1. Background information: Brief History of Citizenship Education
In the early 20th century, when in Austria the general right to vote was introduced for men, a formal introduction to political studies for citizens, called Bürgerkunde, was established. The goal was to create a positive attitude towards the existing social and political system. Primarily, information about the political system and related institutions was imparted.
The time between the wars – and, of course, the two World Wars themselves – were not conducive to the development of a system of democratic education. On the contrary, a lack of identification with the Austrian state as well as authoritarian developments and the dictatorship made schools the procurers of legitimation for whomever was in power.
A radical re-orientation in Citizenship Education after World War II was short-lived and the 1928 curriculum was reinstated basically unchanged. A Decree on Civic Education in 1949 focused on an education that promoted conscious ‘Austrianness’.
A quarter of a century later, in 1974, the Austrian Education Ministry considered introducing a new compulsory school subject in the final years of secondary schools: Citizenship Education; but the bill failed in parliament. As a compromise, Citizenship Education was established as a cross-curricular theme. After long negotiations between the various stakeholders, a Decree on Citizenship Education in Schools was finally signed in 1978.
An important stimulus for Citizenship Education was the reduction of the active voting age to 16 in 2007. A broad coalition demanded more Citizenship Education from an earlier age. All pupils and students were to be prepared for responsible political participation during their compulsory schooling. In the school year 2008/09, the reformed subject History and Social Studies/Citizenship Education for the 8th grade entered into force. The new curriculum also introduced competence orientation.
Since 2018, the implementation of the 2017 Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competencies for Democratic Culture (RFCDC) has been in progress through various means. In February 2019, the NECE (Networking European Citizenship Education Conference) focus group on the RFCDC started its work. The group is led by ‘polis’ – the Austrian Centre for Citizenship Education in Schools – in cooperation with the DARE Network (Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe).
2. Definitions of Citizenship Education
The Decree on Citizenship Education in Schools specifies a framework for the content and didactics of formal education. It starts from a very wide definition of politics. According to the Austrian Ministry of Education, Citizenship Education comprises human rights education and is closely related to similar educational principles and cross-curricular themes such as media education.
'Citizenship Education is a precondition for individual development as well as the development of society as a whole. It actively contributes to shaping society and to putting democracy into practice; it addresses the problem of what makes society recognize government and authority as legitimate. In a democracy, free appointment, control and impeachability of the governing by the governed serve to legitimate government and authority. Citizenship Education is committed to this conception of democracy. The more this notion of democracy is embedded at all levels of society, the more successfully democratic government systems will work and the better society will be able to organise itself according to the concept of democracy.'
Important reference points for Citizenship Education are international documents such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Council of Europe’s Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education
In non-formal education, definitions and particularly the degree of importance given to sub-areas vary from one organisation to another. An example is the definition applied by the Austrian Society for Citizenship Education (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Politische Bildung, ÖGPB) founded in 1977: it defines Citizenship Education as the imparting of knowledge, skills and insights in socio-political, economic, ecological and international correlations and contexts. Awareness is built in accordance with the principles of the Austrian Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The motivation for a responsible participation in society takes the different viewpoints of a pluralistic society and the aims of gender mainstreaming
In the German language, the term Politische Bildung is used, which literally translates as ‘political education’.
3. Non-formal Citizenship Education
The landscape of non-formal education is very diverse. It comprises areas like the extra-curricular education of young people in youth centres, traditional institutions of adult education (e.g. community colleges) and the umbrella organisation for Citizenship Education mentioned above as well as party academies and various NPOs. Some providers of Citizenship Education are also international organisations (some having their seat in Austria)
The Advocacy Group for Citizenship Education (Interessensgemeinschaft Politische Bildung, IGPB, founded in 2009) sees itself as a nonpartisan platform for linking institutions and people active in Citizenship Education and advocates the improvement and deepening of Citizenship Education measures – in schools and outside schools.
4. Legal Environment
A special initiative has made it possible to provide text books free of charge since 1972.
There also is a federal law on the promotion of Citizenship Education and publishing which lays down rules on how political parties are to promote Citizenship education.
When coming into office, every government issues a programme detailing its current and future plans. In its programme for 2020 to 2024, the Austrian Federal Government, for example, stated its intention to ‘Making the EU come alive’: the aim is for all 15- to 20-year olds to travel to Brussels for a few days and get to know the EU institutions.
In the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, a department responsible for some cross-curricular themes is supporting schools and teacher-training institutes in implementing Citizenship Education. To this end, it uses an external service provider called ‘Zentrum polis’ – Politik Lernen in der Schule (Learning about politics in school).
The Austrian parliament also regards conveying a basic knowledge about politics as one of its basic responsibilities: the aim is to allow children and young people to experience democracy.
All activities by the Ministry of Education are carried out in cooperation with civil society organisations in Austria and abroad. This cooperation can either be directly with the target groups or in collaboration with third organizations. Important umbrella organisations are the Austrian Federal Youth Representation
The biggest target group for formal Citizenship Education are pupils and students. They are represented by their statutory pupil/student representations. Their federal umbrella organisation advocates strengthening Citizenship Education.
Teachers in Austria are trained at university colleges of teacher education
As education increasingly is subject to economic considerations, as disenchantment with politics rises and resources generally become scarcer, a negative impact on the successful development of Citizenship Education becomes more probable.
The players in Citizenship Education work hard to improve its general conditions. What mainly needs to be done is to bridge the gap between the theory of the generally posited importance of Citizenship Education and the realities of its implementation.
A big challenge is the professionalization of teachers since Austrian teacher-training lacks study programmes for teaching Citizenship Education in its own right. It is no coincidence that the IGPB, in 2010, chose this issue as the subject of its first annual conference and has addressed it repeatedly in its position papers.
In the future, the particularities of Citizenship Education in the digital age probably should be given more consideration as well: the range of fields to be tackled includes aspects of media literacy and distance learning. In this regard, the comprehensive Digital Citizenship Education concept of the Council of Europe offers guidance for the acquisition of competences for actively participating in digital society.
Citizenship Education has a European and a global dimension. In order to meet the goals of European and Global Citizenship Education, more international cooperation – as for example under the NECE umbrella – is imperative.
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