Language support in kindergartens
Learning the German language at a very early age is a key corner stone for a successful start to school. As places that provide early language support, kindergartens are therefore essential for sustained educational success. The Austrian Court of Audit (ACA) carried out an audit of "Early Language Support in Kindergartens“ – as examples in the provinces of Lower Austria and Upper Austria – and reveals numerous differences in its report published today. For example, the concepts for language skill promotion as well as the framework conditions differ in the audited provinces. The selection of this subject matter was also prompted in the framework of the ACA’s annual citizen engagement initiative. The audit essentially spanned the years from 2016 through 2019.
The language level of all children is to be ascertained
In order to improve equal opportunities for all children and to reduce the use of resources needed for the promotion of the German language in primary schools, it is in the interest of the Federal Government to reduce the number of children who do not have sufficient command of the German language when entering school. Since 2008 the Federal Government has provided to the provinces – in the framework of the agreements pursuant to Article 15a of the Federal Constitutional Law – special-purpose subsidies for the early promotion of the German language in kindergartens.
For the audited period, the agreements pursuant to Article 15a of the Federal Constitutional Law on “early language support” and “elementary education” were relevant. While the agreement on “early language support” did not specify at which child care facilities and at what age the language level of children was to be ascertained in a binding manner, the agreement on “elementary education” clarified the age of children: for children aged three and above, the language level was determined via a nationwide standardized instrument in “suitable elementary educational institutions” – i.e. in institutions where the half-day attendance obligation could be fulfilled and German language support was or could be provided. The auditors note that consequently not all children of the specified age were included in Lower Austria.
Furthermore they highlight that especially kindergartens with a high proportion of children who did not have German as a mother tongue faced great challenges with regard to early language support. However, the ACA emphasizes that also 16 per cent of children with German as their first language also were in need of language support. As regards future agreements pursuant to Article 15a of the Federal Constitutional Law, the Federal Ministry of Education should therefore ensure that the language level is bindingly ascertained for all children of the specified age.
Special-purpose subsidies are to effect measurable increases in quality
The agreement on “elementary education” provided special-purpose subsidies of at least between EUR 68 million and a maximum of EUR 95.38 million for early language support for the period of 2018/19 to 2021/22. The ACA notes that in the agreement on “elementary education”, the requirement to use the special-purpose federal subsidies for additional support to be provided for children in addition to the regular curriculum was omitted. As a result, it could not be ruled out that the funding of already existing measures would be replaced by the special-purpose subsidies.
The ACA furthermore points to the fact that the province of Lower Austria used the special-purpose subsidies for already existing measures. Consequently, Lower Austria covered already incurred expenditure with federal funds.
According to the auditors’ point of view, the special-purpose subsidies should in any case prompt measurable increases in quality and not replace already existing financing obligations. The ACA therefore recommends to the Federal Ministry of Education to tie future special-purpose subsidies for early language support to the condition of a measurable increase in quality.
Differing data concerning the transfer to primary school not plausible
Since April 2019, primary schools have been obliged to use the competence analysis instrument for the German language “MIKA-D” as a standardized test instrument to assess knowledge of the language of instruction. Until then, the Federal Ministry of Education had not issued any binding regulations to assess the level of the language of instruction. Through the use of “MIKA-D”, the school management was to determine the regular or special status of a pupil and, if necessary, assign him/her to a German language support class or a German language support course. The ACA considers the introduction of the standardized assessment instrument “MIKA-D” as positive since until then the school managements had carried out language level tests at their own discretion. The kindergarten teachers’ knowledge about the children’s language level, which they acquire over a longer period of at least one year, are hitherto not taken into account.
For the kindergarten years 2015/16 and 2017/18 respectively, both provinces – Lower Austria and Upper Austria – accounted for a substantially higher number of special-status pupils of the first grade of primary school than children in need of support at the end of the last year of kindergarten. At the end of the kindergarten year 2016/17, for example, the number of children in need of support was 362 in Lower Austria and 1,371 in Upper Austria. Compared to that, special-status pupils of the first grade of primary school accounted for 1,808 and 2,663 respectively in the school year 2017/18. The auditors critically note that the differing results regarding German language skills at the end of kindergarten and at the beginning of the first grade of primary school were not plausible and therefore not coherent. According to the ACA’s viewpoint, it should be possible to establish a correlation between the results.
In addition to the everyday support provided in the kindergartens to learn the German language, the provinces should take further measurable action for language promotion. For the audited period, the Federal Government had not issued any concrete specifications. Differences could be observed both as regards the design as well as the extent of language promotion as offered in the provinces of Lower Austria and Upper Austria. While German language support tended to be integrated into the children’s everyday lives in Lower Austria, Upper Austria put an increased focus on individual, systematic German language support in small groups. Only the frequency of language support was similar. The ACA therefore recommends to the Federal Ministry of Education to consider the further development of early language support in consultation with the provinces and further linguistic experts. The discussion should be initiated in order to agree on nationwide uniform criteria in early language support.
COVID-19 pandemic shines a stark light on differing framework conditions
In addition to extending their childcare services, kindergartens have evolved increasingly into educational institutions – in particular from 2008 on. In its report the ACA points to the differing framework conditions in the provinces – both for the kindergarten staff as well as for children and their families. These differences, such as opening times, regulations concerning group sizes, staffing or hygiene, e.g. the mandatory use of masks or the drop-off of children, have become especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ACA recommends to the Federal Ministry of Education and the provinces to review, under the umbrella of the advisory committee for elementary education – envisaged in the Government Programme 2020-2024 – the different framework conditions in order to support the further evolvement of kindergartens into educational institutions.
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Report: Early Language Support in Kindergartens (in German)
From November 2019 to February 2020, the ACA audited the early language support in kindergartens. The audit aimed at assessing the implementation of two agreements pursuant to Article 15a of the Federal Constitutional Law concluded between the Federal Government and the provinces on early language support in institutional childcare facilities for the kindergarten years 2015/16 to 2017/18 (agreement on early language support) and on elementary education for the kindergarten years 2018/19 to 2021/22 (agreement on elementary education). The audit was carried out at the responsible federal ministries and, as examples, in the provinces of Lower Austria and Upper Austria and in the municipality of Schwechat and the city of Wels. The audited period essentially spanned the years from 2016 through 2019.