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October 27, 2016
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Analysis: Czech tabloid launches campaign against inclusive education

20.3.2016 18:30
The tabloid daily Blesk in the Czech Republic is against inclusive education. This article is headlined
The tabloid daily Blesk in the Czech Republic is against inclusive education. This article is headlined "Who rolls with [Czech Education Minister] Valachová?"

The Czech tabloid Blesk launched a campaign against inclusive education several weeks ago. It began by spending a week depicting inclusive education to its readers by way of clichés, lies and myths about the destruction of the Czech school system.

The stark assessments of Blesk's reporters and Editor-in-Chief were punctuated with "expertise" from experienced psychologists and teachers - experts who incline to the view that inclusion will harm all pupils, whether they are gifted,"handicapped" or ordinary, that it will destroy teachers, and that it will liquidate what they believe is a functional special school system. Essentially, nothing of what has been written about inclusive education in Blesk is true (and here in this format I will not break down in detail why that is - please see my previous blog posts and commentaries for that).

In the format of a brief comment (which is all Blesk's articles ever are) it is not at all possible to seriously describe inclusion in the schools Be that as it may, as a result of its tabloid "massage" of at least a quarter of a million people (that's how many copies Blesk sells daily) the paper has now asked its readers what their beliefs are about inclusion.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloid has learned that nine out of 10 people in a sample of 2 000 are of the opinion that educating children who are disadvantaged together with those who are not disadvantaged will harm everyone. Then, at long last, Blesk announced its official campaign to "Stop Harmful Inclusion".

Now the tabloid is continuing with personal attacks on those who are aiding with explaining inclusion and introducing it in the Czech Republic (full disclosure: I am among those whom Blesk is discrediting in its pages). In addition to fully exploiting tabloid methods, Blesk has passed yet another milestone, one that is very significant and should not be easily crossed in a democracy with a free and independent media - it is leading an actual campaign.

No one knows why Blesk is waging this battle, or in whose interest. All we can do is speculate on the basis of the facts.

Campaign marks Blesk's total ethical failure

One way or another, this is ethically unacceptable. Irrespective of the fact that Blesk is a tabloid, it is still a news daily that should provide balanced, objective information and the opinions of the members of its editorial board or other writers should be expressed in commentaries and interviews.

Currently, not only is Blesk's news reporting contaminated with opinion, but the paper is even actively launching the dissemination of such opinions through a campaign. Even though it has hit a few bumps in the road, the tabloid has kept this up for several weeks now.

It's as if everything that came before this moment wasn't enough, as if Blesk, through its campaign, wants to say:  News reporting is not enough for our usual partisans, now we must incite our readers to active resistance. For those who are curious, Blesk does not, of course, publish what its own code of ethics is, but it does vaguely describes that code on its website.

That description literally states the following:  "Ethical behavior comes first in the work of a journalist", and "Employees following the code of ethics shall ensure their credibility and journalistic honor is maintained." In the case of this campaign, beginning with the Editor-in-Chief, they simply are doing no such thing.

This transition to a campaign is achieving something that suits those who are actively resisting inclusive education - such as, for example, Czech President Miloš Zeman or the Association of Special Educators (whose representatives are frequently quoted in Blesk), or Deputy Education Minister Stanislav Štech. The divided camps FOR and AGAINST inclusion are being incited against each other even more, their positions are becoming harsher, and soon no one will be left in the center ground with all of the still open, unanswered questions that await an actual, rational answer.

No one who is not a partisan will be able to aid anyone else with orienting themselves in this matter. For parents and teachers most of all, that means this is hell.

What is this about?

Each of these actors is after something else, but in this campaign they are allies. Zeman, for example, is not primarily concerned about inclusion, but just needs to divide people against each other and bait them - including on the public square - against one another, whether the issue is that of educating children living with disabilities or other disadvantages or refugees from Syria.

In this exacerbated situation, he collects the votes of the fearful and plays the role of their protector - despite the fact that he is the one is who frightening them so much as to terrorize them. As for the Association of Special Educators (and not only them), they are after something else.

The leadership of that association has long frightened its members (and not just them) by saying that pushing for inclusion will mean there is no longer a place for them in the schools. In contravention of more than 10 years of inclusive education being practiced in dozens or even hundreds of schools, they are creating the impression that inclusion cannot work, does not work, and that pushing for it will just burden already over-burdened and under-financed teachers.

Pupils' problems in the Czech schools are viewed by this Association not as a result of the system inaccurately assessing pupils' capacities and then using educational methods that are inappropriate for helping them achieve their maximum potential. Rather, any problems are just viewed as the failure of the pupil.

That is why the Association has designed and is promoting a new educational program for pupils "failing the curriculum" whereby, on the basis of this expertly-measured failure, they are planning to hold these pupils back in a second-class educational program. They are striving to preserve the status quo in school financing, which currently provides twice as much funding, or even more than that, per pupil if a pupil is being educated outside of the mainstream primary educational program, i.e., according to the still-applicable appendix on the education of children with "mild mental disability", most frequently in the so-called "practical" primary schools.

At this point it is necessary to repeat, again and again, that "practical" schools are NOT the equivalent of special schools for children with an IQ below 50 - in other words, for children with moderate to severe mental disability, whose position in the school system is not being doubted by anyone. Special schools are an essential component of the Czech education system and will continue to be in accordance with the amendment to the Schools Act that takes effect this fall.

What the Association is directly saying (and what Zeman is stating indirectly) is that the value of an education is measured by the grades a pupil gets on his or her report card, by how much we manage to stuff into the pupil's head. This view neglects aspects that are much more emphasized by the school systems in other countries that regularly succeed, more than the Czech one does, when it comes to measuring pupil competence, according to the international Program for Individual Student Assessment (PISA) - namely, the ability to identify, classify and critically evaluate information, to actively participate in social and political affairs, and also to display respect in an increasingly diverse world of difference, teaching pupils not to be afraid of differences, but to use them for the benefit of the collective and for their own personal benefit as well.

A school must fulfill the function of child-rearing much more, in addition to the educational function, and that is being demonstrated more and more as we come face-to-face with bullying in the schools, teachers' loss of authority, and the decline of elementary tolerance among children as part of their blunt orientation toward personal gain. The basic values that children take into their adult lives are created not just in their families, but are created in equal measure in the schools.

What the collectives of our pupils look like today is what Czech society will look like in 20 years. What is happening in the school, what the children are doing today, is what they will be doing in 20 years in both their personal and professional lives.

The main brake on the development of the schools is inside the ministry

A particular role in this entire affair is being played by Deputy Education Minister Štech, an opponent of inclusion as was witnessed last year during the discussion of the amendment to the Schools Act by the Education Committee of the Czech lower house. During that discussion, Štech harshly and heartlessly attacked anyone explaining or supporting inclusion.

Today that same person is the right-hand man of an Education Minister who naturally supports the amendment to the Schools Act, even though she did not design it, but who paradoxically frequently sends Štech or the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Education, Jana Zapletalová, to key negotiations about it. Zapletalová has served in different positions at the ministry and aided Jiří Pilař, the director of a key department years ago who now chairs the Association of Special Educators today, with building the system of separate education for children with mild mental disabilities that is being maintained in the Czech Republic, essentially the only one in all of Europe.

For her part, Education Minister Valachová is insisting that the current law applies and is doing her best to defend and explain it. She also keeps adding that the additional costs the amendment will incur as of September must be allocated for by the Finance Ministry.

Although that is hardly feasible, it is quite logical, especially when we realize how extremely underfunded Czech education is in comparison not only with the European average, but also with the international OECD average, for example. In this sense, we need to support the minister, because the Czech schools will continue to be under-financed if they are to develop, attract elite teachers into the public schools, and aid the current ones to deal with the increasingly greater demands being placed on education - demands that do not primarily consist of introducing inclusion at all, but are much more about an overall change to the methods of instruction and the aims of education, as described above.

Thousands of teachers throughout the country have not waited for the ministry to instruct them in how to do this, but have begun on their own (frequently with support from nonprofit organizations and experts from abroad and at home) to make these preparations, and not just for inclusion - but that fact is absolutely hidden under the weight of the Czech media's current presentation of the amendment to the Schools Act, inclusive education, and other topics. This is not just about money, though.

This is about the very preparations for the start of the amendment's provisions this fall. Teachers and the rest of the public need to be assured that the ministry and the other levels of the education system know what they are doing in that regard.

They are not receiving that assurance - and this is not just the fault of the ministry per se particularly, but is precisely the fault of some very specific individuals. For example, the above-mentioned Zapletalová was tasked with preparing (using European funds) a key catalog of support measures, one that was supposed to be the main guide for psychologists and teachers working with children who need some sort of individual support.

A very high-quality catalog was ultimately produced for the ministry by the People in Need NGO and Palacký University in Olomouc, together with the Association of Special Education Center Staffers and the Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education, but Zapletalová, instead of smoothly introducing the catalog into practice, invented an absurd model of two catalogs - one for teachers, and the other ("hers") for the psychologists who work in the centers that assess children. By so doing she is blocking the publication of a document that is of vital importance, according to which it will be possible, with a high degree of accuracy, to estimate the cost of the new system for financing education, which not only needs to be given a certain amount of funding from the state budget, but also needs to be made much more fair than it is today.

I am in shock as I watch the ceaseless, subversive activity of the Association of Special Education (which is sometimes represented by Pilař and sometimes by someone else) which, instead of aiding with the implementation of the amendment on inclusive education this fall after it was supported by 180 out of 186 Members of Parliament (!), Senators, and ultimately even the President (?) more than a year ago, are casting doubt on the amendment and misinterpreting it. These experts, as they like to call themselves, should be the first ones to aid educators with preparing responsibly for these changes, which in the case of the members of their own Association will be very important.

Why is Blesk doing this?

How much do they know about the amendment to the Schools Act on inclusive education at the tabloid Blesk? Do they even know what the innovative or new provisions of the law are actually changing?

Have Blesk's journalists ever even seen the catalog of support measures that is being blocked - have they even read it? If they don't know the context of the last 25 years of development in the education system of the Czech Republic, during which a significant milestone was finally passed in the form of individual support for pupils who need it, then how dare they unleash, counter to all ethical principles, this campaign "against harmful inclusion"?

There are no answers available to these questions, just as there is no answer to an even more disturbing one:  Is it possible that Blesk's campaign was created not just in the heads of its own editors, but also in the heads of others who are not members of the editorial team? This destructive resistance to inclusive education or to this amendment to the Schools Act (which has become identified with it) is one where every one loses - children, parents, teachers, and the whole of our society.

Martin Šimáček is the former director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion.

Martin Šimáček, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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