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Small School Closures in Rural Areas—The Beginning or the End of a Downward Spiral? Some Evidence from Austria

Abstract

School closures in rural areas are especially relevant because schools are assumed to fulfil not only educational but also social functions for the local community. Critics of school closures maintain that the closure of the last local school might induce an overall negative development of the affected municipality. This article explores the demographic, economic, and, social trends in Austrian municipalities where at least one primary school was closed down. Two groups of municipalities are compared: those that had lost their last school and those that still had a school left within their municipal borders but closed a local village school. Altogether, eleven municipalities in four Austrian regions were included in the study. The results show that the municipalities follow different coping strategies concerning the former school building: those with no school left tended to retain ownership, whereas those with still one municipal school open were inclined to sell the former school building(s). However both groups tried to find ways to preserve the public character of the building. The demographic and economic trends following the school closure differ. In most of the municipalities, the decrease in the number of inhabitants was due mainly to outmigration rather than to falling numbers of births. Economic developments did not reflect the downward movement in the population but improved in most municipalities of the sample. Finally, the analyses show that a high proportion working in the agricultural sector, especially in remote areas, seems to have a positive impact on the demographic and economic trends in the municipality and mitigates possible negative effects of school closure.

Keywords

  • Primary schools
  • School closures
  • Declining infrastructure
  • Rural development
  • Austria

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Fig. 11.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Burgenland restricted the minimum number for schools to 10 pupils in 1995; Carinthia legalized the installments of „Expositurklassen“ in 2001, meaning that the administrative and management tasks are carried out by the nearest school to which it is connected in order to enable the maintenance of schools as long as possible. At the same time the construction of „Bildungszentren“ (educational centres) has been supported, but not on a strategic level like in South Tyrol, Italy (Hofer and Watschinger 2013). Lower Austria, Salzburg, Tyrol and Vorarlberg have made no changes in their education policy.

  2. 2.

    The Federal State is responsible for supplying and paying the teaching staff, although they can claim most of the money for salaries from the state government.

  3. 3.

    This includes the responsibility for the maintenance of the school building and for the covering of the running costs. In the case of a general refurbishment, the Federal State provides financial support.

  4. 4.

    In Austria, more than half of the municipalities have less than 2000 inhabitants, so there is a close contact between mayor/municipal council and the population.

  5. 5.

    Forsythe (1983) presented similar results for Scotland.

  6. 6.

    More evidence for the “quantification of politics” with regard to demographic decline and educational infrastructure can be found in Bartl (2016) and Bartl and Sackmann (2016).

  7. 7.

    Oncescu (2014), in her research focusing on the closure process of the last small school in Limerick (Saskatchewan, Canada), a small community of approximately 150 inhabitants, found that the opposite is also possible. There, the community’s resilience and feeling of solidarity was strengthened by the fight to keep the school open—an insight which Hanhart et al. (1990, 1991a, b, c, d) also observed in some of the communities they studied. In both studies, the size of the communities was very small, so that close and strong ties within the population could be expected and would explain these findings.

  8. 8.

    This includes married couples with children, cohabiting couples with children, and single-parent families.

  9. 9.

    Information from a telephone conversation with Thomas Haider of Statistics Austria on June 27, 2016.

  10. 10.

    Such festivities as St. Martin’s, Krippenspiel, Carnival, or the end-of-year party.

  11. 11.

    Google Streetview™ was used to find out how the former school building is currently being used. This not only raises ethical issues (covert observation as method) but also questions of accuracy: how can we be sure that the former school buildings are now being used as private residences and not for other purposes as well?

  12. 12.

    A quick analysis on demand conducted by Mr. Norbert Neuwirth from the Austrian Institute for Family Studies shows that professional farmers (aged 15–65) have on average 1.8 children in comparison to 1.3 children in the rest of the population (figures are rounded). The calculations are based on the census data of 2011 from Statistics Austria. Unfortunately no scientific literature could be found on the topic.

  13. 13.

    More information under https://www.gd-vs.ch.

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Kroismayr, S. (2019). Small School Closures in Rural Areas—The Beginning or the End of a Downward Spiral? Some Evidence from Austria. In: Anson, J., Bartl, W., Kulczycki, A. (eds) Studies in the Sociology of Population. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-94869-0_11

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