsible for all general compulsory schools (also referred to as provincial schools, Landesschulen). This federal law establishes only broad framework criteria for the establishment, maintenance and closure of schools as well as the school infrastructure and the bearing of cost. All detailed provisions including the criteria for minimum sizes of schools and their geographical distribution (i.e. distance between the area of residence and the nearest school), are laid down in provincial implementing legislation and differ considerably from province to province. According to the federal law, the provinces can devolve the responsibility for school infrastructure and maintenance to the municipalities, a possibility which all provinces have opted for.

Academic secondary schools (also referred to as federal schools, Bundesschulen), on the other hand, are under the responsibility of the federal level. There are no legislative acts that provide for the co-ordination and creation of synergies between the infrastructure of provincial and federal schools within a same locality. Co-ordination and co-operation exist depending on local circumstances (e.g. regarding sport facilities), but are not compulsory and the extent to which they occur has not been evaluated systematically (Rechnungshof, 2014).

The establishment of a new federal school, or the renovation of an existing building, is planned and adopted by the Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs (BMBF) in close co-operation with the provincial school boards, which assess the need and priorities for infrastructure investments in their regions. The federal government has adopted a long-term school development programme (Schulentwicklungsplan, SCHEP-NEU) for federal schools for the decade 2008-18. The focus is on the modernisation of existing infrastructure and school architecture to provide students and teachers with adequate classrooms and workplaces. In addition, important investments are made in infrastructure to allow for implementation of the educational concepts needed to expand provision of all‐day schools and school-based day care.

Of the EUR 1.662 billion made available by the school development programme, EUR 577.3 million have already been spent on completed construction projects, and a further EUR 379.85 million are allocated to projects currently under construction. Between 2008 and 2018, 270 construction projects at federal schools should be finalised. This means that one-third of all federal school buildings will have been extended, completely refurbished or newly built. Investments will be transferred to the owners of the school buildings, i.e. the Federal Real Estate Company (Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft) and others, mainly municipalities, via (increased) rental payments. Another major investment programme aims at the expansion of all-day schooling (more on this below).

The school providers are responsible for the establishment of general compulsory schools, in consultation with the provincial school board and the school department of the provincial government. The quality and state of construction of individual general compulsory schools is monitored by the provincial authorities. The provincial governments have regional programmes to support municipalities in the construction and renovation of schools.3 The adequacy of school infrastructure for each type of school is subject to provincial legislation and can be further broken down in detailed guidelines for school construction and room equipment. Expert commissions are established to assess the suitability of planned infrastructure.

Implementation of recent reforms for school structure

Introduction of the New Secondary School (NMS)

The New Secondary School (Neue Mittelschule, NMS) was introduced in 2008 as a pilot project. It was originally designed as a comprehensive school for all 10-14 year-old students (Years 5 to 8), combining the lower secondary stages of general secondary school (Hauptschule, HS) and academic secondary school (Allgemein bildende höhere Schule, AHS). The intention was to abolish early tracking in the long-run. However, due to a political compromise within the government coalition, all lower secondary stages of academic secondary schools continued to exist next to the NMS. The AHS are only invited to work with the NMS on a project basis. Since the beginning of the school year 2015/16, all HS have been transformed into NMS.

The NMS has more or less the same curricula as the AHS, with educational goals that are similar, but not identical to the AHS. This is different to the former HS, which also had more or less the same curricula, but special provisions for different instructional ability groups, and different educational goals to those of the AHS. Importantly, the NMS aims to open up better chances for their students, particularly to help them continue their education at a school providing the secondary school leaving certificate (matriculation examination, Matura). Better results in the NMS are sought by applying new pedagogical approaches, including more individualised and project-based learning and a competence-orientation. To achieve these objectives additional teaching resources (in particular for team teaching in core subjects) are provided for the NMS (Chapter 4).

Until the introduction of the NMS, students were tracked according to their abilities also within classes of general lower secondary school, i.e. students in one class were assigned to three different instructional ability groups (Leistungsgruppen) for the subjects of mathematics, German and English. The assignment to a specific ability group, based on the teacher’s judgement, had important implications for the students’ school career. For example, upper secondary programmes (AHS, BHS) could not be chosen by students from the third ability groups, and transition to BHS or AHS was unlikely also for students of the second group. Assignment to ability groups was based on teacher judgements regarding their students’ achievement levels, but looking at actual student performance reveals a significant overlap in achievement between groups. For example, in 2008/09, about one‐sixth of students in the third group exceeded the national mean achievement of the second group. Students with higher achievements were thus formally excluded from access to the BHS or the AHS (Bruneforth and Lassnigg, 2012).

With the introduction of the NMS, explicit streaming into ability groups was abolished, as the focus of the NMS is on individualisation and differentiation within classes. The additional resources that were needed for ability grouping in the HS (since ability groups were smaller than classes) are used for team teaching in the NMS. In addition, the federal government provides funding for six additional teaching hours per class (in sum) for differentiated instruction, primarily in mathematics, German and foreign language (mainly delivered through team teaching). Since 2015, schools can use additional teaching resources also for other subjects. Although there is no explicit ability grouping in the NMS, students are streamed implicitly in Years 7 and 8 as they are graded according to different grading schemes depending on their ability.

In 2012, the Austrian Parliament adopted the legal regulations for a system-wide implementation of the NMS, before the end of the initially agreed testing phase and well before the impact evaluation of the pilot trial had become available. The introduction of the NMS was subject to an audit by the Austrian Court of Audit (Bund 2013/12), which specifically criticised the premature roll-out decision and the substantially higher costs for teaching staff in NMS (EUR 7 200 per student as compared to EUR 6 600 in the HS) while there was no evidence on its effectiveness at that time (also see Chapter 2 for an analysis of the funding implications of the reform).

A summative evaluation of the impact of NMS on student achievements was published in February 2015 (Eder 2015). Although it should be noted that this evaluation was limited to the schools in the pilot phase, it revealed deficits in the implementation of the reform and its pedagogical approach in the majority of the evaluated schools, resulting in average student achievements that showed no improvement compared to the HS. It did show, however, weak to medium-strong positive effects on educational quality, student support and learning climate (Eder et al., 2015). The implementation of the NMS likely requires a long-term cultural change from teachers and school principals, and it might, therefore, take some time before effects can be observed.

All-day schooling

The expansion of all-day schooling is another priority of the current federal government. Austrian primary and secondary schools were traditionally part-time schools operating in the morning only. With an increasing number of single parent families and parents working full-time, the demand for day care is on the rise. In addition, initiatives to expand all-day schooling in Austria are motivated by the aim to increase equity in educational opportunities.

Since the school year 2006/07, schools are obliged to offer all-day programmes if at least 15 parents request it. Currently, there are two forms of all-day schooling that can be introduced in schools: fully integrated all-day programmes (verschränkte Form) and optional afternoon care (Nachmittagsbetreuung). According to a 2012 survey, the latter form is far more widespread. Only around 5% of the schools with all-day offers provide fully integrated programmes.

Funding for the provision of all-day schooling is shared between the federal and provincial levels. In 2014, the federal and provincial governments agreed to make available an amount of EUR 375 million for the years 2015 to 2018 to pay for additional infrastructure necessary to facilitate all-day schooling, such as group rooms, refectories, kitchens and playgrounds. In the budget of 2015, the planned funds for the expansion of all-day schooling in general compulsory schools amounted to EUR 109 million. However, until 2015, provinces did not request all the earmarked funds, moving more slowly toward all-day schooling then hoped for by the federal ministry.

Freedom from tuition fees does not apply to the extracurricular part in all-day public sector schools. However, parental contributions for the extracurricular may not exceed the amount that covers the costs, whereby the financial capacity of parents has to be taken into account. Since 2007, the offer of all-day schooling has increased substantially. While in 2007, 76 979 students attended a form of all-day schooling, in 2014 this had almost doubled to 140 102 students. About 40% of all school locations now offer all-day schooling.

Special needs education, inclusion and diversity

Special needs education

Apart from the systemic approach to improve equity via the introduction of the NMS, there is specific support for students with special educational needs (SEN) (sonderpädagogischer Förderbedarf, SPF). In the Austrian context, students are considered as having special educational needs when they have been diagnosed by experts as not being able to follow instruction without special support due to physical and mental disabilities. Although regulations clearly indicate that children must not be labelled as having SEN simply due to unsatisfactory achievement, there seems to be a risk that students are diagnosed with special needs when they show general learning problems, especially in combination with a migrant background (Bruneforth and Lassnigg, 2012: 90).

Students with SEN can be enrolled in special needs schools (Sonderschule, ASO), in special classes in regular schools, or be integrated in regular classes (“integrative education”). The latter is co-ordinated by SEN-centres, which are special needs schools with the specific task to provide pedagogical expertise and logistical support for “integrative education” in their region. In 2013, 30 000 students were identified with SEN. According to data from the statistical division of the Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs (BMBF), 38.7% of these SEN students were enrolled in special schools.4 Even though regulations concerning special needs education are established at the federal level, there are substantial differences in implementation between the provinces, which can be illustrated by the different enrolment rates of SEN students in special needs schools, ranging from 18.8% of SEN students in Styria to 54% in Tyrol.5 Provinces also differ significantly in the rates of students diagnosed with special needs.

To facilitate the inclusion of children with special needs and as part of a cross-sector National Action Plan 2020 of the federal government, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Art 24) is being implemented in the area of education. “Inclusive regions” are currently being piloted across Austria with the aim to enhance inclusion in regular schooling by giving regional special needs schools a stronger co-ordination role with regard to pedagogy and resource distribution. Based on these pilots, a detailed development concept should be agreed between the federal government, the provinces and the municipalities with the aim to roll out inclusive regions across Austria by 2020. Accompanying measures aim to adapt initial teacher education and continuous professional development to a context of inclusion: inclusive pedagogy will be part of the training for all teachers under the new teacher training scheme from autumn 2015 (see Chapter 4). Another key measure of the national action plan is to widen barrier-free education offers and support, in particular in relation to learning materials and buildings (barrier-free access to federal schools).

Support for students with a migrant background

Policies in Austria do not target students with an immigrant background, but strategies focus mainly on children speaking a different language than the language of instruction (Herzog-Punzenberger and Unterwurzacher, 2009). Support for these children starts before the first year of schooling. Children facing difficulties acquiring the German language are supported in their language development in childcare institutions by targeted individual support.

The implementation of these measures is regulated by the provinces, based on an agreement between the federal and provincial governments. Compulsory standardised diagnostic tools to determine needs for additional support are a central element of the support system. The results serve as a basis to develop individually tailored, child-oriented support measures. The agreement between the federal and provincial governments also made attendance in the final year of kindergarten compulsory and free of charge for all children with language deficits, and subsequently for all children. The government programme for 2013-18, as well as the federal government’s proposal for education reform presented in November 2015 (BMBF and BMWFW, 2015; see Annex 1.1 in Chapter 1), envisage the introduction of a second free and compulsory kindergarten year with a strong focus on children with language deficits, with the option to opt-out after three months.

Specific measures for students not mastering the language of instruction are also implemented at the school level (Chapter 4). Students starting school with substantial difficulties to follow instruction due to severe deficits in the language of instruction can be classified for up to two years as “non-regular students” (außerordentliche Schüler). As “non-regular students”, they are entitled to special support while they fall under special exemptions concerning grading. This regulation also applies to students who migrate to Austria at older ages and enter the Austrian school system in higher year levels. School leaders are responsible for the assessment and “classification” of students. The procedure to assess language competence is not standardised. Schools with “non-regular students” can offer language support courses amounting up to 11 weekly hours per student, for which additional teaching resources are provided by the federal level as earmarked part within the overall staff plans. Schools can decide to offer the course in parallel to regular instructions or in form of integrated instruction. In 2012/13, 15 544 “non-regular students” were enrolled in the Austrian school system, 10 229 of which in primary education (3.2% of total primary enrolment).

Since students can be classified as “non-regular” only at the time when they enter the Austrian school system for the first time, there appears to be a structural incentive to label students pre-emptively in order to receive additional resources for language support, which would not be possible anymore once the student has entered as “regular student”.

Additional language support in German as a second language can also be offered by schools for students who are not enrolled as “non-regular students” (though they often only receive 2 to 3 weekly hours). To cover the human resources needed, the federal government provides funding for specialised staff within the general staff plans, i.e. there is no earmarked contingent for such posts. Whether the provided posts are indeed used for language instruction, however, is decided at the province level and not evaluated by the federal level.

Youth Coaching

The Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection (Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz, BMASK) is the main actor and provider of funds for a system of career assistance (Netzwerk Berufliche Assistenz). Under this umbrella the nation-wide “Youth Coaching” initiative offers youth coaches who advise and accompany young people aged 15-19 at risk of dropping out from school or being marginalised.


There is strategic and thorough infrastructure planning and maintenance, particularly for federal schools

There is an ambitious national school development programme for federal schools (Schulentwicklungsprogramm, SCHEP-NEU). As mentioned above, between 2008 and 2018 the systematic investment of EUR 1.662 billion should ensure that one third of the federal schools will have been extended, refurbished or newly built by 2018. Spending within this programme is based on careful planning with medium-term and long-term prognoses for infrastructure needs developed for federal schools, with bottom-up input. Furthermore, federal school infrastructure is evaluated every seven to ten years.

At the same time, the infrastructure planning for municipal and provincial schools appears to be more fragmented. There does not seem to be any system-wide planning regarding the infrastructure for primary schools and NMS. It is also unclear whether poorer municipalities are equally able to support “their” primary schools as richer municipalities and there is no system in place to redistribute funds to compensate for this (this challenge will be discussed below, also see Chapter 2 for more details about resource inequalities between municipalities).

Most stakeholder groups the review team spoke to expressed satisfaction with the state of school infrastructure, although for provincial schools the quality of infrastructure appeared to depend on the wealth of the municipality (e.g. the OECD review team observed striking differences in the quality of infrastructure across the provincial schools it visited in different parts of Austria). However, looking at data from OECD PISA 2012 suggests that school principals in Austria are less satisfied with the physical infrastructures than the OECD average (Figure 3.5) (OECD, 2013b). But it is difficult to interpret what these data mean and whether Austrian school principals have higher expectations than other school principals or whether the physical infrastructure is in a worse state than in other OECD countries.

Figure 3.5. School principals’ views on adequacy of physical infrastructure
Score on the PISA index of quality of physical infrastructure

Note: Higher values on the index of quality of physical infrastructure indicate better physical infrastructure.

Source: OECD (2013b), PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices,, Table IV.3.15.

Individual provinces are developing strategies for the consolidation of their school offer

In a review of research literature on school size, Ares Abalde (2014) finds that there are several potential advantages to larger school size and school consolidation from a pedagogical perspective, as small school size reduces course options within schools, may lead to isolation of teachers through to few opportunities for classroom release and professional development, and makes it harder for schools to exercise autonomy and to develop distributed pedagogical leadership. Larger schools are likely to be able to offer a larger curriculum, more specialised teachers and courses, a broader range of extracurricular activities and a higher share of administrative staff and para-professionals offering support to teachers and school leaders. Of course these benefits need to be weighed against the cost of transporting students in rural areas with low population densities (or mountainous areas), counteracting the savings from size economies – as well as broader regional and local development aspects and objectives. However, on average, the costs of supporting small schools are high and any loss in functionality or in quality represents an expensive inefficiency in the school system which drains resources away from other areas of potential investment.

While there is no overall strategy to consolidate the school offer in Austria, different provinces have been taking their own steps to rationalise the distribution of schools. For example, some provinces have developed “regional education plans”, which aim to respond better to current demographic realities and to streamline the school network at regional level (Bruneforth et al., forthcoming). In addition, some provinces (Vorarlberg and Styria) have consolidated their school networks so as to organise the school offer more effectively. In four of the nine provinces, there has been a trend to set up municipal school associations (Schulgemeindeverbände). Under such associations, municipalities agree to pool their resources and jointly run one school. There have also been some creations of “associated schools” (angeschlossene Schulen), bringing together a school cluster under one school principal, which can be an alternative to closures of small schools. According to the November 2015 reform proposal, the federal government plans to further promote this model of school network consolidation in the future and to also allow for the clustering of different types of school as part of model regions to further promote longer common schooling (e.g. primary schools, NMS and AHS) (BMBF and BMWFW, 2015). Finally, provinces can create incentives for schools to group together or consolidate. In Salzburg, for example, the OECD review team was informed that schools need to have ten classes in order to receive a school principal, which provides an incentive for smaller schools to cluster together under one common leadership. This seems to be a requirement in addition to a national regulation for schools to have ten teachers for a schoolprincipal position to be created. In schools with less than ten teachers, school leadership is typically exercised by a teacher with a reduced teaching load.

Some steps have been taken to reduce the negative impact of early tracking

As described in Chapter 1, there are important concerns related to the equity of educational opportunities for students from different socio-economic backgrounds in Austria. There have been a number of policies to address this issue, particularly by aiming to reduce the negative impacts of early tracking. Most prominently amongst these is the introduction of the NMS, even if the impact of this reform is not yet clear as pointed out above. Although the NMS does not replace the lower level of the AHS, it is specifically targeted at providing more students a chance to enter higher education. The fact that there is a common curriculum for NMS and AHS and that educational goals share more commonalities between the NMS and the AHS than was the case between the HS and the AHS are an important precondition for this. Moreover, significant additional resources have been made available for the NMS to use new pedagogical approaches and to better prepare students from a variety of backgrounds for higher education (Chapter 2). While currently the NMS and the AHS operate in parallel, there is a continuing public debate in which several parties want to work towards a comprehensive school for 10-14 year-olds, with the new teacher education and service code as further steps in this direction (see Chapter 4).

There is political will to develop all-day schools as an equity strategy

As described above, the federal government has planned and invested substantial funds for the expansion of all-day schooling in general compulsory schools. In the 2015 budget, available funds amounted to EUR 109 million. Although provinces have so far not utilised the entire available federal budget to expand all-day schooling, this represents a serious effort by the federal ministry. This is reflected by the fact that the offer of all-day schooling has increased substantially since 2007. However, as discussed below, while the government has been promoting integrated forms of all-day schooling which are also favoured by some stakeholders such as the Federation of Austrian Industries (Industriellenvereinigung) and which promise greater returns in terms of better quality, only a small minority of schools are currently offering that option.

Several countries have been introducing all-day schooling in order to increase quality and equity (OECD, 2012). As the reasoning goes, while all students would benefit from more learning time, extracurricular activities and guidance with their homework, this should be particularly true for children of families who are less capable of supporting their children in these regards. There are some interesting studies focussing on the effects of full-day kindergartens that show positive results in terms of quality and equity (Gibbs, 2014)

There have been some steps towards the greater inclusion of students with special educational needs

As part of the cross-sector National Action Plan 2020 of the federal government, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is being implemented in the area of education (Art. 24). “Inclusive regions” are currently piloted across Austria with the aim to support the implementation of greater inclusion in regular schooling. To support the implementation of more inclusive education, regional special needs schools are given a stronger co-ordinating role with regard to pedagogy and resource distribution. Based on these pilots, a detailed concept should be agreed between the federal level, the provinces and the municipalities with the aim to roll out inclusive regions across Austria by 2020.


Small schools (and small classes) are expensive and drain resources away from other potential investments in the school system

Although research shows that in Austria the student-teacher ratio between urban and rural areas differs much less than class sizes, student to teacher ratios must be very low in very small schools with as little as ten students, as is the minimum in the Burgenland. Such small schools are relatively expensive to run as maintaining and investing in the infrastructure (e.g. IT facilities and equipment) of many small schools is more expensive than for fewer large ones. But small schools do not only have financial implications. Small schools and small buildings make it more difficult to realise other policy objectives, such as creating comprehensive schooling and all-day provision. Also in terms of education quality there is little evidence on the effects of small schools and that schools of this size substantially improve teaching and learning, also relative to larger schools that are more cost-efficient to operate. Is it, of course, important to bear broader regional and local development objectives in mind and to recognise that the investments in these small schools can have wider returns for the communities and villages in which these schools are located (Box 3.1). Many of the local parents, teachers, school leaders and politicians the review team spoke with in small villages in the Burgenland highlighted that schools contribute to ensuring that such villages remain attractive to parents with young children. But this broader social function of small schools in rural communities may require a broader reflection about policy options and funding solutions beyond education (e.g. involving local and regional development strategies and funds).

Box 3.1. The effects of small schools on rural communities

In a recent review of the literature on school size, Areas Abalde (2014) finds three potential beneficial effects of schools on small villages: effects on social capital, effects through the other services that schools provide and effects on the local economy. In terms of social capital, schools can act as a meeting point and a place for interaction and the forging of bonds within the community, play a role in maintaining community cohesion, and contribute to maintaining and transmitting local history and culture (Berry and West, 2010). By providing a space for interaction and bonding and by promoting a community identity, schools increase the amount of social capital within the community, thereby facilitating co-operation and co-ordination for mutual benefit among community members (Nguyen et al., 2007). The social capital the school promotes is expected to have a positive impact on the life of the community, and this will especially be the case when the community supports and is involved in school activities (Moulton, 2001).

In rural and remote areas, schools frequently provide additional services apart from education. These activities can be related to education, e.g. in the form of a study centre for young people and adults, or a kindergarten, but they can also be used for other activities, as an information centre for municipal services, a work place for very small businesses, a space for the organisation of local cultural activities, or a polling station (Sigsworth, 2005; Koulouris and Sotiriou, 2006).

Lastly, schools in small villages may have an influence on the local economy, as young economically active parents will be less likely to move to cities (Koulouris and Sotiriou, 2006). Moreover, it has been argued that consolidation may lead to reduced taxes, declining property values and closing businesses (Duncombe and Yinger, 2010). A study of rural communities in the state of New York (Lyson, 2002) indicated that housing values were higher and municipal structures more developed in small villages with schools than in villages without them. However, these results do not show causality, lower housing prices may have been caused by other factors than the presence of the school. In fact, other research shows that the negative economic trends present in some consolidating districts were already in place prior to consolidation (Sell and Leistritz, 1997).

Source: Ares Abalde, M. (2014), School Size Policies: A Literature Review, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 106,

While decisions about the organisation of the school offer are also political, some structural factors may hinder a more rational organisation of the school offer in the case of Austria. First, there is insufficient regulation of minimum school size and there appear to be many loopholes to ignore existing regulations. While all provinces have defined minimum student numbers for opening a school, schools continue to operate even if student numbers fall below this threshold. Also, in some provinces, the existing minimum numbers are very low: ten students per school in the Burgenland visited by the review team, for example. Second, the current governance arrangements and split in responsibilities for funding and spending between the federal government and the provinces analysed in detail in Chapter 2 may set problematic incentives. As the costs for teachers, the largest cost factors in operating a school, are covered by the federal level, provinces and municipalities have little incentive to rationally plan their school networks of general compulsory schools in rural areas.

There is no system-wide planning of school facilities based on needs

As a result of the present governance arrangements (Chapter 2), Austria has a fragmented system of school facility and network planning. Depending on the school type, different government levels are involved in the decision making process on opening, closing and maintaining schools, sometimes simultaneously. While the federal level is responsible for the planning and organisation of school facilities for academic secondary schools at the lower secondary level, the provincial and municipal level are responsible for the organisation of the school offer for general compulsory education. It is, therefore, difficult for the federal level to influence and steer the distribution and the density of primary and lower secondary school networks as a whole across the country. While the national planning of the organisation of academic secondary schools is possible through the federal government, there is no unified system for infrastructure planning for all general compulsory schools which are run by the provinces and the many (sometimes very small) municipalities. The catchment areas for schools (particularly for primary education) tend to coincide with the borders of the municipalities. Incentives for municipalities as the maintainers of general compulsory schools work against a systematic planning of the school offer as municipalities benefit from their school as an important service for the community, but do not have to bear most of the costs (i.e. teacher salaries) which are covered by the federal level. Moreover, if municipalities close down a school, they need to pay for all students going to school in an adjacent catchment area.

The separation of the allocation of means for infrastructure (i.e. the responsibility of municipalities) from education policies impedes planning and oversight. The problems of a lack of national planning are aggravated by the fact that there is a lack of data on the school and municipality level, which makes it difficult to relate data on performance (that is available) to infrastructure investments by provinces and municipalities. This makes it very difficult to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of these investments, let alone to steer and influence them.

The local responsibility for infrastructure planning of general compulsory schools also entails the risk for inequalities in investments between poorer and richer municipalities. In general, the many small municipalities receive much less resources than the provinces in the fiscal adjustment mechanism.

School consolidation appears necessary, but faces obstacles

The downward demographic trends, particularly in the rural areas of Austria are likely to increase the pressure to consolidate schools. Especially in rural areas, per student costs are going up. It was reported to the OECD review team that many parents are opposed to school consolidation as it would imply that their children have to travel longer distances to reach compulsory schools. However, several respondents pointed out that children do travel longer distances when in kindergarten and in the early years of lower secondary education. Moreover, local politicians fear the possible depopulation of municipalities and argue that municipal schools are an important element in keeping the municipality attractive for parents. School closures, so the argument, thus risk exacerbating demographic trends further. Policies to increase average school size in Vorarlberg led to an electoral defeat by the provincial authorities who supported this policy.

In addition, school consolidation faces a number of obstacles related to school governance arrangements in Austria that may prove difficult to overcome (Chapter 2). First, closing down a school requires a complicated administrative process that involves the municipality, the provincial government and the federal level – all with potentially diverging interests. Second, while the municipalities benefit from keeping schools open, they are only responsible to carry part of the costs, teacher salaries being paid at the federal level. In addition, municipalities have other strong disincentives to close their school. Municipalities have to compensate the municipality hosting their students by paying a per capita proportion of the school maintenance costs, which includes also larger investments such as renovations, without being able to influence the decision over such investments. The review team was told that due to the high transfer costs, it may in the end be cheaper for municipalities to keep small schools open rather than to send their students to a neighbouring municipality, although the overall costs for the Austrian school system are higher. Finally, most often there are no strategies for using the empty buildings when the school is closed down. Taking care of the purposeless buildings is costly and not attractive. In terms of supporting municipalities with ideas or information, there seems to be little sharing of experience across provinces. For example, Styria and Vorarlberg have introduced interesting approaches to school consolidation, but these are not widely shared.

There is an increasing lack of resources in urban areas

The high costs of small schools (and small classes) in rural areas mean that per student spending in these areas is higher than in urban areas. This disparity in per student spending between rural and urban areas is growing. Analysis of the relationship between the demographic developments and the allocation of resources in the primary school sector has shown that the schools in areas with demographic decline have earned a “demographic dividend” by increasing their resources per population, whereas Vienna suffered a “demographic penalty”. For primary education in all provinces except Vienna, the student population aged 6-9 declined by 15-30% between 2000 and 2012, whereas the resources per student for primary schools increased by 20-40% in the same period. In Vienna, however, where the student population increased slightly, the resources remained stable (Bruneforth et al., forthcoming: 51).

However, it is in these urban areas where challenges and opportunities related to demographic and socio-economic diversity are most pressing. In other words, the mechanisms of resource allocation do not reflect the real needs of students and schools. Practically this means that in many urban schools there is likely to be insufficient support personnel, such as psychologists, social pedagogues and language instructors (Chapter 4). To tackle this issue, proposals of formula funding based on factors of disadvantage have been made, which aim both to increase the transparency of school funding and to enhance equity in education by channelling resources more directly to the students most in need (Chapter 2).

Challenges remain connected to the offer of lower secondary education in two different tracks

As discussed in Chapter 1, students’ socio-economic background has an important influence on their performance in Austria (Figure 3.6). This means that education is contributing to social mobility less than in many other OECD countries and that education instead reinforces existing patterns of disadvantage.

Figure 3.6. The impact of socio-economic background on education performance
Score-point difference in mathematics associated with one unit increase in the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status

Source: OECD (2013a), PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed,

One of the most prominent explanations for the unequal learning outcomes of students from different demographic and socio-economic backgrounds is that Austrian school children spend relatively few years in primary school before being tracked into different school types, as also the relatively short amount of time Austrian students spend in primary school compared to other countries illustrates (Figure 3.7). Austrian children enter primary school at the age of six and after four years they are traditionally tracked either to schools that prepare for professional education (NMS) or schools that prepare for higher education (AHS). There is substantial evidence from cross-country studies associating early tracking with a stronger effect of family background on student performance (e.g. Hanushek and Wößmann 2006; Pfeffer 2008; Chmielewski, 2014).

Figure 3.7. Total number of hours of compulsory instruction time, 2015
By level of education, in public institutions

Note: Countries are ranked in ascending order for primary education.

Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators,, Table D1.1.

In Austria, research shows that students’ achievement is not the most important factor in their choice of school type. Families of students with the same level of achievement at the end of Year 4 make very different decisions concerning enrolment in secondary education tracks, depending mainly on their family background. In fact, only 29% of the differences in school choice can be explained by differences in student achievement (Bruneforth et al., 2012: 203).

Austria has implemented first steps to reduce the negative effects of early tracking, but due to a political compromise, the NMS has not replaced the lower secondary tier of academic secondary schools, thus leaving the system of early tracking as such in place. As mentioned in Chapter 2, one of the challenges in implementing structural change in the Austrian school system is the fragmentation of responsibilities for lower secondary education, with the federal level responsible for academic secondary schools and the provincial level responsible for the New Secondary Schools. This hampers co-ordination between the two separate tracks and the introduction of more comprehensive schooling. There are also some concerns about the implementation of the NMS reform. While new and innovative pedagogies have been introduced in the NMS, especially in the area of team teaching, more needs to be done to organise this effectively (Chapter 4). Also, explicit ability grouping within the NMS has been abolished, but children are still being tracked implicitly as they are subjected to two different grading schemes in Years 7 and 8. This means that these students still have different chances to continue education at higher levels of education. So far then, the additional funding for NMS seems to have been used by improving the quantity rather than quality of teaching resources. A first evaluation of the NMS reform confirms these impressions revealing deficits in the implementation and no significant impact on student performance yet (Eder et al., 2015). Also, there is increasing pressure on the NMS as a growing number of students choose to go to the AHS (Figure 3.8), especially in urban areas. With a decreasing number of students attending the NMS, the average achievement level of students remaining in the NMS is likely to go down. This trend is also likely to result in smaller NMS schools, which will make it more difficult to free up resources to develop and implement innovative pedagogical approaches.

Figure 3.8. Trends in student numbers for HS/NMS and AHS

Source: Statistik Austria (no date), online database,

Concerns related to the introduction of all-day schooling

The expansion of all-day schooling is a priority of the current government, with the explicit goal of improving the equity of the Austrian education system. Since 2007, the offer of all-day schooling has increased substantially (see above). However, the system-wide introduction of all-day schools is slow compared to the ambitions of the federal government, as the fact that the provinces had not requested all of the funds provided by the federal government for the expansion of all-day schooling.

Although there is widespread consensus amongst researchers and practitioners that only the fully integrated form can achieve the educational goals linked to full day programmes, optional afternoon schooling is more widespread. As mentioned above, the optional model is applied by most of the schools with all-day offers, with only around 5% of the schools with all-day offers providing fully integrated programmes. To allow for the introduction of a fully integrated all-day programme, two-thirds of parents and of teachers have to vote in favour of its implementation. As a consequence, demand for all-day schooling is rising, while most of it is implemented as optional afternoon school without an integrated curriculum, focusing on day care.

Another issue that the review team encountered in schools offering all-day schooling was a lack of reflection on how to engage parents in a system of all-day schooling. There was some concern in schools that parental engagement decreased when their children attended all-day programmes, probably based on the assumption that all educational needs of their children would now be taken care of at school. This creates some risks, as research shows that parental involvement is a key factor in improving children’s educational performance and that high-quality parental involvement may help reduce performance differences across socio-economic groups (Borgonovi and Montt, 2012).

Policy recommendations

Provide incentives and support for a rational organisation of the school offer

Austria currently has a high density of schools and very small average school size. Research from different countries indicates that per student expenditure is highest in the smallest schools (Falch et al., 2008; Larsen et al., 2013) and that important economies of scale can be achieved when increasing school size up to a certain enrolment level. However, some studies also find that returns to scale diminish and that diseconomies of scale begin to emerge beyond a certain enrolment level (Ares Abalde, 2014). International research cannot provide a “magic” number of optimal school size as school size affects a diverse set of outcomes such as student achievement and parental involvement and the most adequate size will depend on contextual features, including student composition (Humlum and Smith, 2015). However, if schools are so small that their capacity is underutilised, this has a negative impact on the efficiency of the school system (Ares Abalde, 2014). With many extremely small schools in provinces like the Burgenland (which has a less challenging topography), underutilisation (i.e. large spaces and high staff numbers for few students) is very likely to occur. Given projected demographic developments (Chapter 1), this problem will only increase in years to come. The small average school and class size in Austria is an important part of the explanation for the fact that Austrian education is relatively expensive for the quality that it delivers. It is also an important driver of the inequality in per student funding between rural and urban areas.

Addressing these issues is challenging in any school system. For local governments, closing down schools poses difficulties and for parents it is difficult to see “their” school closed. However, in situations with scarce resources, it is important to consider which investments have the highest rate of return and contribute most to the public good. Of course, the broader returns of schools in terms of local and regional development need to be taken into account, but this broader function of small schools in rural communities requires a wider reflection about different strategies and funding solutions beyond education (e.g. from local development funds). In education, increasing average school size would free up resources that could be invested in other important areas that can have benefits in terms of equity such as early childhood education and care, the quality of teachers or the further development of all-day schooling, which. What is true for school size is true for class size too, as the small class size in Austria contributes to make education expensive and increasing class size could be an important way to reduce costs. It is, of course, important to maintain access to schooling for younger children at a reasonable distance from home. The current situation of children being considered to be able to travel longer distances before the age of six (when they go to kindergarten) and after age of ten (when they go to lower secondary school), but not in between, is, however, not rational.

When designing and implementing policies it will be important to learn from the lessons of Austrian provinces and other countries that have successfully increased school size. Research shows that even if consolidation is usually met with opposition, consolidation can end up being positively valued by teachers, parents and students. Studies have shown examples where nearly all students and teachers, both moving and receiving, reported experiencing benefits from consolidation (Box 3.2) and citizens from vacated communities also felt that consolidation had actually improved their community’s financial situation (Nitta et al., 2010; Killeen and Sipple, 2000). At the same time, when pursuing consolidation policies, potential negative effects on student well-being related to increased transportation time, reduced individual attention to each student and fewer links to parents and the local community need to be taken into account and addressed (Ares Abalde, 2014).

Box 3.2. Positive experiences with consolidation: an example from the United States

In four rural locations around Arkansas, teachers and administrators in eight high schools experienced consolidation between the 2002-03 and 2006-07 school years. Despite many differences among contexts and among participants’ experiences, Nitta et al. (2010) found two policy-relevant themes. First, students adapted better than teachers to the new social environment created by consolidation. Students described a relatively smooth and successful transition. Students also reported participating in more diverse social and academic opportunities. In contrast, teachers struggled with their new relationships. In fact, teachers already at receiving high schools reported more social disruption after consolidation than moving students did. The second theme that emerged was that students and educators generally experienced benefits from consolidation. Teachers experienced improved working conditions and professional development opportunities after consolidation, and as noted above, students generally adapted to their new social environments and experienced more diverse social and academic opportunities. By all accounts, not only moving but receiving students had broader course offerings, with more Advanced Placement and vocational courses.

Source: Ares Abalde, M. (2014), “School Size Policies: A Literature Review”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 106,

Increasing school and class size can be stimulated through a variety of instruments (Box 3.3 provides some examples from different countries). The most straightforward measure is to set (and enforce) minimum school and class sizes. These can be set at a level that would not require massive school closures and then increased incrementally towards a desired level over a longer period of time. In addition, allowing extra administrative and management budgets for larger schools could help provide incentives for increasing school size. In terms of local and rural development, it was argued that schools can play a key role for the local community beyond their immediate educational function. However, it should be possible to develop alternative institutions to take over this function of a social hub, e.g. other cultural and social centres, as part of broader regional and local development initiatives and strategies. These institutions could, in certain cases, also use the vacated former school building.

Box 3.3. Country examples of school consolidation strategies

In the United States, some states have used financial compensation as an incentive for consolidation. This could take the form of direct revenue compensation to school districts that choose to consolidate, or also offering these districts the possibility to raise optional taxes (Meyer, 2000). Other options consist of offering consolidating schools compensation for the difference in financial aid received if after consolidating the schools qualify for less aid than they did separately before being merged; or on paying for the differences in teachers’ salaries in case they are raised after consolidation (which occurs frequently) (Meyer, 2000). States can also offer schools with limited financial resources to carry out capital construction projects to build new consolidated schools (Howley et al., 2011).

Other incentives for consolidation may come indirectly from changes in the administrative structure of a country or region. In Iceland, for instance, the amalgamation of municipalities resulted in new larger municipalities, in some cases with several schools not very far from each other. This created incentives for local politicians to profit from economies of scale and close some schools down and transfer students to schools formerly belonging to a different municipality (Sigbórsson and Jónsdóttir, 2005).

Sometimes school consolidation and closure can take place as a result of a direct policy intervention, such as eliminating all districts or schools with enrolments below an arbitrary number (Howley et al., 2011). For instance, in Korea, in 1981 the government recommended that schools with fewer than 180 students should be either merged or closed, but the government provided only a small amount of financial support (such as a subsidy for transportation) (Im, 2009). Sometimes authorities can offer schools or school districts the possibility to avoid consolidation, but at the cost of financial penalties (PSBA, 2009). And in some occasions, when given the choice, the local districts choose to accept the financial penalty and maintain their schools (PSBA, 2009).

Source: Ares Abalde, M. (2014), “School Size Policies: A Literature Review”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 106,

A number of ways should be considered to remove current obstacles to school consolidation. First of all, it would be important to simplify the complex process currently required to close down and merge schools. In this context, local disincentives to school consolidation need to be addressed. Currently, while municipalities experience the benefits of maintaining even very small schools within borders, they only feel part of the cost of keeping these schools open. In addition, the creation of larger catchment areas (going beyond the borders of one municipality) in rural areas would be an important step towards consolidation. Once larger catchment areas (with multiple municipalities in it) have been established, a more rational decision can be made about which schools to keep open within the catchment area. The current system where the municipal area and the catchment area coincide means that when the last school closes in a catchment area, the concerned municipality needs to transfer funds to another municipality for each student, without controlling how that money is being spent.

Finally, and most importantly, it is key to link school consolidation to a strong quality agenda. When school consolidation is part of an agenda to improve quality and sound arguments are made why school enlargement is necessary as part of that agenda, the nature of the conversation changes. It is important to bring the school community, teachers, parents and local politicians on board in such a conversation. It is necessary to communicate a vision of quality education to persuade others of the need for change instead of on a narrow focus on cost savings. School consolidation must go in line with visible improvements in the quality of the students’ school in order to make consolidation attractive to parents and students.

Pursue further strategies to increase equity in education by addressing early selection

Apart from school and class size, the second major challenge in the Austrian school offer is the early selection at age ten after four years of primary education. As the NMS reform did not result in the full integration of lower secondary education following a political compromise, early selection continues to the present day, with the NMS and the AHS still offering two separate tracks.

A recent OECD publication on Equity and Quality in Education makes a clear case against early tracking considering its effect on inequality (OECD, 2012), and as shown by international research, early selection is typically related to a stronger effect of socio‐economic background on the performance of students. Student selection and, in particular, early tracking, exacerbates differences in learning between students. It has an impact on educational inequities, as any given pathway and any given school affects learning in two ways. First, the teaching environment can vary, since it depends on the curriculum, the teachers and the resources. Less demanding tracks tend to provide less stimulating learning environments. Second, students’ outcomes can also be affected by students’ peers (Field et al., 2007). These policies determine the way students are put together or directed to separate classrooms, pathways and schools according to their abilities, and have an impact on equity and on educational failure. Evidence shows that the track to which students are assigned has a great impact on their educational and life prospects (Shavit and Müller, 2006).

Proponents of grouping students according to their performance suggest that students learn better when grouped with others like themselves so that teaching can be adapted to their needs. However, research shows that it has a significant negative impact on those placed in the lower levels (Hattie, 2009) and the evidence is mixed on the impact of tracking on high achievers, depending on the methodology and data used (Jakubowski, 2010). Data from OECD PISA confirm that countries with more differentiated instruction have greater inequality of performance between students, while there are no significant effects on overall performance (Hanushek and Wößmann, 2006). A study from Austria shows that students in the AHS in Austria do not benefit from the system of early selection as their achievement is below the students in academic schools in other countries (Schabmann et al., 2012).

The existence of lower level tracks and streams fuels a vicious cycle in the expectations of teachers and students. Teachers can have lower expectations for some students, especially disadvantaged and/or low performing ones, and assign them to slower-paced and more fragmented instruction; and students adjust their expectations and efforts, which results in even lower performance (Gamoran, 2011). Moreover, more experienced and capable teachers tend to be assigned to higher level tracks (Oakes, 2005). Students placed in lower performance groups experience a low quality learning experience, and may suffer stigmatisation and a decrease in self-esteem. Also, they do not benefit from the positive effects of being around more capable peers (Hanushek and Wößmann, 2006; Ammermueller, 2005).

To address these challenges, a number of policy options are open for consideration. Most importantly, Austria should consider completing the integration of NMS and AHS at the lower secondary level as was originally intended with the NMS reform. This would mean that all Austrian students are in the same type of school until age 14, which is the case in most OECD countries. The November 2015 reform proposal of the federal government envisages the creation of model regions of comprehensive education within individual provinces limited to 15% of students and to 15% of schools in this province, but does not go so far as to propose the lengthening of common schooling across the country (see Chapter 1, Annex 1.1). Although tracking in Poland already took place at a later age, the country provides an example for a successful structural reform that has had a significant success not only in terms of reducing inequities, but also in raising student performance overall. In 1999, Poland reduced the selectivity of its education system as part of a broader education reform that also covered the curriculum. The reform postponed tracking by one year until age 15 and thus extended the period of general education based on a common core curriculum and equal standards for all students. Since the reform, students complete six years of primary education and three years of common lower secondary education before moving to a three- or four-year upper secondary school that provides access to higher education or to a three-year basic vocational school. Furthermore, students’ experience in schools has shifted towards common exposure to content and content difficulty. In OECD PISA 2003, 19% of 15-year-old lower-secondary students whotook part in PISA attended schools whose principal reported that students were not placed in different groups for mathematics classes (either through groups within a particular class or between different classes in the same school). In the 2012 round of the assessment, the share of students not being placed in different ability groups had increased to 42% of 15-year-old lower-secondary students (OECD, 2013b; OECD, 2011).

However, if a move towards the full integration of the NMS and the AHS turns out not to be politically feasible, other options are available. One of these would be to reduce the distance between AHS and NMS schools, for example by bringing all lower secondary schools into one hand administratively so that educational planning for the whole age group is more coherent, and common oversight of the curricula, teaching and assessment is strengthened (see Chapter 2). One step further could be to twin AHS and NMS schools in the same regions, perhaps even bring them under joint management. This would facilitate transfer from school to the other and increase the likeliness that in terms of curricula the two types of schools grow closer together. Facilitating better transitions for students to move upstream from the NMS to the AHS and from one track to another at later moments in their education and providing adequate support to students that have changed tracks to cope with the new track could help reduce the impact of socio-economic background on student outcomes. The Austrian school system is more flexible than other models of early tracking and selection (e.g. in some German Länder) through its diversity of upper secondary vocational tracks which are open to students from the NMS as well. But NMS students face additional challenges to move across streams as they require specific grades for access to specific tracks and as implicit tracking through different grading schemes within the NMS has remained in place. NMS students may also face lower expectations concerning their educational career. It would, therefore, be important to provide better support to students to move up across different school types and to those struggling within a particular track to succeed (e.g. throughdifferentiated teaching). Implementing a system of early diagnosis and remedial support for struggling students can be an effective policy tool in this regard. In Finland, for example, a special teacher who is specifically trained to work with struggling students is assigned to each school and works closely with teachers to identify students who need extra help. Multi-professional care groups, consisting of the school principal, special education teacher, the school nurse, the school psychologist, a social worker, teachers and parents, meet periodically to discuss individual students’ learning progress (OECD, 2016). While the Dutch system of early tracking also faces increasing challenges (OECD, forthcoming), the Netherlands could provide some further inspiration for Austria. The Netherlands is a country with relatively early tracking, but with much more favourable outcomes in terms of the impact of socio‐economic background on educational performance. Unlike in Austria, children in the Netherlands are tracked into different streams at age 12 after two years of kindergarten and six years of primary education, that is two years later than in Austria. Like in Austria, there are many transfer points throughout secondary education, but transfer possibilities also exist much earlier, including in the first year of lower secondary education.

Further promote all-day schooling

Although all-day schools are increasingly available in Austria, only a small fraction of these offer an integrated form of all-day schooling, which promises greater benefits for children from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Currently the federal budgets available for all-day schooling are underused, suggesting that the provinces are not moving as quickly as the federal government would like them to.

If all-day schooling is introduced successfully in Austria, it may offer several positive outcomes. Until recently, the evidence for all-day schooling was rather thin, but an ambitious programme for all-day schooling combined with a large scale study in Germany shows evidence of several improvements. In Germany, the conversion and equipment of schools to the all-day format has been financially supported by the investment programme “Future of Education and Care” between 2003 and 2009. Federal states and governments have been investing in two areas: increasing the availability of all-day schooling for children and youths; and improving pedagogical work and teaching quality at those all-day schools. The number of all-day schools in Germany has risen greatly. In 2009, 47% of German schools were considered to be all-day schools. The criteria for classification as an all-day school are quite strict. All-day schools are “primary and secondary schools which, in addition to timetabled lessons in the morning, offer an all-day programme comprising at least seven hours per day on at least three days per week. Activities offered in the afternoon are to be organised under the supervision and responsibility of the head staff and to be carried out in co-operation with the head staff. The activities are to have a conceptual relationship with the lessons in the morning” (Secretariat of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, 2008: 356). Different forms of all-day schools are distinguished based on student level of obligation. In schools with “open-all-day” programmes, participation is voluntary and students choose to participateindividually. In “compulsory” all-day programmes, students are required to stay in school for extended hours at least three days a week. Consequently, even though more than 45% of schools offered all-day programmes in 2009, only about 25% of students participated.

The study attached to this major policy programme revealed a number of positive effects. First, the introduction and expansion of all-day schooling has led to an improvement in family-work balance for parents, particularly for parents from low socio-economic backgrounds who feel supported by all-day schools. Second, students have been very positive about the quality of extracurricular activities. Student ratings are based on student-staff relationship, student age, and other characteristics of students and their schools. Third, and perhaps most importantly, given sufficient quality of the extracurricular activities and duration and intensity of participation, all-day schools can enhance motivational and social development of students as well as their grades (Fischer and Klieme, 2013). The German study shows that quality matters, i.e. that the integrated form of all-day schooling is likely to have a greater effect on education outcomes. However, currently only a fraction of the schools in Austria offer this option. This is partly hampered by the fact that two-thirds of the parents and the teachers need to agree before schools can opt for the integrated forms of all-day schooling, which is understandable given that integrated all-day schooling affects all students. However, this procedure considerably slows down the further implementation of all-day schooling. If Austria is serious about introducing integrated all-day schooling, a campaign bringing parents on board will be essential.

Moreover, it needs to be better acknowledged that in order for any form of all-day schooling to be a success in urban areas there are serious infrastructure challenges that need to be addressed. The space requirements to keep children inside schools for longer periods, including cooking facilities and play areas need to be developed in line with the expansion of this type of schooling. All-day schooling is also likely to imply that teachers are present at schools to a larger degree and need workplaces, equipment and facilities to prepare teaching, collaborate and use their out-of-class time effectively.


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← 1. The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

← 2. For example, see (accessed 6 April 2016).

← 3. For example, “Oberösterreichischer Schulbaufonds” [Upper Austrian Fund for the Construction of Schools], “Niederösterreichischer Schul- und Kindergartenfonds” [Lower Austrian Fund for Schools and Kindergartens], “Wiener Schulsanierungspaket 2008-17” [School maintenance package for Vienna].

← 4. Data from BMBF, Abteilung IT/1 – Bildungsstatistik [BMBF, Division IT/1 – Education statistics] Integration_20.3.2015.pdf.

← 5. Data from BMBF, Abteilung IT/1 – Bildungsstatistik [BMBF, Division IT/1 – Education statistics] Integration_20.3.2015.pdf.