The origins of the Austrian school system go back to the “School Edict for All German Regular, Main and Trivial Schools in All Imperial and Royal Dominions" adopted by Empress Maria Theresa in 1774. In the 19th century the three sectors of the Austrian educational system – schools providing general education (including grammar schools), vocational schools and teacher training institutions – were already well developed. In 1869 compulsory education of eight years was introduced.
At present compulsory education in Austria lasts nine years. After four years of primary school education (ages 6 to 10) pupils may either attend a lower secondary school or the lower level of a secondary academic school. All those 14-year-olds who choose to complete compulsory education after nine years attend the pre-vocational year during which pupils are prepared for their transition to vocational life. The attendance of vocational schools is mandatory for apprentices.
Those students who continue their education attend upper secondary level (ages 14 to 18/19), which includes secondary academic schools (like classical secondary academic schools, secondary academic schools emphasising mathematics and science, secondary academic schools emphasising economics) and a differentiated system of secondary technical and vocational schools and colleges. Upon completion of the last year of a secondary academic or a secondary technical and vocational school or college pupils take a final exam. The school-leaving certificate thus acquired provides access to university or other higher education.
The Austrian school system is regulated on a uniform basis nationwide. Attendance of public (state-run) schools is free of charge. Under the current school policy the focus is on strengthening the school’s autonomy thus promoting independent action. This approach also involves the enhancement of the rights and responsibilities of teachers’, pupils’ and parents’ organisations across all school types. Since the winter semester of 1994/95 students may attend courses at Austrian universities of applied sciences, upon completion of which they are conferred an academic degree.
Major trends like demographic developments or socio-political changes, including the increasing process of individualisation, are taken into account in the elaboration of Austrian educational policy principles. The field of cultural techniques, for instance, has been extended, and from an early age children now learn how to work with new media. Among the major expansions of the educational programme are thus media education as well as instruction in using the computer and the Internet.
There are a number of private schools that offer education in a language other than German and whose curricula and grades are officially recognised by the Austrian government (Public Right institutions), including the Lycée Francais de Vienne, the Vienna International School the American International School. In addition, there are a number of foreign-language private schools that are not officially recognised by the Austrian government (without Public Right), including the Japanese School, the Arabic Language School and a Swedish school.
Austria currently maintains schools abroad in Istanbul, Guatemala City, Budapest and Prague. Moreover, there are bilingual schools in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Austria supports the EU-wide programmes aimed at the promotion of general and vocational education. The declared goal of creating a competitive knowledge-based society requires a speedy, efficient and coherent intensification of efforts in the fields of school education (Comenius), higher education (Leonardo da Vinci) and adult education (Grundtvig). Austria also takes part in programmes aimed at promoting the idea of EU integration (Jean Monnet). One of the goals outlined under the concept of promoting the intercultural and European spirit is the expansion of European language skills. Austria has therefore intensified language education for pupils, students and adults, thus meeting one of the objectives set out by the EU for the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008.