School Autonomy in Austria Has Developed a Status Hierarchy of Schools

According to a study of school autonomy in Austria, it has resulted in more competition between schools, created greater opportunities for student selection by favoured schools and led to more social differentiation between schools. This finding is similar to many previous studies of the impact of more school autonomy.

The study shows that competition between schools for ‘better’ students has deepened an already socially segmented school system between the four-year Hauptschule (lower ‘practical’ secondary school) and the eight-year Gymnasium (a traditional academic secondary school). Status hierarchies have developed within both types of schools. Mostly Hauptschulen compete with other Hauptschulen and Gymnasiums compete with other Gymnasiums.

Greater school autonomy in Austria began to be implemented in 1993-94 and has gone through several phases. The basic idea was to devolve a range of decisions from higher administrative levels to the individual school in order to enable school-based management and development. The policy was meant to motivate and stimulate schools to be more adaptive to quickly changing social conditions, to be more responsive to the wishes and needs of their local constituencies.

A focus of the change was to give schools more control over the curriculum. Within limits subjects could be amalgamated, abolished and new subjects could be devised. In the subsequent years additional decision-making powers were given to schools regarding time of schooling, internal organization, budgets and personnel.

Greater control over curriculum was used by schools to develop specific in-school curricula and, based on them, what is called ‘school profiles’. These ‘school profiles’ were usually packages of specific curricular elements plus some additional features (such as extra-curricular learning opportunities, special features with respect to school culture and specific services). By developing their ‘profile’ individual schools tried to make themselves visible and attractive for special target groups of students and parents, and thereby attract more students.

The study found that these policies have made competition a much more important feature of the Austrian school system. Developing special ‘school profiles’ is a central instrument by which schools compete. Resources are partially dependent on competitive behaviour: active student recruitment is necessary if schools want to sustain their level of student numbers and, in a consequence, their numbers of staff, their curricular breadth and even – in more extreme cases – the existence of their school.

Sustaining and increasing the numbers of student recruitment is the central indicator for success in the competition between schools. Success in recruiting large student numbers opens up the chance to select among applicants. This chance is used to select ‘good’ students (as measured by the criteria of academic performance and social background). Entrance tests are being used by both Hauptschulen and Gymnasiums. Increasing the number of ‘good’ students is seen as success and fosters a good image of the school.

The quest of schools to compete and recruit as many ‘good’ students as possible has seen concerns about social selection decline. Selectivity in access to a school is considered as an ‘indication of quality’ in public opinion. It is an important image factor which boosts the status and attractiveness of a school.

The study says that the overall result is that choice opportunities for students and parents have been turned into selection opportunities for schools. The development of school profiles and the selection processes within and between schools result in greater differentiation and a hierarchy of school status in the school system.

The status hierarchy regulates the distribution of students between schools. It produces less attractive schools (‘rest schools’) and these must accept students who have been turned down by more successful schools.

Another new feature is increased differentiation of classes within schools. School profiles are being used to build new status hierarchies between classes within schools which produce less attractive profiles of ‘rest classes’ (classes of leftovers). Larger schools usually offer three different ‘profiles’ which are not equally attractive.

Academic secondary schools (which are entitled to select their applicants according to their performance in primary schools) use their recruitment surplus to fill classes without special curriculum profiles or with less attractive profiles. A similar process has also extended to Hauptschulen. The study found that:

Competition, selection and hierarchization between schools and classes work together to exclude specific student groups from ‘attractive’ profiles. Particularly students with problematic educational careers and most in need for support find themselves placed in ‘rest classes’ which are characterised by unfavourable learning climates. [p. 688]


These findings indicate that development of school profiles may lead to a problematic concentration of students with unfavourable learning conditions in ‘regular classes’ within schools but also in specific ‘regular schools’ which cannot compete with schools with more attractive ‘profiles’. In such ‘rest classes’ and ‘rest schools’ students, with less inclination to go to school and with more need for support, experience more often unfavourable learning environments and less carefully devised learning situations. [pp. 689-690]

The study found that the new regime of school autonomy and competition between schools has increased demands on in-school management. However, there has been little structural change with respect to school leadership and management. The result is a ‘new unclarity’ for teachers and principals facing a growing number of reference points to be attended to in their daily actions and decisions.

Trevor Cobbold

Herbert Altrichter, Martin Heinrich & Katharina Soukup-Altrichter (2014). School decentralization as a process of differentiation, hierarchization and selection, Journal of Education Policy, 29 (5): 675-699.

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