Low Marks for Integration in Austrian Schools – Who is to Blame?

This year’s integration report unveiled an alarming statistic: Two-thirds of school children with a migrant background fail to reach the expected reading level. This is particularly concerning in Austria, where one fourth of the population is a first or second-generation immigrant, and in Vienna, a full 45% has a migrant background. In line with her party’s hard-stance on immigration, Integration Minister Susanne Raab opposes an overhaul of the education system and blames the language gap on the migrants themselves.

On September 8, a special migration taskforce presented the tenth annual integration report, which evaluates how well migrants are assimilating into Austrian society. The report highlighted the existing flaws in the country’s outdated education system, which, according to taskforce head Prof. Kathrin Pebel, is the most important “building block” in the integration process. 

The acquisition of German is understood to be central to integration and the measure of its success. And this is where children with foreign roots tend to have the greatest deficiencies. Among 13 and 14-year olds, one-third only partially fulfill the national German requirement and another third don’t at all. Der Standard called this finding both “alarming” and “worrying.” 

But German deficiencies among students are nothing new to the education ministry. Combating the growing language gap in schools, which the corona crisis and “distance learning” only exacerbated, has been on the agenda for quite some time. In August, Education Minister Heinz Faßman launched an optional two-week intensive summer course, targeted at students in need of support. Around 24,400 children – roughly 60% of students with German-language problems – signed up for the program. 

A Flawed System

Critics were underwhelmed: “Two weeks is not enough,” countered analyst Melisa Erkurt. A journalist and former teacher, Erkurt, has recently made headlines with her new book, Generation Haram, in which the Sarajevo-born education expert explains how systemic racism within the Austrian school system is preventing migrant children from learning proper German.

“Friends, whose Herkunftssprache (language of origin) is Turkish, were told by their elementary school teacher that they should not play with the other Turkish children, otherwise they would never learn German,” wrote Erkurt. “Teachers often automatically attribute reading and spelling weaknesses in multilingual students to the multilingualism.”  

Numerous studies have shown that children in the early grades are exceptionally good at learning languages, and knowing another language doesn’t jeopardize a child’s ability to learn a new one. There are cultural biases as well: While French and English are viewed as “prestigious,” Erkurt notes, students who speak Turkish are considered “handicapped.” Downgrading migrant languages suggests that Austrian teachers are fueling racism within the schools, she writes.  

A refugee herself, Erkurt has experienced this discrimination first hand, and was told by teachers that she would never make it to the Gymnasium (high school). After hearing her story, others with a similar background related anecdotes attesting to the racism and condescension from Austrian teachers. Erkurt believes teachers must be educated about racism, to understand why they must stop asking about students’ heritage and learn to pronounce their names correctly.

“We have to adjust the curricula at the universities accordingly, [and add] compulsory training seminars for teachers,” writes Erkurt. Anything less is a sign that we “don’t take the experience of migrants seriously.” 

Another point of contention is Austria’s half-day school system, which assumes one parent at home who can help with homework. Since German is frequently not the migrants’ first language, first or second-generation Austrians are at a significant disadvantage, causing an unbridgeable language gap in the classrooms. Experts like Erkurt and Pebel call for a switch to full-day schooling and extra coaching to even out the differences.    

Pushback From the ÖVP

However, Raab (ÖVP) rejects both a second kindergarten year and full-day school: “You can’t blame everything on the school,” said Raab. Instead, she insists that parents need to become more involved; She aims to “strengthen women from ‘patriarchal cultures’ in their self-determination and in access to the labor market,” and to counter the formation of parallel societies. Austria wants “no Chinatown and no Little Italy,” she said. 

Ironically, the ÖVP itself is partially responsible for these problems. The previous ÖVP-FPÖ government cut the Arbeitsmarketservice’s (unemployment service) budget, which in 2019 lead to a dramatic reduction in German course offerings for refugees and migrants in the labor force. This affected many 2015 refugee women with infants and small children, whose care often postponed the mothers’ German studies, said András Szigetvari in Der Standard’s daily podcast. This made them ineligible for work and also unable to help children with homework. However, Raab is in charge of immigration law and the mandatory “value- and orientation course” – and thus has the authority to implement the necessary reforms. 

Szigetvari suggests that the Raab’s stance could be part of the ÖVP campaign strategy ahead of next month’s city elections. In contrast to the SPÖ, the Greens and the NEOs who voted to take in 100 children from the overcrowded Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, the ÖVP’s lead candidate in the city elections, invoked an old FPÖ demand: German language skills as a pre-requisite for social housing, and German written into the constitution as the national language.  

Raab herself acknowledges the policy differences “It’s no secret that the federal government and Vienna have different views on migration,” said Raab. The federal government sets the framework, she says, but it’s the states’ job to implement it. 

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