Kate Lapham: School should be a place where children learn how to live in society as citizens, to treat each other with respect, and to solve problems
Interview with Kate Lapham, senior Program Manager, Open Society Education Support Program
First I would like to ask you about whether there are any interesting projects in Europe that we could see as successful examples of integration under challenging circumstances?
There has been a great experience in Northern Ireland around the integration of Catholic and Protestant students. The aim is to put these two groups of students, who had previously been experiencing or still are experiencing the impacts of the conflict there within their own family, into the same school environment so they can learn together and also live together again.
The most successful example of that is being managed by the Integrated Education Fund, which started as a parents´ association in Northern Ireland and grew into a network of integrated schools. In addition to including Catholics and Protestants, these schools are also more inclusive of children with disabilities than many other schools.
It is a very nice example of how a program that starts from parents wanting access to education for their children can turn into something that builds peace, and then becomes inclusive of people who didn´t even think they would be initially accepted into these schools.
And what about projects in Central Europe? What interesting, successful projects do you support?
We provide support for Roma parents´ groups and Roma-led NGOs to work together with schools in order to include children from Roma communities in mainstream schools.
For example, in Slovakia the Roma settlements are often located outside of the town limits, but the schools are in town. There is additional work there not only to support openness among the teachers, but also among the parents and the entire family groups that attend these schools.
One of our supported organizations is EduRoma, which has been successful in bringing communities together by recruiting university students as volunteer s to organize extra-curricular activities for the kids in mixed groups, making school more interesting for them. They may also mentor students who struggle academically.
Are you satisfied with the outcomes of these projects?
For me, good outcomes are not always “educational” in terms of improved test scores - a good outcome for me is that these children make friends with each other, they participate in these activities, and all of the kids in the school feel that somebody cares about them, they have hope and believes they can succeed in the school. That outcome certainly exists in the schools which will continue to participate in this program. Of course, academics are important, too, and there is evidence that all children learn as well or better in diverse, inclusive environments.
What do you think about the current situation in the Czech Republic? Are we on the right track or what else can be done?
The changes to the School Act are very positive and are a very good legislative foundation for the provision of the support services in mainstream schools for all children. It also seems the pilot programs allowing the schools to hire additional staff like special educational teachers or psychologists are also a very positive step, although I understand these are pilot programs that have been funded for three years only and then the ministry will have to renew the funding for the schools to continue to keep these people in these posts. That, I think, is the key decision point, because it is important that the schools have access to this specialized expertise if they are going to be effective in providing quality education to all children.
I´d like to also ask you about the issue of data collection. What do you think about that? Is it correct to collect data disaggregated by ethnicity?
The question whether it´s correct to collect such data rests within the community participating in the data collection. I absolutely understand the sensitivity in Eastern Europe to identifying ethnicity and if people are not comfortable with having that information collected, then I think we have to respect that.
That does not mean there is no other way to understand the disparities in the education system. The government of the Czech Republic has invested a great deal into testing and assessment and so should have the capacity to be measuring achievements at the district level, the school level and the student level. That is one way to see in which geographic areas the schools are stronger or weaker, or in what particular subject area, or in which age groups, so that we can direct our support into those districts and areas.
Should the state do more to inform the public or schools of the need for such data, the use of it? It seems like this issue is often misinterpreted in the Czech Republic.
It´s absolutely important that the school principals and teachers understand the importance of having good data. It is also important that they themselves are able to make use of the data collected in the education system.
What do you think we can do to change the attitude of professionals and the general public towards inclusion?
I think there is always a lot of fear in the first stages of inclusion, it comes from teachers who don´t know how to teach some students, and from parents who either fear that their children will be bullied or their learning process will be slowed down by having somebody else in the class.
In the US and Canada we see parents who prefer to send their kids to inclusive schools because usually the atmosphere is better there, the kids are happier, those schools have good teachers, they have better resources than other schools, and the end result of the process, if it is well managed, can benefit all children in the school.
I think this is one of the strongest arguments we can make for treating teachers as the professionals that they are. It is much more complicated to work in a very child-centered, inclusive class than it is to work in a more teacher-centered classroom focusing on filling out worksheets or memorizing, but at the end of the day, child-centered work is what makes the teaching more fulfilling.
However, it would be a good idea if the Czech Republic would bring teachers´ salaries up to the OECD average.
What can the civil society do to help speed up the process of successful inclusion of Roma pupils into mainstream education?
I think we can work in partnership with the Ministry of Education to connect them with good examples from other countries. We need to partner with them in advocating with schools and regional governments. On the other hand, civil society should also hold the government accountable for keeping the promises they have made.
There is also a very powerful force in civil society that can bring together those teachers, school principals and parents who are already working toward inclusive education so that they can learn from each other and most importantly, they can demonstrate to other schools that successful inclusion is possible in the Czech Republic.
For me, inclusive education really brings the focus to what I consider the higher purpose of education. There is a certain minimum goal, to make sure that everyone leaves school able to read and write and solve mathematical equations so they can go on and find employment in the labor market, and that is important, but beyond that, it´s important that the school becomes a place where children learn to live in our society as citizens, where they learn to treat each other with respect, where they learn to create communities even as our societies become more diverse. When they enter the adult world, they can either be lost at sea, or they can be ready to solve problems, thanks to the support from adults they get during all their years in school.
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