Kurz kicks off kindergarten initiative

Experts have expressed concerns about a capacity bottleneck as People’s Party (ÖVP) Integration Secretary Sebastian Kurz started a two-year kindergarten pilot project.

Kurz – whose party forms a government coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) – said yesterday (Weds) parents in two districts in Salzburg and Lower Austria were offered to send their children to kindergartens free of charge as of now. He said the main aim of the project was to detect and reduce language skills lacks. The state secretary underlined that many of the kids with such difficulties were Austrian.

Kurz called for a redirection of the focus in education policies. He said more money had to be spent on integration initiatives at an early stage to avoid an increase of problems as the affected kids turn older.  The ÖVP Vienna deputy head said the provinces and communities were coming up for the additional costs of the additional free of charge year of kindergarten attendance. He also promised to keep a close eye on a feared lack of spots for kids in the regions which agreed to participate in the pilot project.

The regional two-year kindergarten attendance offensive could determine federal education and childcare decision-making procedures of this and future governments. The pilot project is just one of a whole slew of initiatives launched by Kurz since his assignment as secretary for integration one year ago.

Kurz announced that social workers would visit poorly integrated foreigners at home to help them learning German. He said the plan was to introduce an acclaimed Viennese project inspired by successful programmes in Australia and Switzerland across Austria shortly. The SPÖ-ÖVP government will subsidise the measure with 300,000 Euros, according to Kurz.

The integration secretary – who has done a good job so far in the opinion of 43 per cent, according to a poll – explained that social workers with migratory backgrounds would speak with immigrants in parks and on the street and hopefully agree on providing young mothers with bad German skills with learning materials for themselves and their children. The Greens generally welcomed the initiative.

An announcement by Kurz concerning forced marriages caused more controversy. In what is seen as an attempt to win over voters of Austria’s right-wing parties, the state secretary called forced marriages “criminal acts which must not be tolerated”. He explained that forced marriages were not a criminal offence under Austrian law at the moment if they were carried out abroad. Kurz criticised that regulations included consequences only for Austrians and people living in Austria if such marriages occurred within the country.

The integration secretary’s decision to introduce two-year free of charge kindergarten schemes in parts of Salzburg and Lower Austria follows a dispute between SPÖ Women’s Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek and Reinhold Mitterlehner, the ÖVP’s minister for family affairs and economy.

Heinisch-Hosek said kindergartens’ annual closure period could be slashed to two weeks. Mitterlehner said five weeks should be the limit. He said that other aspects such as the size of kindergarten groups must matter as well in upcoming kindergarten and school reform negotiations.