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Anna Šabatová: Everyone in the Czech Republic should go to school together

Prague, 26.6.2012 19:44, (ROMEA)
Anna Šabatová

In Romano hangos no. 4 this past May, an article was published entitled "The 'special' schools: What the Strasbourg judgment has led us to" („Zvláštní“ školy: k čemu nás přivedl rozsudek ze Štrasburku) by Czech MP Milada Emmerová (Czech Social Democrats - ČSSD). This piece by MUDr. Emmerová not only displays real ignorance, it contains both naive reflections and dangerous prejudices. MUDr. Emmerová ignores the findings of international research and examples of good practice at the systemic level and at individual schools (including Czech ones) which have convincingly demonstrated for more than 10 years that education can be both inter-communal and very effective at the same time, and that the most successful systems are precisely those that delay dividing up the population by academic performance until the last possible moment, for example, after the age of 16. In her article, MUDr. Emmerová reproduces some of the ideological standpoints shared by members of the lay and professional public who are now stubbornly opposing measures to eliminate discrimination against Romani children in their access to education, openly playing the role of "yes-man" with respect to enrolling Romani children into the "practical" elementary schools.

To illustrate, the following is a citation of a paragraph from that article in which almost every sentence is disputable: "Reform that would abolish the 'specialized' elementary schools and the 'practical' elementary schools, which serve not only to foster the education and handiness of the children enrolled in them, but also their socialization, raises questions. These schools protect children's psyches against the destruction of healthy self-confidence that would occur should they be enrolled without any discussion into a majority-society school, where they cannot receive as much attention or care. In such schools, the majority-society stream will overwhelm them and they will only achieve their aims with difficulty. They have the right to everything, but they don't all have the capacity! (…) After all, even at the other end of the Gaussian distribution in any group evaluated in the so-called normal schools there will be super-gifted children, and they could, after being evaluated (I repeat, only if their parents are interested), be enrolled into classes or schools where their education would be broader, deeper and faster. We wish them all the best..., but we don't envy them. That kind of system would be completely accommodating. It would make it possible for most children in a so-called normal school to graduate from standard instruction without any problems - without slowing down the instruction process for the most gifted, and without inducing unnecessary inferiority complexes for the less capable and less gifted."

To start with, let's recall what the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment actually said in 2007, since MUDr. Emmerová has mentioned it in the title of her text, and let's recall some important milestones in developments since then. The Grand Chamber of the ECtHR ruled that the Czech Republic had violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which became binding here on 18 March 1992, specifically, its Article 14 (the prohibition on discrimination) and Article 2, Protocol 1 (the right to education), by permitting the disproportionate, frequent enrollment of Romani children into the "special" schools (today called the "practical" schools). The court said that the state of affairs introduced by these processes is one of indirect discrimination of Romani children in their access to education. These schools are intended for children with light mental disability, they use a reduced curriculum, and they do not provide an education equivalent to that of a mainstream elementary school. This means the employment opportunities of a pupil who attends such a "special" school will be more restricted than the opportunities enjoyed by graduates of mainstream education. The effect of this judgment is not merely the compensation paid to the individual plaintiffs; the Czech Government also is responsible for adopting systemic measures to eliminate the discriminatory enrollment of Romani children into the "special" (today mostly the "practical") schools.

The Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (Ministerstvo školství mládeže a tělovýchovy - MŠMT), in response to this judgment, supported research which has confirmed that Romani children are truly much more frequently enrolled into the "practical" schools than non-Romani children are (26.7 % of Romani children vs. 2.17 % of non-Romani children). Of the overall number of all pupils in schools where instruction is performed according to a program for children with light mental disability, 35.32 % of them are Romani. In the first level (grades 1 - 3), almost 40 % of them are Romani (39.52 %). The ministry, therefore, has confirmed that the current state of affairs truly is resulting in indirect discrimination. Another research project entitled "Analysis of individualized approaches taken by educators toward pupils with special educational needs", commissioned by the MŠMT, also showed that most elementary schools are not prepared to accept pupils with special educational needs as envisioned by the Schools Act, and also warned of the ignorant prejudices held by some educators and the pro-segregation pressure exerted by parents. The unsatisfactory situation with respect to the enrollment of Romani children into these schools has also been confirmed by investigations conducted by the Czech School Inspectorate and the ombudsman.

Under Czech Education Minister Ondřej Liška, the ministry, in collaboration with dozens of experts, developed the National Action Plan for Inclusive Education (Národní akční plán inkluzivního vzdělávání), which should create conditions for the successful education of everyone, i.e., Romani children also, at mainstream schools. This plan is also complemented by the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion (Strategie boje proti sociálnímu vyloučení) in the area of education, which proposes measures to eliminate disadvantaging, discriminatory factors in Romani-inhabited localities and particularly emphasizes enhancing the openness and quality of instruction in the elementary schools. In the medium term, the Strategy counts on transforming this parallel system for educating children with light mental disabilities so that the resulting state of affairs will facilitate the education of all children in mainstream schools. .

Dozens of experts contributed to the development of both the National Action Plan and the Strategy for the Fight against Exclusion. The cabinet of Czech PM Petr Nečas, unfortunately, is not implementing these documents. After Czech Education Minister Dobeš took office, efforts to integrate the schools were completely halted.

In such a situation, MUDr. Emmerová has now contributed musings that do not even respect the fundamental constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination. She suggests the "practical" schools be preserved so that children's psyches can be protected from the destruction of healthy self-esteem that would inevitably occur should they attend majority-society schools. It's better for them in the "practical" schools, she says, because they won't be stressed out, and also because they will not hold back the instruction process for more gifted children in the "normal schools". She claims that Romani children have do rights, but that they are incapable of being educated in an elementary school. Milada Emmerová fears the collapse of the "existing school system", which she considers "good when implemented reasonably."

I protest this on principle. A system which excludes more than 25 % of all Romani children and arranges separate schools with a reduced educational program for them is not, never was, and cannot ever be a good one. A system in which pupils' achievements have deteriorated over the past 10 years, achieving a record low in international comparisons, also cannot be considered a good one. This segregating system was created over the course of decades and has left tens of thousands of wasted opportunities in its wake, talents which could never develop because they were never given the opportunity. Let's also realize that this system has significantly impacted the unenviable position of Romani people in Czech society today. Since MUDr. Emmerová mentions Gaussian distribution, she should also know that gifted children are distributed equivalently in all populations. "Clever" vs. "stupid" nations do not exist. She is confusing the effects of disadvantage for children's actual intellects. Romani children are on average just as clever and gifted as non-Romani children, but as a result of centuries of exclusion, grudges, oppression and prejudice, they have never enjoyed the same starting conditions as non-Romani children have.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights documents, however, oblige the Czech Government to eliminate this inequality, to take measures that will facilitate, for all children, the development of all of their potential, and thereby to fulfill their rights including the right to education. We all are obliged to assist these efforts, not to thwart them with superficial musings dating from the first half of the 20th century.

The key to addressing the problem we are grappling with does not lie in the "imperfect" children, but in the school system. Let's do everything we can so that every mainstream, normal elementary school can accept and educate all children, so that they all feel safe in the schools, so that they all know they are included, so that they experience the feeling that they matter. This is the only way they will all develop healthy self-confidence, be motivated to discover the world around them, and get along well with others.

Anna Šabatová teaches at the Department of Social Work, Philosophy Faculty, Charles University in Prague. She is the chair of the Czech Social Democratic Party's Expert Commission for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and the Family and is also chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee.

This article was originally published in Romano hangos no. 6/2012

Gwendolyn Albert, Anna Šabatová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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