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This project was set up more than 10 years ago to reintegrate students who refused to go to school. Since 2007, the programme has focused solely on students who suffer from school phobia, anxiety disorders or depression. The programme is unique in Austria and is publicly funded.
Schlangenfuß is aimed at students between the ages of 11 and 15 who suffer from school phobia, anxiety disorders or depression. Most students join the programme in grade 6 or 7 and come from secondary modern schools or Neue Mittelschule. They have a long history of problems and school absenteeism (some staying at home for up to a year) before they come to Schlangenfuß. Students who take part in the programme would not be capable of receiving a school leaving certificate in a regular school. A clinical diagnosis of school phobia is prerequisite for participation in the programme, and all students are undergoing treatment. Most students come from middle class or lower class backgrounds. 43% are male, 57% are female, and only a few have a migration background. There is no systematic policy process for the monitoring of school phobia, so little is known about the extent of the problem. Vienna General Hospital (AKH) reports an increase in the number of young people who suffer from school phobia.
The teachers are very committed and conscientious when it comes to dealing with hard to reach students. If necessary, they will even pick students up from home just to get them into school. Teachers also accompany those students who are afraid of using public transport.
There are also some students who are not in a condition to participate in Schlangenfuß. These students need clinical care and can then participate in the programme.
Key features of the provision and institutional setting
One of the key aims of the project is the social reintegration of students through approaches to teaching which foster their social skills and the development of their self-esteem. Experience based teaching plays a large role in this, because it reduces anxiety disorders. Another key aim is to help students achieve mainstream qualifications. This in turn is ensured by using secondary modern school curriculum. In order to avoid stigmatization, the certificates do not indicate any details on the project. It is therefore not obvious that the students have participated in the Schlangenfuß programme.
Schlangenfuß cooperates closely with all parties (persons/institutions) involved in a case, e.g. parents, medical professionals, psychiatric hospitals, youth and family services (MA 11), psychologists and therapists, job coaches and other experts.
As already mentioned, a secondary modern school curriculum is used within the project. The students study the core subjects (German, Mathematics and English) three times a week. Minor subjects are taught on a project oriented basis and teachers focus more on themes which meet the everyday life and experience world of the students. There is a strong focus on pedagogic methods which meet the students’ needs, e.g. constructivist pedagogy, project-oriented learning, experiential pedagogy, open learning methods and individualisation.
The small group sizes (2 groups with about 6 students and 2 teachers) facilitate individual support and attention to each student. Further the students receive any kind of professional support they need, e.g. therapeutic support, students are picked by teachers at their homes and so on.
In the final school year, a career counsellor prepares the students for the transition into working life by providing them with one-to-one support once a week. This support includes writing job applications, practicing job interviews and visiting potential employers.
Key success factors
Students appreciate the individual approach achieved through the small group sizes and the close relationships to their teachers. The students receive full attention from their teachers and are given as much time as they need to understand the material. Teachers concentrate on a student’s individual strengths. The courses are project oriented and include elements of experiential pedagogy like group activities outside the formal learning environment (e.g. cooking for each other or outdoor activities like climbing) aimed at raising self-esteem. They feel less under pressure than they did in their former schools and experience less stress in exams. They are highly committed in school, a fact that is reflected in the high attendance rates, low dropout rates, and — in the words of one student — sense of “family-like” atmosphere. For these reasons, learner satisfaction can be considered high.
The close cooperation between Schlangenfuß and all other parties involved in a case - especially the relationship to the parents - ensures that students receive any professional support they need, e.g. therapy. The career counselling is a further key success factor, because it prepares students well for the transition into upper secondary schooling or work. The monitoring data reflects these key success factors: 76% of students graduated successfully from the programme, while 24% left the project early.
Of the students who graduated from the programme, 22% went on to an upper secondary school, 32% started an apprenticeship and 22% participated in further courses and training.
Perspectives on transferability
With regard to transferability, there are some key elements which could be adopted in initial schools: The first such element is inter-professionalism, which is one of the key success factors in Schlangenfuß. An interdisciplinary team of experts needs to be established in schools, assume responsibility for at risk students and work closely on the different cases. The work of this team should include team meetings, supervisions, interventions and close cooperation with external experts. A close, professional relationship between the parents and the school is also essential. In some cases, home visits could even be very useful.
The next element is the professionalization of teachers. Teachers need to be sensitised to the topic, reflect their own attitudes towards students who suffer from school phobia and be able to respond to their problems. The development of these abilities, attitudes and competencies is essential and should be acquired through education and training.
Some structural conditions need to be improved to accommodate the intensive relationship work (a key success factor). One such condition is a reduction in class size, which Schlangenfuß experience shows to be highly relevant. Team based teaching, which has already been implemented in the Neue Mittelschule schools should also be fostered. These changes require additional financial, spatial and personnel resources.
Source: information is based on European Union (2013). Preventing early school leaving in Europe – lessons learned from second chance education.
Annex One:Case Study Compendium.
https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b167b394-3c12-4125-8811-78479c457acd/language-en/format-PDF/source-70238824; additional information is derived from an interview conducted by Educational Sciences Group, Vienna University of Economics and Business in May 2018: