VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s conservative People’s Party wants children who do not speak “sufficient” German to take compulsory language classes as a condition for being allowed to attend school, party leader Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa have arrived in Austria in the past two years. Their integration has become an important political topic and Kurz, whose party is the junior partner in a coalition government with the Social Democrats, has gained in popularity because of his hard stance on immigration.
Though his proposal ostensibly applies to all children, public debate has centred around those from migrant backgrounds, most of whom are currently placed at school according to age.
They receive separate language lessons but some teachers have said that this is not enough to integrate them.
“One can only follow the curriculum if one’s German is good enough,” Kurz said at a news conference in Salzburg, where he presented his party’s education programme for parliamentary elections on Oct. 15.
“Who starts at school needs to understand the teaching language,” the party chief said, echoing demands from the far-right Freedom Party.
While Austria’s three main parties agree in general that changes in its education system are needed to successfully integrate newcomers, the Social Democrats oppose the introduction of compulsory German classes.
But just like Kurz, the centre-left party wants to introduce a second obligatory nursery year to promote the children’s language and cultural competencies and to hire more teachers.
The 31-year-old Kurz on Wednesday also called for extending the obligation to attend school until the age of 18 to make sure everyone gets the necessary qualification for the job market.
Austria currently has a nine year compulsory education, which normally starts with the age of six.
“A new definition is needed of what one must have learned to leave school,” Kurz said. “One who leaves school without these basic competencies, will not have a chance on Austria’s job market.”
Kurz’s People’s Party has led opinion polls since he took over as its chief in May at around 33 percent. The Freedom Party and Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats have around 25 percent each.
Austria’s system of proportional representation will likely lead to another coalition government. A coalition of the SPO and OVP has held power since 2006 but is unpopular because it failed to agree much needed reforms. This increases the Freedom Party’s chances of entering the new government in Autumn, political analysts say.
Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Ralph Boulton