Michaela Marksová-Tominová: The strange Czech practice of "inclusion"
I am very involved in advocating for inclusive education in the Czech school system. For a year and a half I had the opportunity to work at the Education Ministry as the director of its Equal Opportunities in Education Department, which was involved in introducing inclusive education and collaborating on transforming the special - or rather, today the "practical" - schools. I will use the original name, "special schools", in this piece, even though that name is no longer used in practice, because that term corresponds best to what these schools still are in reality.
I don't intend to defend inclusive education as beneficial to all of society, since others are writing about that. Instead, I want to share some impressions with you of the difficult process of getting inclusion started.
Observations from the ministry
From the very start, a real war has been waged in this country regarding inclusion. The Equal Opportunities Department was established by Czech Education Minister Liška, and the department hung on by tooth and nail once he was no longer minister, but pressure to close it was constantly felt. The infamous Czech Education Minister Dobeš, of course, reduced the department as one of his first actions (and one day prior to a scheduled audit). Minister Dobeš evidently had a clear opinion about inclusion, and he definitely was not alone. This resulted in putting the brakes on the process of transformation, if not outright stopping it, and it will take many more years of work to restart it.
The Czech approach: Practically "special"
I did not lose interest in the education of Romani children after leaving the ministry and I participate in a wide variety of events on this topic whenever possible. This year, at the start of the year, I had the opportunity to compare two very different approaches to the education of children from so-called "culturally and socially disadvantaging environments." These differing approaches made an enormous impression on me, one that has stayed with me all these months later.
The first event was a seminar in the lower house of the Czech Parliament. I counted about 80 participants there, men and women. The meeting was organized by a group of women MPs from the Education Committee, from across the political spectrum, and it was convened because of a freshly-adopted Government document called the "Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion", or rather, because of the section of that document on education.
The vast majority of the people invited to the meeting were educators, male and female, from the "special schools". Altogether there were only six people there whose opinions differed from those of the educators: The Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner, the Director of the Agency for Social Inclusion (who had submitted the Strategy to the Government), and representatives of the NGOs People in Need, the Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education, and the League of Human Rights. Each of us in this minority group had basically invited ourselves to the seminar.
Two things stood out to me the most about the whole event: First, the lumping of various sorts of children into one group, from autistic children, to children with sensory disabilities, to "our" Romani children from disadvantaged environments, with perpetually repeated arguments made as if the explanations of inclusion given by the "other side" had never been heard. The second thing which startled me most of all was the unbelievable aggression, the hateful speeches, and the openly racist positions occupied at certain points by the loudest participants, male and female, from the special schools. These are the same people who meet disadvantaged Romani children and their parents every day. They are the very people who educate those children.
As far as "comparing apples and oranges" goes: It is evidently the set tactic of this group to argue against the closing of the "special schools" by mentioning the plight of children who would not in fact be affected by such closures. The parents of children with autism, or of children with sensory disabilities, reportedly must have the right to choose whether their children will attend specialized schools or integrate into ordinary schools - but no one has ever talked about closing the specialized schools that these particular children attend.
The key problem here is that those who are termed "lightly mentally disabled" essentially cannot be identified prior to starting primary school, so the existence of first grade classes in the "special schools" is definitely a crime against the children enrolled in them. At the same time, if such a diagnosis is really established in a responsible way (which means it has not been confused with a child's "sociocultural disadvantage"), the question then remains why such children cannot be educated in mainstream primary schools – after all, they just have a "light" disability.
In the end, there are many examples of the good practice of inclusion in the Czech Republic, but people from schools with that experience were obviously not invited to the parliamentary seminar. Many teachers at the seminar spoke of cases in which children with disabilities had been "forcibly included" into mainstream schools, had lagged greatly behind their peers there for several years, and had never felt good in their class as a result. After being reassigned to a "special school", those same students reportedly made enormous, rapid progress and were just fine, because they were "with their own kind".
I believe these stories. They do not surprise me. Nevertheless, the conclusion I draw from them is not that the "special schools" must be preserved. Rather, these stories show us that if we want to close the "special schools", it cannot be done without big reforms to mainstream primary schools, and that special needs educators from the "special schools" must transfer to working in mainstream environments, among other changes. This has been explained at many meetings, but people only hear what they want to hear.
The second problem, which I personally have had a hard time facing, was the high degree of aggression that is displayed by the special needs educators. For example, I found it unbelievable that most of those attending the seminar, male or female, held the same negative position on the idea that when children come from families where education is not a priority and attention is not paid to them, then it is the school (and ideally the nursery school) that has the power (and in my opinion, the responsibility) to cultivate a positive relationship toward learning in those children. Instead of discussing how best to reach out to socially excluded Romani families and awaken their trust, I only heard aggressive remarks such as "this is exclusively a family matter", "we keep giving them things, so they have to do something too", etc. - and the people speaking this way were genuinely, sincerely scandalized by such ideas. Unless the approach of these teachers changes (and it is all the same whether such a special needs educator is working at a "special school" or a mainstream one), it will continue to be difficult to advocate for the concept of inclusive education in this country.
The British approach: Practical and human
About 14 days after the parliamentary seminar, another one was convened by the Embassy of Great Britain. A group of teachers from several British schools (and their directors) came to the Czech Republic to share their experiences in instructing Romani children who have emigrated to Britain from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The group held a series of talks with many teachers throughout the entire Czech Republic. The conditions in which they teach cannot be compared to ours in one main aspect: Their schools were located in towns with a high degree of unemployment (the Ústí Region in this country is heading that way) and with many immigrant groups from all over the world in the population. At each school there are children with dozens (!) of different native languages, children who come to England during their school-age years with zero knowledge of English, often from very different cultural environments.
A basic precondition for success is that these schools do their best to behave in the friendliest possible way toward not only these children, but also their parents, winning their trust. At the seminar, the obligatory question was asked: "Here Romani parents don't send their children do school, what do you do about that there?" The school director answered: "Yes, that happened with new families in the beginning. So I personally started to visit them and invite them to school in the morning. Then we introduced breakfast at school, so the children come even earlier, have a good breakfast, and look forward to a pleasant start to the day. Now when a new family arrives, we don't have any problems with attendance - members of the community tell one another how it works and that one must go to school."
The whole meeting was conducted in that spirit. It is a shame that those who spoke in such fiery language in the Czech lower house against any extra support for socially disadvantaged Romani families, as if such a thing would be criminal, did not also attend the British seminar to hear about this approach.
Hope for the future
Current Czech Education Minister Fiala has only been in office a short time. Given his professional focus on higher education, it is clear that the education of Romani children will not be a priority for him, or that he will first have to familiarize himself with the problem at the very least. On the other hand, there are no indications that he might succumb to the pressures from those who have furiously prevented reforms to the "special schools" so far. Because the rule applies that the more educated people there are, the better off we all will be, I believe the Czech Education Ministry will start actively supporting inclusive education once more.
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