On September 5, over 220,000 Viennese students went back to school. Some go willingly, some have to be dragged, but Austrian parents have a stock response to unwilling schoolgoers: Blame Maria Theresa
It was in 1774, under the reign of Austria’s only female head of state ever, that six years of compulsory schooling became law of the land for most of the Habsburg empire, pioneering public education in 18th century Europe.
Alas, subsequent rulers had less appetite for education. It took almost a century and a lost war against Prussia before the Reichsvolksschulgesetz of 1869 extended obligatory schooling to eight years, limited class sizes to 80 and stripped the supervision of schools from the Catholic church.
From then on, school reforms picked up speed (by Austrian standards). Six decades later, in 1927, the First Republic established Hauptschulen for all those who couldn’t gain admission to the prestigious Gymnasium. And 35 years later, in 1962, obligatory schooling was extended to the nine years of today.
Since then, many have attempted to tinker with the system, to no great avail. The current approach is much bolder: An entirely new concept of compulsory education including apprenticeships and career training, up to age 18.
Chancellor Kern has even suggested extending this to age 25, signaling that education may be a central issue of his term. With the last substantial reform already half a century behind us, it’s about time. As Maria Theresa would attest, there’s no better way to win Austrians’ respect than to make them go to school – even if they’d never admit it.