On 17 May 2018, the National Council in Austria passed a law authorising separate German classes for pupils who have a limited knowledge of the German language. The conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which together form a government coalition since December last year, voted for the legislation.
As of the next school year (September 2018), standardised tests will assess pupils’ German language knowledge at school enrolment. Those with insufficient levels will be referred to separate remedial German classes of 15 (1st to 4th grade) or 20 (5th to 8th grade) hours per week. 8 to a maximum of 25 students of all ages will participate in one remedial class. During the rest of the week and for subjects like sports or drawing, joint classes are planned. Once a pupil’s German knowledge improves, she or he will be able to change over to regular classes at the beginning of each semester.
Support and critics
Heinz Fassmann, Minister of Education, Science and Research (ÖVP), argues that the measure is a necessary step towards an optimal language training at school. He described it as a solution which is “partially integrative, age-appropriate and limited in time”. According to him, the period covered by these separate classes should be as short as possible in order to integrate students back into regular classes. "We do not want to compensate for anything other than start disadvantages and to ensure greater opportunity in the long term”, the Minister underlined.
Opposition, NGOs and experts however heavily criticised the law. The Social Democrats spoke of “negligent politics on the backs of students and especially of the educators”. Many others warned about social exclusion. The Working Group for Comparative Psycholinguistic of the University of Vienna pointed out that children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds will leave school “as losers” and that the new law will not only affect children who have to learn German as a second language, but also those who have German as their first language but need additional support. Such separation is considered as ineffective to improve language skills.
The NGO SOS Mitmensch also stressed that structural problems such as not-calculated extra costs or lack of space are not solved yet. Even groups like the Union of Compulsory School Teachers, who in principal are in favour of separate classes, ask for a delay of the regulation because of technical reasons. A number of of details are still unclear and therefore pose problems to the schools, they argue.