Representing Parents in School Decision Making in Austria

1.1 Political framework

Compared to other countries the Austrian educational system presents a particularly high density of regulations – a fact which is reflected in the strongly hierarchically-structured bureaucracy of the school system. Various control mechanisms are effective at each level – whether it be the federal ministry, the provincial- or regional-boards of education or the individual schools. The second factor which increases this tendency towards centralisation is the deeply-rooted historical, party-political structure of the educational system. The authority of the bureaucratic hierarchy is strongly ‘inter-twined’ with the authority of party-political structures. This centralised regulation also controls the subject matter, which is determined by federal stipulations concerning curricula - and text-books and teaching manuals which must be state-approved – a situation which leaves little scope for the individual schools and the people responsible for them to exercise influence over the individual organisation, context or finance ‘on the spot’.

This kind of organisation in the Austrian educational system reflects the general social principle of ‘social partnership’, whereby representatives of all socially-relevant groups (i.e. employers, trade unions, consumers, religious bodies etc.) act as partners - in a suitably-representative advisory capacity – and thus influence political and cultural life. Naturally the school – as the reproduction factor of significant social development – could not exempt itself from this omnipresent principle – it had to contribute towards the ‘smooth running’ of social partnership. Party-political influence was also exercised in the selection of school personnel and officials; in the employment of teachers, school managers and supervisors. A two-third majority is required in Parliament to affect alterations and modifications of school organisation so that development within the educational system is dependent upon party-political consensus. Influence over modifications of contents and subject matter is achieved by the ‘balanced’ appointment of the appropriate commissions (e.g. approval commission and a commission responsible for curricula etc.) so that a ‘partnership’ solution can be pre-determined and secured.

In order to preserve the comprehensive state regulation and so as not to disrupt the historical ‘partnership’ of the official bodies on the decision-making level, the school officials had to preserve the ‘smooth’ implementation of the centralized regulations. For many years, therefore, there were no commissions with powers of decision in the individual schools in which the ‘stakeholders’ had the right of co-determination. Only in certain schools of compulsory education (primary, basic secondary schools and poly-technical schools), where the respective authority is responsible for the financing of the school buildings, the fittings and equipment of such and the running costs, can decisions be made by the respective authorities although here, too, the right of co-determination is exercised by the peoples’ representatives who have been voted into office and, therefore, only ‘indirectly’ by parents and custodians. Therefore, for many years, parents had no legal rights at school and were even regarded as ‘school extraneous persons’!

With the trend towards participation of citizens in every-day life, parents, teachers and pupils feel an increasing need to determine their school themselves. This development has been supported by the increasing ineffectiveness of centralised measures if they are not in accordance with basic needs. In 1962 comprehensive legislation led to the re-organisation of much of the educational system and the School Education Act of 1974 provided a new basis for democratic rights, thus leaving the way open for parent- and family-organisations to exert their initiative to enforce their legal rights. Due to a lack of sufficient political consensus, however, the 4th Supplementary Act to the School Education Act to legalise the parents’ demands was not enacted until 1986.

This educational-political compromise led to the founding of ‘school-partnerships’ on a local basis. These are made up according to the models of the comprehensive state social partnerships. Parents and teachers of a school (also pupils of the intermediate- and upper-educational levels) form an advisory committee or a committee with resolution-making authority; this however, has only limited influence over school life. It is, therefore, of special significance that parents and custodians are encouraged to participate in advisory- and resolution-making processes which are related to the school, in order to present a specific, legally-arranged position as a reciprocal pole to the ‘regal’ position of the state education system.

2.1 Parents’ representation: organisation and realisation

2.1.1 Legal basis

When regarding the rights of co-determination in Austrian schools one must differentiate between (a) primary, basic secondary-schools and special schools and (b) poly-technical schools, vocational schools and intermediate- and upper-schools. In the schools listed under (a) in accordance with the School Education Act (SchUG), each class must have a class-forum and each school, a school-forum in order to promote and strengthen the school community; the schools of group (b) must form a school community committee (SGA). The class forum has the authority to pass resolutions in the following matters as long as only one class is concerned. The school forum and school community committee have the authority to pass resolutions in the following matters where more than one class is concerned:

2.1.2 Resolutions

  1. Questions regarding the planning of school activities of a duration of several days as far as the personal costs of the pupils and the type of activity are concerned. For example, one can decide whether a week of sportive activities should be carried out in summer or winter. One can also decide which topic should be stressed in a week of project work – music, ecology, an intensive language course or creativity, for example. The financing of such activities can also be decided in this manner.
  2. Stipulations pronouncing activities to be school-related activities. Various activities may be included – whether of a cultural or sportive nature - as long as they are based on curricular teaching, serve to satisfy the objectives of the Austrian school and do not endanger the pupil neither morally nor physically.
  3. Stipulation of parent-teacher meetings (including date and time) in which pupils may also participate.
  4. Stipulation of school rules. This also includes the stipulation of library rules.
  5. Concessions for collections among the pupils.
  6. Concessions for organising events in which pupils participate which are not listed in the above-mentioned point (e.g. street collections).
  7. Providing opportunities for an advisory service for school-careers. At least once a year, a committee meeting of the SGA should plan a day in the time-table for advice
  8. The committee should meet to decide upon the stipulation and implementation of measures relating to school-health. The school doctor should be invited to be present at this meeting.
  9. Plans which promote participation in school life. Such participation should serve the political and cultural education and promotion of citizenship among the pupils, according to the basic democratic principles and should develop and strengthen the pupils’ social behaviour. Plans for suitably-aimed spare-time occupations should also be discussed.

Recently, something new has been added: autonomous decisions about determining the 5 free days per academic year, which are legally stipulated and aspects of school autonomy including changes in time table, number of students in one group etc.

2.1.3 Advice

  1. Important questions of teaching.
  2. Important questions of education.
  3. Questions concerning the planning of school events (particularly school day excursions and events with a duration of several days).
  4. The choice of teaching material.
  5. The use of financial resources which have been transferred to the school for administration.
  6. Building measures concerning the school.
  7. Aspects of sponsoring

The class forum
The class forum is composed of the form teacher and the parents and custodians of the pupils of the class concerned. Other teachers of the class can participate in an advisory capacity. The chairperson is the form teacher. The class forum must be summoned within the first eight weeks of each academic year. Furthermore, the parents (custodians) of one-third of the pupils of the form concerned can demand a meeting of the class forum. A majority of votes is necessary for the passing of a resolution. If the form teacher is not in accord with the majority vote then the resolution is suspended and transferred to the responsibility of the school forum.

The school forum

The school forum is composed of the head, all the form teachers and parents’ representatives of the classes of the school concerned. The chairperson is the head, who, however, has no decisive vote (except if he/she is a form teacher). Pupil representatives are only present in an advisory capacity. A committee can be summoned instead of the school forum to deal with the matters-at-hand and state resolutions – a situation which is practical in large schools. For the passing of resolutions, a majority of votes is necessary.

The school community committee

The SGA is composed of nine members (3 teachers, 3 pupils and 3 parents) and the head. The latter has no decisive vote. In private schools, the school supporter should be invited to be present but only in an advisory capacity. If the school has a parents’ organisation then the representative should also be invited to attend meetings.

The head boy/girl of the school, together with two further pupil representatives – who must attend at least the ninth grade – have to be present too. There must be at least two meetings of the committee in each academic year. The head can summon the SGA at any time. A meeting is also to be summoned if one-third of the members so wish (i.e. three of the members) and at the same time present a suggestion for the agenda. The school management is then obliged to summon the school community committee within a week. Furthermore the parents’ representatives in the SGA have the right to participate in teachers’ conferences – with a few exceptions (e.g. official matters of the teachers and the election of teachers’ representatives). They have no right to vote, however, except if they have a specific legal right to do so – e.g. a threat of exemption, or the exemption of pupils.

2.2 Experiences we have had so far with the right of co-determination in schools

The SGA has the independent right to pass resolutions – a situation which restricts the earlier field of competence of the head who now has the right to suspend a decision only if he/she regards it as illegal or if it is impracticable for reasons of organisation. Within this legal framework the school community committees function very variably. In some schools, a meeting of the SGA is held every six-to-eight weeks, in others only twice a year. To ensure that the resolutions do not remain ‘idle rights’ - which often occurs in practice – the following measures have been proposed:

  1. Improvement of the flow of information among all SGA representatives – especially parents and pupils.
  2. More emphasis on the topic ‘school partnership’ and ‘school community committees’ during the training- and further-education of headmasters/-mistresses.
  3. An increase in the representation of pupils in the current decision-making processes of the academic year and an increased participation of pupils’ representatives in the SGA.
  4. More communication seminars for pupils, parents, teachers and headmasters/-mistresses.

3.1 The parents’ role in school autonomy

3.1.1. School autonomy: Starting point and legal basis

In the last few years, just as in many other countries, the catch-word school autonomy has been the most significant topic in educational-political discussions in Austria. With the increasing right of co-determination of citizens in their daily lives parents, teachers and pupils have also felt the need and necessity to co-determine the organisation of ‘their’ school. This development has been supported by the increase of de-centralisation and autonomy in the business world and private sphere in many social and cultural fields. Thus, the state has lost some authority of regulation. This increase of autonomy – the autonomy of organisation and structure - sets much higher claims on the school committees of co-determination than before since it signifies not only the perception of more scope of action but also, at the same time, of self-responsibility, self-obligation and self-control.

School autonomy is to be understood as the legal basis which – since the academic year 1993/94 allows basic secondary schools (schools for 10-14 year-olds) the possibility to set their own points of interest and to develop their own time-tables and curricula. The ministry determines the general curricula but the individual school has the possibility – within the strictly-defined limits – to determine the time-tables and curricula and, to a moderate degree, to adjust the finances to regional conditions and needs. At the same time the interests of the pupils must be taken into consideration and the particular capabilities of the teachers must be implemented to an optimal degree. Sufficient scope must also be provided for the realisation of a pedagogical and didactical concept – a school programme – with the objective of achieving an improvement of quality at the respective school.

As far as the organisation is concerned this means that the number of lessons in a compulsory subject may be altered (within pre-determined limits); several subjects may be combined into a learning project; voluntary subjects may be converted into compulsory subjects and the size of groups may also be determined autonomously. Such measures, however, must be financed by the ‘pot’ of teaching hours which is allotted to each school. This means, therefore, that promoting developments in one direction automatically means limitations in other fields: an ‘explosive’ situation which could, quite easily, lead to conflicts!

3.2 Implementation of autonomous decision-making

The starting point for compiling a school concept resides in the conditions in each individual school. The necessity for the implementation of autonomy, to provide more scope of action, can be seen in the dissatisfaction with the present situation of a school – for example, if parents complain or make suggestions for improvements during a parent-teacher evening. As a reaction the members of staff, together with the parents and possibly pupils, could analyse the existing problems and formulate their wishes regarding improvements. Subsequently, a team - consisting preferably also of parents and pupils - could develop regulations autonomous for the school regarding time-tables, contents of lessons, teaching- and learning-methods and the organisation of learning. Since these individually-planned school regulations have a regulative character certain (minimal-) standards are determined by law and correspond to those of the centrally-determined curricula.

Hopefully after extensive discussions of the results among the people concerned the regulations are put into force by a resolution of the school forum or school community committee. For the passing of a resolution a two-thirds majority in each of the representative groups is necessary. The school authorities only intervene if the curricula regulations disregard the interest of the pupils, parents and custodians beyond the individual school (e.g. restrictions of rights and possibilities of transferring to schools of further education). The newly-compiled curricula should be posted in the school for the duration of one month and then be deposited with the school management. Parents and pupils have the right of perusal, if they so wish. This regular evaluation of set measures should lead to a process of permanent self-renovation, which should replace the ‘old’ methods.

Parents’ associations

Long before the introduction of legal rights of co-determination in school committees parents’ associations were founded to support the interests of parents and custodians on school-, district-, provincial- and federal-levels. Thanks to their commitment, the right of co-determination became anchored in school law. Even today they have a significant influence over matters concerning school which extend, however, beyond school. In this respect the parents’ associations have a greater effectiveness since their structural pre-requisites allow them to present topical matters better in class-political, comprehensive discussions. Parents’ organisations are organised into provincial groups. Each provincial group sends parents’ representatives to the provincial parents’ committees and to the committee of parents’ associations which represents the parents’ interests to the federal ministry in the federal parents’ committee.

 

In-service training
New aspects must be considered in the training and further education of teachers of the new generation, namely one must concentrate more on the training of self-evaluation and self-management. We regard the models of the In-service Training Institute (PI) in Vienna and the In-service Training Institute in the Tyrol as admirable, where teams of representatives of all stakeholders work actively to combat the phenomenon of the ‘incapacity to negotiate’ of school-partner committees.

Example 1:

Development of a model for a seminar on ‘Team-building for SGA members of individual schools’ by the ‘school-partner’ workshop of the PI in Vienna

In order to accomplish the task-at-hand the school partners need not only good-will but also, know-how and a good deal of (new) professionalism The participants of this work-shop developed a two-day seminar model ‘Team-building for school partners’ and tried it out for themselves. Subsequently they then offered a seminar for SGA members who were interested with the following contents:

  • Steps towards team-building
  • Possibilities of solving problems
  • Forming opinions and coming to decisions
  • Knowledge of the structure of the SGA
  • Co-operation levels
  • Introduction to moderation techniques

Example 2:

The central seminar: ‘Parent-teacher partnership’ at the PI in the Tyrol

At the introduction of class- and school-forums in 1986/87 one had little experience of collaboration between parents and schools. Mostly the relationship was marked by mutual mistrust. Therefore, within the framework of vocational teacher-training for teachers of compulsory education in the Tyrol, a central group of the Pedagogical Institute of the federal province of the Tyrol and parents and teachers from the entire district of the Tyrol meet twice a year. They strive to achieve practical suggestions for a more intensive collaboration between parents and schools. For example, district representatives of parents and teachers are trained to function as multipliers in pertinent events in their home districts. Specific needs are discussed and reported back to the central seminar for an interchange of ideas. Useful experiences are discussed, elaborated, improved upon and made accessible to all districts.

5.1 Perspectives of the future: ‘...doing good towards each other’

Three contradictory aspects could mark discussions about school-partnership committees in the future:

Much will depend on how the people concerned deal with these contradictions. They will need external support, a further development of the institutional framework, training courses which are ‘made to measure’, even better information material and, most of all, they will need an inner attitude which cannot be prescribed. Karl Blüml, one of the pioneers of the practical implementation of school partnership ideals and headmaster of an academic grammar school in Vienna for many years, formulates this as: ‘... doing good towards each other’.

Prof. Dr. Michael Schratz

Dr. Ulrike Steiner-Löffler