Higher penalties are possible, says Schmied

The education ministry has said it could imagine upping charges for truancy.

People’s Party (ÖVP) Integration Secretary Sebastian Kurz announced yesterday (Mon) the families of pupils who were caught skipping lessons should face higher penalties. Kurz told radio Ö1 that the maximum charge of 220 Euros was too low in his opinion. He claimed that intensified financial pressure might turn out to be an effective measure to lower the number of truants.

Kurz also pointed out that it would be “stupid” to assume that tough fines were the perfect solution and the only possible way to tackle the problem. He said an increase of the highest-possible fine should come into effect as part of a package of measures. Kurz said truants should receive more advice. The integration secretary said the offenders’ parents had to be invited for chats by schools more frequently.

The state secretary’s appeal to jack up the fine for serious breaches of education law followed news that there were 75,000 NEETs in Austria. The abbreviation stands for people aged between 16 and 24 who are neither in education nor employment of some kind. While education experts said higher fines could only be considered as a last resort, Social Democratic (SPÖ) Education Minister Claudia Schmied signalled her intention to debate an increase of the maximum penalty. She said today the charge could be upped since it had been unchanged for more than 25 years.

Schmied also warned that families must not be threatened in their existence by higher fines as studies show that many of the truanting students come from poor families. Kurz decided to speak out in favour of more stringent sanctions and other reforms after a survey showed that 40 per cent of truants were migrants. The study was carried out by the Johannes Kepler University of Linz (JKU) and the Upper Austrian department of the Labour Chamber (AKOÖ).

Education experts told Austrian newspapers today that reacting to the trend with nothing but high fines would not improve the situation. They pointed out that many working class parents had no time or sufficient determination to deal with their kids’ problems at school. Some experts on immigration underlined that people with a migratory background often lacked understanding for why their children must attend afternoon courses instead of looking after their younger siblings.

Sociologists said considering the various aspects of the problem was of great importance. They explained there would be no change for the better if unmotivated teenagers were forced to return to lessons without being informed about possible future opportunities. The federal education ministry found in 2007 that half the country’s residents aged between 12 and 16 were skipping lessons now and then. Another 12 per cent did so on a regular basis, according to the survey. The increasing pressure to perform, fears, conflicts with peers and pressure by friends who fail to turn up for school are some of the manifold factors which lead to truancy, the ministry said.

SPÖ and ÖVP agree to keep focusing on a project which allowed young Austrians who left school early to sit final exams. The government hopes that the 55-million-Euro programme helps securing youngsters’ chances on the labour market as businesspeople deplore deteriorating level of trainees’ basic skills and general knowledge. Around eight per cent of children leave school after nine years, the lowest possible period under Austrian law. The European Union’s (EU) educational guidelines encourage member countries to ensure that this ratio does not surpass 10 per cent.