Transversal key competences in school-based VET in Austria

Current status and fields of development

Norbert Lachmayr, Judith Proinger

EU strategy papers on vocational education and training stress the importance of acquiring key competences in vocational education and training (VET). At the same time, the papers emphasise that there is still a considerable need for action in this area in order to establish these competences in the education system and make them visible. The article describes the current state of development in school-based VET in Austria. The focus is on transversal (i.e. interdisciplinary) key competences.

Key competences for lifelong learning

Competences have been at the centre of educational policy and scientific interest for quite some time. With the introduction of competence orientation in education, “key competences” have come to the fore. The EU understands key competences to be a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Their acquisition and lifelong development are seen as fundamental to enabling individuals to be more flexible in their personal, social and professional development and thus ensuring participation in society (cf. EU 2006). For that reason, eight competences have been identified as key competences, which are regarded as indicators of modern education systems.

The eight key competences for lifelong learning

  • Literacy competence
  • Multilingual competence
  • Mathematical competence and competence in science, technology and engineering
  • Digital competence
  • Personal, social and learning to learn competence
  • Citizenship competence
  • Entrepreneurship competence
  • Cultural awareness and expression competence

Source: Recommendation of the EU Council (EU 2018)

The New Skills Agenda for Europe adopted by the European Commission in 2016 also highlights the importance of key competences and calls, among other things, for their improved visibility, especially with regard to transversal key competences within the educational systems, as well as for improved training methods for transversal key competences in VET in and by the Member States (cf. European Commission 2016).

With reference to this, the article examines the question of how well transversal key competences are integrated into training programmes of the Austrian vocational training system and to what extent the acquisition of these competences within the framework of vocational training is assessed.

Major challenges with transversal key competences

In Austria, it transpires that there are major differences between the eight key competences in terms of assessment. While for three of the eight key competences – namely literacy competence, multilingual competence, and mathematical competence, i.e. those which can be directly linked to a single teaching subject – there are very clear assessment criteria and standardised assessment procedures within the framework of the Matura examination (cf. Tritscher-Archan/Petanovitsch 2016), the other key competences mentioned so far are less visible within the educational system. Key competences relating to more than one subject are usually not assessed specifically and in some cases not assessed at all (ibid.). This is not only the situation in Austria; both the systematic transfer and verifiable documentation of the acquisition of these transversal key competences is proving to be a major challenge in competence-oriented education systems. In accompanying analyses and in the current recommendation of the Council, the need for developments continues to be identified (cf. CEDEFOP 2010; EU 2018).

The Erasmus+ project TRACK-VET (cf. Information Box) refers to these key competences and defines transversal key competences as a subset of four of the eight key competences identified in the 2018 Council Recommendation: personal, social and learning competences, civic competences, entrepreneurship, and cultural awareness and expression.

The following section shows whether and how these transversal key competences are established in the system of school-based VET in Austria and how they are implemented in practice.

Erasmus+-Project TRACK-VET

In this project, the vocational training systems of various countries were examined in order to systematically present how and where transversal key competences are established and where fields of development can still be identified. The results of the country report for Austria are summarised here.

Further information on the ERASMUS+-project „TRACK-VET“ 2017-1-PL01-KA202-038732 can be found on the project website: www.track-vet.eu

Establishment of transversal key competences in the vocational training system

Over the past 15 years there have been many fundamental developments and reforms in the Austrian education system. Set in motion by the European recommendations, a competence-oriented approach began to gradually replace the input-oriented management that had previously been the norm. This required a wide range of innovations and developments in practically all areas of education – from legal regulations and teaching methods to evaluation and validation tools as well as teacher training. The visualisation of key competences in the VET school system – in terms of teaching, acquisition and assessment – are therefore central themes of recent years.

Transversal key competences have long been legally enshrined in the Austrian school system at various levels (cf. Eder/Hofmann 2012):

School Organisation Act (SchOG 1962, Schulorganisationsgesetz): This law designates education for “autonomous educational acquisition”, for “independent judgement” and “social understanding” as a task for all Austrian schools. Young people should be “open to the political and ideological thinking of others” and “enabled to take part in the economic and cultural life of Austria, Europe and the world, and to participate in the shared tasks of humanity in love of liberty and peace” (Section 2 SchOG 1962). This shows parallels to the transversal key competences mentioned above.

Teaching principles and educational concerns of the Ministry of Education: These define general and interdisciplinary tasks of the school which are to be taken into account in the teaching of all subjects in all types of schools. The following cross-curricular themes, which can be linked to transversal key competences, are currently being addressed: intercultural learning, civic education, economic education and consumer education, development policy education, European policy education, global learning, project teaching, social learning, and behaviour agreements.

In the course of competence orientation, a number of coordinated instruments were also implemented which integrate transversal key competences into the education system in different ways. Educational standards (BIST, Bildungsstandards): The development of educational standards since 2004 can be understood as the initial impulse for making competences systematically visible within the education system. Educational standards were defined for all educational transitions from one school type to another: for the 4th and 8th school levels (primary and lower secondary level), for general upper secondary education (12th school level) and for vocational upper secondary education (11th school level) as well as higher secondary education (13th school level, upper secondary level). In the field of VET, both general (for all types of schools) and occupation-specific (for certain types of schools) core competences and interdisciplinary (personal and social) core competences were defined in the form of “can-do statements”. Formulated at an average level, not at a threshold standard, the Austrian educational standards do not claim to be verifiable but do claim to create transparency concerning the indispensable goals and results of the respective educational programme (cf. BMBF 2015). Transversal key competences are integrated into the educational standards in the area of personal and social competences (e.g. lifelong learning, social participation, orientation on values). The area of entrepreneurial competence can be found in the cross-school educational standard “Entrepreneur examination” for secondary schools.

Curricula: As of 2008, the curricula of vocational schools have been revised and are now available in competence-oriented form for all school types. The educational objectives of the curricula and the didactic principles formulated therein include intercultural learning, integration and strengthening of self-actualization and personal responsibility as guidelines. The curricula also include learning outcomes at the programme level and at the subject level. References to transversal key competences can be found at both levels. In the curriculum of the secondary college for business administration, the compulsory subjects are divided into clusters in which subjects that complement each other in terms of content and subject matter are grouped together. The learning outcomes are formulated for each cluster, promoting an interdisciplinary approach. In addition, there is a specific cluster for “social competence and personality development” which focuses specifically on transversal key competences. Entrepreneurial competence is represented in a wide variety of ways in the curricula of vocational schools, e.g. in the competence areas of “business”, “accounting” or as a separate cluster “entrepreneurship” in secondary colleges for business administration.

Instruments for the implementation and assessment of transversal key competences

“Competence-oriented teaching” at VET schools is an initiative which puts the above-mentioned instruments “educational standards” and “curricula” into practice by establishing links between these instruments and providing suggestions for planning and developing them in class. Concrete teaching examples are used to demonstrate how specific educational standards can be addressed and how the acquisition of competences can be assessed. Addressing transversal competences takes place by specifically analysing and discussing social and personal competences. In addition, instruments for monitoring, describing and documenting competences in teaching are presented, such as the teacher logbook and a group assessment. This enables a transparent and systematic assessment of various competences using indicators including social competence, learning competence, moral and ethical competence and communication skills (cf. bmukk 2012). The newly designed teacher training and continuing education ensures that competence-oriented teaching is professionally implemented throughout the country.

Compulsory internships at vocational secondary schools and colleges: Internships are a central and compulsory element of training and serve to supplement and deepen knowledge and skills acquired in class. They must be completed within a defined period at a company outside of school education. Among the objectives are the acquisition of work values such as punctuality, reliability and responsibility, as well as the strengthening of social and communicative competence by dealing with superiors, colleagues, customers, learning to work in a team, and so on These are clearly related to transversal key competences, above all to social, personal and entrepreneurial competence. By means of mandatory work records, e.g. in the form of practice diaries or portfolios, learning processes are visualised and reflected upon, and learning outcomes are documented.

Partially standardised competence-oriented Matura examination: The partially standardised competence-oriented Matura examination at vocational secondary schools consists of three parts: 1) diploma thesis, presentation and discussion, 2) written examination, and 3) oral examination. The examination tasks within the subjects German, Mathematics and Living Foreign Languages are standardised and stipulated for high school graduates of the same school type. The examinations within other subjects are not standardised, and the diploma thesis and the oral examinations with competence-oriented tasks are also the responsibility of the teachers at the individual school. They may be standardised within the individual school. Clear references to the identification and assessment of transversal key competences, in particular in the area of “social and personal competences”, can be found in the “competence-oriented assessment of diploma theses in the secondary college for business administration”. The competence requirements and their assessment with regard to professional and transversal competences are transparently documented therein by means of an assessment grid*. Five fields of competence are assessed, in particular competences from the areas of communication, self-responsibility and learning and work behaviour, which are assigned to social and personal competences.

Conclusions for the current state of development

On the basis of the presented instruments it is clear that transversal key competences are firmly established in the Austrian VET system in many ways. Although not equally comprehensive for all competences, clear references to transversal key competences can be identified in the general educational goals and concrete objectives in the curricula and in the educational standards, in the teaching design and in assessment.

Ultimately, the weakest point might be the assessment of transversal key competences, especially when they cannot be attributed to a subject. Determining whether learners have acquired transversal key competences through teaching is based on regular performance assessments by teachers. There are no statistical data that allow statements about the (non-)existence of transversal key competences among upper secondary learners (cf. Tritscher-Archan/Petanovitsch 2016, p. 36). Eder/Hofmann (2012) attribute this in particular to the lack of obligation. Consequently, there is a need for explicit integration of the objectives into the performance assessment and appraisal system or some other form of accountability for their implementation. Otherwise there is no systematic assessment of the learning outcome (ibid. p. 74) for transversal key competences, unless they are explicitly associated with a school subject (e.g. Political Education). The assessment of performance is generally regulated in the School Teaching Act (SCHUG Sections 20 ff). It specifies what (curriculum), how (oral and written examinations, exercises, cooperation) and to what extent the examination must be carried out and how the results must be expressed in grades. The point of reference here is the teaching subject, thus it does not provide for interdisciplinary assessment and grading.

At the same time, it should be noted that while many important steps have been taken, competence-oriented teaching and assessment in the required systematic form are still relatively new. The system must not be overburdened here either. The long-term development process in practice has so far proven to be beneficial and promising, especially with regard to acceptance, in small but multifarious steps. There is no normative implementation strategy at national level; instead it is left to the schools within the framework of school autonomy. The action- and project-oriented and often interdisciplinary bottom-up approach offers potential for conscious, situation-specific, individual and locally supported implementation by those involved, e.g. by the young people participating in competitions or planning school activities themselves. The identification and evaluation of transversal key competences acquired in the process can focus on individual pupils; corresponding instruments are available (cf. Ghoneim/Gruber-Mücke/Grundschober 2017, p. 285).


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Dr., Project Manager at Austrian Institute for Vocational Education and Training Research (öibf), Vienna

Researcher at Austrian Institute for Vocational Education and Training Research (öibf), Vienna


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2019): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin