Analysis: Czech amendment to education decree opens room for more segregation of schoolchildren
The Czech Education Ministry has sent an amendment to Decree No. 27/2016, Coll, "on the education of pupils with special educational needs and gifted pupils", to the official commenting procedure prior to deciding whether to adopt it. Should it be adopted, it will negatively influence the opportunity for children to access mainstream education, as it will become easier to recommend them for enrollment outside the mainstream - even if such enrollment will not be in their best interest.
The proposal is best characterized by its deletion of paragraph 1 from Section 19, which declares that educating all children in mainstream education is always considered to be the preferred option. Paragraph 1, as currently worded, means pupils will not be assigned to special needs classes until it is clear that it is not productive for them to remain in mainstream ones.
The ministry is defending its proposal for eliminating this reference to the preference for education in the mainstream by alleging that "the current decree duplicates the text of the Education Act." This, however, is very dubious: Paragraph 1 serves a methodological purpose and is of symbolic importance, as educational advisory facilities and schools work with this particular decree daily.
Moreover, the decree and the law itself do not say absolutely the same thing. While the decree, as currently worded, simply states this preference, in the Education Act the concept of this preference is only conditionally declared - the condition to be met is that "support measures are adequate" for such a pupil to be educated in a mainstream school.
The conditional wording of the law obviously leaves open room for educational advisory facilities to interpret what "adequate" means in various ways. The other currently-proposed changes to Section 19 are even further proof that the intention here is a conceptual reversal of the decree's original content, as they would re-facilitate the creation, in the special needs schools, of classes attended by children with different types of disabilities instead of requiring specific settings for each type.
If this change is adopted, the ministry will, among other things, be opening up the opportunity to educate children who have behavioral or learning disorders not in mainstream schools, but in the former "practical schools" (which were established to educate children with mild mental disability), a type of school which is currently suffering from a lack of pupils receiving the diagnoses necessary to facilitate their enrollment. On the other hand, the number of children diagnosed as having behavioral and learning disorders has recently undergone extreme growth, and according to the Czech School Inspectorate, there are currently more than 57 000 children with such disorders enrolled into mainstream primary schools and receiving the support they need in those settings.
Right now such children are predominantly being educated in mainstream settings because there is no doubt that most of them belong there. Just 3 % of them are in separate special needs classes at those schools.
The argument that children with behavioral or learning disorders disrupt other children and do not belong in mainstream schools does not hold water. These children belong in the mainstream because, among other reasons, the diagnosis of "disorder" can be given to children with very different kinds of individual needs, and the Czech schools should not be able to push all of these children to the fringes and separate them from children in mainstream settings.
The ministry must assume its role as the standard-setter here and aid schools and teachers with managing the increased burden that handling such diversity presents. However, it has long been ignoring that obligation.
"Increasing efficiency and relieving administrative burden"
The proposed amendment to the decree is justified by the ministry alleging there is a need to "increase the efficiency of the [special education] support measures system and reduce its administrative burden" - but for the most costly support measure in the system, that of providing a teaching assistant, this amendment does not achieve either of those aims. If adopted, it will mechanically decrease the numbers of such assistants in the mainstream schools across the board from a maximum of three per class to a maximum of one.
In its thematic report on this issue, the Czech School Inspectorate also warns that it is more important to methodologically address how to support these collaborations between teachers and their assistants so they can learn to work in tandem. The importance of assistance continues to be confirmed over time, and it is essential that schools be able to open an adequate number of these positions.
The ministry does not even keep statistics about the numbers of assistants and does not know how many classes are currently being served by more than one assistant. Therefore, before the ministry begins cutting these jobs, it should have a very detailed overview of the roles these assistants are gradually assuming in the schools so that those roles can be further defined and so it can be specified when assistant support is appropriate and to what extent, and when it can be said to no longer serve its purpose.
Such guidelines should then be given to the educational advisory facilities so they can work with them as binding principles. Speaking of such facilities, the ministry also says it wants to reduce the administrative burden of providing special needs education in mainstream schools by limiting the legally required, regular re-diagnoses of pupils with special educational needs.
There is no doubt that the educational advisory facilities (primarily the education psychology counseling centers) are facing a big demand for new assessments. Increasing their efficiency, however, will not be achieved through a simple limitation on the number and timing of mandatory re-diagnoses.
Let's remember that up to now, the pupils who have been most frequently re-examined are pupils with developmental learning disorders (55.8 %) and pupils with mental disability (16.4 %), and that more than one-quarter of these pupils have been assigned to special education classes thanks to recommendations from the advisory facilities. Re-diagnosis, therefore, is absolutely essential in these cases, as a new assessment can lead to recommendations for such pupils to be enrolled into mainstream classes with special education support, where they can integrate.
Integration into the mainstream is in the best interest of such children - it is just not possible to curtail that opportunity for them, or to postpone it by a year or two, without consequences arising that are not in their best interest. Speaking of support, another proposed change that the ministry considers key to saving on administrative costs is the elimination of the obligation to create a plan for the educational support of pupils at Level One of the support system, a plan that is proposed by the school itself, unlike the plans proposed for support at Levels 2 through 5.
This proposal, however, demonstrates a cardinal misunderstanding of the purpose of the current system. What might seem to be a minor aspect of these regulations is actually about how mainstream schools approach the children enrolled.
In the current system, the children in each class are not assumed to be a homogeneous group, but a mix of individuals whose abilities and backgrounds are diverse, and that diversity is anticipated to increase in the future. It is not easy, but teachers must reflect that reality in their approach to education.
It is through these plans of support for children who need more of an individual approach that the entire concept of education in the Czech Republic has been in the process of being reformed. Reports from the field demonstrate that teachers who have accepted this reform have adopted the Level One support plan task and praise it.
Creating a Level One plan makes it possible for educators to coordinate with all the other staff members contributing to the pupil's education and to record and assess the pupil's progress. Eliminating the obligation to process the development, use and assessment of these plans will have a negative impact on children and will send the message to the rest of the education system that Level One support is basically not that important.
It has been three years since the Education Act was amended to promote the education of as many children as possible in the mainstream and since Decree 27 subsequently took effect, so what would be appropriate now would be a serious assessment of these innovations and a proposal for adjustments based on such an assessment - not adjustments that will undermine the system, but ones that will refine it. The ministry has such data available to it from, among other sources, the Czech School Inspectorate, but for some incomprehensible reason authorities are ignoring that information and planning instead to conceptually redesign the education of children with special educational needs in a way that will not benefit them.
The author is the director of the Institute for Social Inclusion.
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