Commentary: Are the Czech schools at risk of chaos next year? Experts, teachers doubt schools are prepared for inclusion
The "special schools" will be closed and all of the children in them will move into unprepared "normal" schools where there will not be enough teaching assistants, materials or teachers. Chaos will reign, children, parents and teachers will be dissatisfied.
Only then will people begin to listen to those who warned against a rash "inclusion at any price". What used to seem to many advocates of inclusion to be a hoax - an hysterical scenario being painted by the advocates of the previous social order - is beginning to at least partially appear to be an actual possibility.
The problem is that as of next school year an "inclusive" amendment to the Schools Act will take effect - but the Education Ministry has said almost nothing about what the transition to educating all children together will look like, what it will require from the principals of the normal and "special schools", what kind of support schools will actually receive, and how much money will be available. There are many unanswered questions.
They must be working on it
"The amendment was adopted in the spring - it's October, but has anything happened in the interim?" asked Tomáš Feřtek of the EDUin organization at a recent discussion on the issue between experts and teachers. "Is an itinerary prepared for transitioning to this new system, do principals know what they have to do?"
Klára Laurenčíková, who not only leads the Czech Expert Society for Inclusive Education but is also on the Education Minister's advisory committee, responded to that question as follows: "I don't know. They must be working on it."
She went on to say that "It is essential to design and explain the mechanisms for financial support to the schools. The process for diagnosing children must be re-established. Clear instructions must be given to the 'practical primary schools' (the 'special schools'). Naturally it would be appropriate for there to be a ministerial campaign targeting municipalities and Regional Authorities, i.e., the school founders."
When asked by Feřtek "how much the transition to inclusion will cost", she said: "I don't have any idea what the most recent official numbers are." They must be working on that too, though.
In other words, even members of the minister's Advisory Board don't have any information. Neither do the experts outside the ministry, or the school principals, or the teachers.
Can inclusion work?
What is supposed to happen as of next school year? "Inclusion", thanks to the constant repetition of this term and the various interpretations of it, is becoming a difficult-to-understand incantation.
Let's try to simplify it: This is about as many children learning together as possible and about schools being able to include children with a diverse range of disabilities without encountering any problems in acquiring the necessary financing and professional support for them. Right now schools that want to accept children with special needs are running into what are primarily financial barriers - they do not have the money to pay for psychologists, specialists, and teaching assistants.
They are seeking money from various grants and subsidies, only able to predict what will happen for the next year at the most, and smaller schools especially have no chance to find the money for this in their own budgets. Some schools do not even want such children.
The ideal, simplified notion of inclusion, therefore, is that when schools won't have a problem with finding money to pay for assistants, psychologists, special educators and special equipment, or to divide up overflowing classes, they will not be opposed to inclusion. The entire process will have a chance at finally rapidly getting underway.
Certainly there are more factors at play here, but on this basis it could actually work - schools that are already intellectually prepared for inclusion today are glad to grasp these new opportunities and the rest will come under greater pressure to attempt this as well. It is another matter entirely whether the schools will actually receive these chances at all.
What is really going to happen?
As we have already noted, only a very narrow circle of enlightened persons have any idea how this will work next year. The rest can only imagine.
It is not, for example, clear what will happen with the "special schools". Simply put, today children are being taught in these schools according to reduced curricula (the Mild Mental Disability Appendix), there are fewer of them in each class, they are taught by special needs educators, and the schools receive special financial support for them.
This Appendix, of course, will be abolished by next year, and the "special" schools are to become "normal" ones. For decades this is something that the critics of Czech schools have been wishing for, but nevertheless even they today are uncertain, because they do not know how this change will be achieved.
If a "special" school becomes a "normal" one, it will probably lose the above-average financial support it has enjoyed to date, and the special educators, according to the law adopted last year, will not have the qualifications necessary to teach, for example, Czech or math at a normal school. The principal of a "special school" should, therefore, consider diversifying the school's faculty or rapidly finding some kind of subsidy, because the small number of children now enrolled there will not keep "the school" afloat - or the principal must attract new children, which is not likely to work, because such a school will not be considered a "good address" by most parents.
The principals, however, do not know what they have to do now or will have to do in future. The ministry has told them nothing.
Such a school, therefore, might just collapse. Even the "normal" schools are coping with similar problems: When will it be clear what the situation is with the financial support?
Will they actually be able to afford to accept disabled pupils? The law is one thing and the implementing regulations and concrete mechanisms are another.
Schools do not know when those detailed provisions will be ready. It might seem that the beginning of the next school year is far away, but enrollment into first grade for the fall of 2016 begins in January.
Will something happen?
Skepticism and uncertainty were clearly expressed recently by several panelists at the recent discussion of these issues. When asked by news server Romea.cz whether anyone actually believed that as of next year something will begin to essentially change, the principal of the J. Guth-Jarkovsky Primary and Secondary School in Prague answered as follows: "I very much wish that will be the case, but I am concerned that it will not come to pass. The first of September will not produce a breakthrough. We will have to wait a long time for the implementing regulations, and then we will seek 'Czech ways' to get around it. For those who are already prepared for inclusion, nothing will change. The rest will remain lethargic."
The Mayor of Žlutic, Václav Slavík, a former principal at the local primary school there, agreed with that assessment: "Nothing will happen. There will be a mass effort to find a way to formally meet the letter of the law while simultaneously not contributing anything toward fulfilling its spirit. However, we only have ourselves to blame - this procedure has not been prepared in advance."
The advocates of inclusion, therefore, are falling into deeper and deeper skepticism today and their concerns can be summarized as one of two basic options: Either there will be chaos, or nothing will happen at all. It is difficult to say which of these variations, after decades of preparing for inclusion, would be worse.
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