Amnesty International: How are the Czech schools educating Romani children?
Amnesty International Czech Republic issued the following press release on 1 September to mark the start of the new school year:
Unequal access to education by Romani children in the Czech education system has been a long-term problem. There are three ways in which this access is unequal, the first of which is the overrepresentation of Romani children in the so-called "practical schools", which are designed for pupils with "mild mental disability".
The second inequality involves the outright exclusion of Roma from mainstream classes and schools, and the third involves teachers taking different approaches toward the Romani pupils who do attend mainstream schools than they take toward everybody else, including frequent reports of racially-motivated bullying and ostracism by non-Romani pupils and even open prejudices against Roma expressed by some teachers. Will the new legislation that has now taken effect introduce change?
The situation to date
Amnesty International (AI) and other organizations have ascertained that Romani children are routinely recommended for enrollment into schools designed for pupils with "mild mental disability", educational facilities whose offerings are curtailed. Almost 30 % of the pupils in these schools are Romani despite the fact that the Romani minority in the Czech Republic comprises less than 3 % of the population.
One such pupil, Andrej, was recommended for enrollment into a "practical school" in the fifth grade. The reason was the poor grades he earned after moving to the Czech Republic from Slovakia.
When AI performed its research on this issue last year, the 15-year-old said he did not understand why he had been sent to a school designed for pupils with mental disability. "In the practical schools they turn us into idiots," he said.
"It's actually very easy here [at 'practical school']," Andrej told AI. "The instruction is slower and I really do not believe that I will qualify for a good high school after I graduate from here."
Segregation in mainstream education
Romani children are also afflicted by segregation within mainstream education. They frequently end up either in all-Romani schools, or attend schools that seem to be "mixed", but teach all Roma together in a separate building or classroom.
The Czech state has so far been unable to arrange support for an education system that can tap into the educational potential of each child, and that includes the state's inability to prevent racially-motivated bullying. This approach based on prejudices and stereotypes means Romani children who do attend mainstream schools (i.e., not just segregated, all-Romani classes/schools or "practical" classes/schools) frequently experience being treated differently from everybody else by their non-Romani classmates and teachers.
Romani children are usually not provided support for their language learning even though Czech is a second language for many of them. Thanks to the introducton of inclusion this year, these children should now enjoy equal access to education, a principle that is anchored in the Czech legal system.
One Romani pupil, Karel, described his experiences to AI as follows: "My little sister Jana and I were the only Romani children at our school. I believed it was a good school, but then the others began to bully us, mainly Jana. They pushed her around, called her a 'black mug', told her she didn't know anything and that she looked repulsive... and she became afraid to go to school. We told the principal, but she wouldn't listen to us... Our grades began to suffer and they all began to treat us worse and to tell everybody that we were dirty and stank. The teachers used to complain that Jana did not belong at the school...".
The discrimination against and segregation of Romani children in the Czech Republic has been condemned by many domestic and international organizations and by other states. It represents a clear violation of both Czech and European laws and international human rights standards.
Entire generations of Romani people have been denied equal access to a quality education, which bolsters their social exclusion and other inequalities. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in the D.H. case in 2007 that the Czech Government was violating the rights of Romani children by discriminating against their free access to education.
Previous efforts by the Czech state to resolve this problem have been half-hearted, unsystematic, and of limited impact. Such an outcome has been caused by insufficient ambitions, indifference to monitoring the problem, and underfinancing - and what has been determinative is that prejudices against Romani children have never been recognized and resolved directly as the core issue.
In September 2014, in response to this problem, the European Commission initiated an infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for violating EU legal regulations on anti-discrimination (the Race Equality Directive). Should the Czech Government not manage to institute the necessary measures, the European Commission could sue the Czech Republic before the European Court of Justice.
The work of Amnesty International
Since 2006, Amnesty International (AI) has been monitoring and studying the degree to which Romani children's right to education has been upheld in the Czech Republic. The organization has published two extensive reports on the issue: Five More Years of Injustice (with the European Roma Rights Centre in 2012) and Must Try Harder - Ethnic Discrimination of Romani Children in Czech Schools (April 2015).
The publishing of last year's report also began AI's international campaign to end the ethnic discrimination of Romani children in the Czech schools. That campaign urged the Czech Government to stop the discrimination against and segregation of Romani children in the Czech schools.
An international petition on the issue was signed by 38 334 people from 94 countries worldwide including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and others. The petition took the form of a report card and was delivered to the Czech Government by AI representatives, Romani children and their parents at the Czech Education Ministry on 31 August 2015, just before the beginning of the new school year.
Facts and numbers
Romani people comprise anywhere between 1.4 - 2.8 % of the population of the Czech Republic. However, 32 % of the children educated at schools for those with "mild mental disability" are Romani.
Just 30 % of Romani people aged 20-24 have completed secondary education in the Czech Republic. That proportion for the non-Romani population of the Czech Republic is 82 %.
Infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic and changes adopted
In September 2014 the European Commission began its infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for violating human rights because of the disproportionate representation of Romani children in classes and schools designed for pupils with "mild mental disability". After the proceedings began with respect to the Czech state's failure to meet its human rights obligations, the Government promised extensive reforms (compared to previous ones) and an acceleration and expansion of their effectiveness.
Thanks to the efforts of the current Education Minister, the legislative changes known as the Schools Act Amendment have been adopted and took effect on 1 September. Inclusive education, therefore, is about to become a tangible reality for all children in the Czech Republic.
The reform package involves introducing support meausres for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools, instituting a mandatory year of preschool for all pupils, and requiring the integration of pupils with special educational needs into mainstream education programs. That means the special curriculum that existed for pupils with "mild mental disability" has been abolished.
Step in the right direction
From categorizing children to categorizing their educational needs
Amnesty International (AI) welcomes these measures. AI also welcomes the fact that the Czech authorities have demonstrated serious interest in combating the problem of the discrimination against and segregation of Romani children in education.
If these measures do manage to be introduced across the board, then the ending of the special educational program for children with "mild mental disability" offers the prospect of significant progress toward achieving the aim of providing an integrated education to all children irrespective of their differences in the Czech Republic. If successful, these changes will have removed one of the filters used in the past for excluding Romani children from mainstream education.
The abolition of the education program for pupils with "mild mental disability" is of essential significance. The new regulations, however, do still count on the option of educating pupils in separate classes or even separate schools if the mainstream schools are unable to meet their needs.
Nonprofit organizations are demanding that the Czech Education Minister make sure there are safeguards in place in the schools to prevent the segregation of pupils on an ethnic or any other basis, including the prevention of bullying. One component of this reform must also be an effective system for monitoring data about equal access to education.
"The Czech Government should no longer allow small children to pay the price of prejudice"
One of the 18 Romani schoolchildren in Ostrava who sued the Czech Republic in the year 2000 in the D.H. case with the support of the European Roma Rights Centre over the unequal access of Romani children to education is named Julek, and today he is a field social worker. "I don't want any other children to be made to experience what I had to live through being moved from a mainstream school into a 'special' school and then back again... ending my basic education in the seventh grade... and hearing teachers say things like 'Sit there by the window and be quiet, you'll never amount to anything anyway...'," Julek told AI recently.
"The Education Ministry must now do a good job of warding off the discrimination of children by skin color in the schools. Each school should have at least one Romani assistant to aid with informing Romani parents about their children's education and with building up trust and communications. The Czech Government should no longer allow small children to pay the price of prejudice," Julek said.
AI hopes these measures and reforms will operate with sufficient support to make sure the schools integrate and support those Romani pupils who do grapple with difficulties in mainstream classes. It is still necessary to address the reasons leading to the enrollment of Romani children into the "practical schools", such as teachers' negative attitudes toward Romani people, chronic lack of financing for supporting Romani children, or the prejudices that many Romani children face from non-Romani pupils in the mainstream schools.
"Finally, a decade after the Czech Republic was proven to have systematically failed to provide equal access to education for Romani children, the Czech state is taking its first actual steps toward providing inclusive, quality education for all children," said Mark Martin, director of Amnesty International Czech Republic. "The Czech section of Amnesty International applauds this progress."
"Such a significant systemic change will take a long time, of that there is no doubt, and at times it certainly will also be a complex process, but we must persist and make sure that these intentions are transformed into reality so that the right to education will be enjoyed by all irrespective of ethnicity or race," Martin said. Amnesty International and other nonprofit organizations throughout Europe will continue to follow this situation and its developments in detail.
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