Commentary: Czech special educators fear the inevitable - inclusive education
In the Czech Republic the Association of Special Educators (Asociace speciálních pedagogů - ASP) is cringing and their supporters are sounding the alarm as if they were in real distress. On 19 April, the regional edition of the daily Mf DNES published an interview with Václav Mrštík, director of a regional-level educational-psychological counseling center, entitled "Psychologist: The law is more Catholic than the Pope and does not take children into consideration" (Psycholog: Zákon je papežštější než papež. Vůbec nehledí na děti.)
Over the years, the number of pupils enrolling into the "practical primary" schools in the Czech Republic has rapidly declined. The ASP now fears the inevitable, namely, the inclusion of everyone into the mainstream educational system.
Its members are waging a war against the equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes that are supposed to reach all children in the Czech educational system irrespective of their differences. "I disagree with inclusion, which has been blessed by some sort of legislation and does not take children's needs into account at all. This is a forced move that will not lead to the pupils' development - rather, it will hold them back. A problem will also arise in the social area, as these children very often become fringe groups in mainstream schools, or classic aggressors, because violence is probably the only area in which they can excel," Mrštík claims.
Political representatives, starting with Education Ministers and ending with the ombud, have recently declared that the expertise of some special educators could come in handy during the process of seeing inclusive education through and transforming the Czech schools into a system that genuinely facilitates equal access to the best available education in the Czech Republic for each and every child irrespective of his or her difference. This logically involves dissolving the existing "two-track" education system, which in practice occurs on two distinct levels, the mainstream level and that of the "practical" (previously the "special") primary schools.
Czech children of Romani nationality are currently disproportionately enrolled in the "practical primary" schools, which offer simplified curricula taught according to an official "Appendix for Children with Light Mental Retardation" - this despite the generally-established fact that, for example, if those same children emigrate to Britain, they succeed much better at all levels of the educational process in mainstream education there. A recent study by the Czech ombud has also shown that while Romani people comprise less than 3 % of the population of the Czech Republic, they comprise around 32 % of the population of the "practical schools".
It is also essential to recall that a report by the Czech School Inspectorate (ČSI) from March 2010, entitled "Thematic report: Summarized findings of the thematic monitoring activities in the former special primary schools", drew attention back then to the fact that Romani pupils still comprised 35 % of the children diagnosed with light mental disabilities in those schools and represented as many as 50 % of that group in some regions. The report also found that at least 5 000 children were attending the former "special schools" for children diagnosed with disabilities when they had not, in fact, been diagnosed with any disabilities whatsoever.
From this data, the Inspectorate deduced that 34 such schools had unjustifiably drawn increased subsidies for such pupils to the tune of CZK 2 250 000 total. The ČSI report also evaluated the institutional and staff links between the "practical primary" schools and their counseling centers as risky, as in many cases a school's interest in filling its enrollment up to capacity clashed with the justified interest of integrating pupils into mainstream education.
Although none of the representatives of the ASP or the "practical primary" schools publicly admit that they are defending their financial interests, the evidence for that lies in the 50 % increase to the normative per capita financing made available for special needs pupils. Transformation of the "practical primary" schools into mainstream ones would mean a fundamental change to their financing as well as the eventual closure of some of them, although the ASP and their supporters are trying to persuade the public that the Ministry of Education is advocating this reform "on the basis of an ambiguous judgment of a court on the other side of Europe, [where] someone decided that the state discriminates against Roma because it does not allow them an education."
In this quote, director Mrštík is referencing the judgment in the matter of D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic from 2007, as well as authoritatively and somewhat paternalistically instructing the reader that he would like to see "the nonprofits show one Rom whom we have banned from equal access to education." This deliberately and misleadingly creates a direct link between this judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the activities of nonprofit organizations.
It is necessary to point out that there is, of course, no such connection between nonprofits and the independent, professional decisions taken by the various judges at the ECtHR. Let's look more closely now at two of director Mrštík's opinions and reflect on what it is that he is basically saying about Romani people with them (or about Gypsies, as he pejoratively calls them).
"What is interesting is that we have practically no Vietnamese children at our counseling center. That is a community that has been in this country 40 or 50 years, their children speak perfect Czech, and they have established themselves as very good students. The Gypsies have been here 500 years and there are almost no students among them even though they have absolutely comparable conditions," Mrštík writes.
Petr Torák, a Romani police officer from the Czech Republic now living in the British town of Peterborough, believes Mr Mrštík needs to visit Great Britain to see the successes of Romani people there. What Romani people had no chance of achieving during 500 years of living in racist conditions, they have managed to achieve during 10-15 years in a country offering them inclusive education and equal conditions.
Romani people have maintained their culture and language as survival mechanisms. The Vietnamese in the Czech Republic have never been discriminated against, eliminated, or persecuted just for being Vietnamese.
"Culture, lifestyle, and priorities all play a role. How many top Romani athletes do you know, for example? Romani children are often very gifted when it comes to movement, but when they are to begin hard training, they don't last. We worked, for example, with a boxer who probably would have been a world champion, but when he made it to the European level, he left, he lacked a sense of purpose. I came to education at the start of the 1970s, and ever since we have been grappling with the problems of including Romani children into the school system so that they will be successful. This is not a problem of the system but one of a social group and specific families," Mrštík writes.
William Bila, a Romani manager who lives in Paris, believes it is important to ask these questions in another way: Did that boxer just give up, or did he stop competing for other reasons, such as prioritizing his family over material success? He may have had a perfectly good reason to stop.
Maybe, though, the boxer did lack self-confidence, or maybe he got scared. Maybe his trainer didn't support him enough, didn't assure him of his strengths, didn't back him up at the right time.
Maybe the trainer did not not take his culture or his value system into consideration, maybe he "pushed the wrong button" out of his own lack of awareness of those aspects. It is indeed a shame that the members of the nation who have been living for 500 years in the same country as this particular minority have not yet bothered to learn anything about the Roma or to recognize them.
The first President of Czechoslovakia, T.G. Masaryk, famously said "The more languages you speak, the more of a human being you are!" - but this is not usually applied to the case of those who speak Romanes. When the German-speaking Austrians were oppressing the Czechs, they treated them the same way.
It is a shame that some Czechs do not reflect on how members of their own nation were treated in the past when it comes time for them to negotiate with the members of the less powerful nations who have been living on the same territory with them for centuries. Jan Cverčko, a Czech Rom living in the UK, believes everything primarily depends on the approach taken by educators: Naturally there are exceptions, quite a few, but the approach taken by many educators toward Romani children in the Czech Republic is alarming.
What about the fact that Vietnamese children don't have any problems? How could they - after all, they're not Romani.
Educators in the Czech Republic cannot stand Romani people plain and simple, and so they neglect their instruction. "I experienced it myself as a boy," Cverčko says.
"Until the third grade I had a perfect teacher who was young. Then I changed schools and teachers. Czech language and mathematics were horrible: Even though I know the material, no one ever called on me, and that was how they deterred me. That's how it works to this day. Instead of inspiring the children, they throw them over the fence. Effective involvement of parents as partners is absolutely essential on this issue," Cverčko says.
Mr Mrštík's remarks may have unintentionally provided proof not only of his own ignorance of modern approaches and trends, of institutional discrimination and racism, and of his own lack of awareness, but proof of that of his colleagues as well. Petr Klíma, director of the Regional Educational-Psychological Counseling Center for Prague 3 and Prague 9, is one such colleague who recently wrote the following e-mail to the director of the Museum of Romani Culture: "Re: Your piece in LN today ("Instruction in Romanes for better integration of Roma?"): I am sure that Romani children have fewer of the prerequisites for mastering the demands of primary school compared to the rest of the population."
In countries "on the other side of Europe", the representative of such a highly-positioned job in this or any other area of public service would be immediately removed after making such a racist remark or would be called upon to resign - or he himself would step down or be criminally prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. In the Czech Republic, persons such as Mr Klíma and Mr Mrštík are committing similar generalizations and spreading racial prejudice against Romani people not only in their educational-psychological counseling centers, but also in the schools.
It is precisely these people who are responsible for educating children or for performing diagnoses of them; it therefore follows that this racial prejudice must necessarily be projected into their work and their decisions about the fates of thousands of Romani children. At the same time, they are repeatedly searching for the flaws in the Romani children and their parents, flaws in the victims of institutional discrimination and racism whom they continue to victimize - not searching for flaws in their antiquated system that does not reflect modern societal developments in the Czech Republic.
The obsolescence of that system has also been repeatedly reported in the area of preparing future teachers at universities throughout the Czech Republic. So: What do directors of mainstream primary schools in the Czech Republic that are heading in the direction of inclusive education have to say about its methods?
Vladimír Foist, Director of the Poběžovice Primary School (a partner school in the "Every Child Matters" project), says: "What we are calling a complicated inclusion process basically means that you have in the classroom a group of children who are of different nationalities, from different backgrounds and social circumstances, who may either have disabilities or conversely may be very talented. It's like a garden. You have flowers that require dry conditions and others, wet ones; you have trees that need to be pruned, and those you should leave alone if you want them to bear fruit. That's precisely how it is in the classroom. Every child needs something else to evolve and expand. The teacher is able, on the basis of cooperation with the students and their families, to see the child achieve not just top marks, but to become prepared for life, prepared to find in life what it is that he or she can build on for the future."
Marie Gottfriedová, Director of the Trmice Primary School (a partner school in the "Every Child Matters" project), says: "In October 2013, as part of a Conference of Educators Working in Socially Excluded Localities, I led a seminar entitled 'Inclusive Education - Education for All'. The motto of that seminar was a quote from Albert Einsten: 'If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life believing itself to be stupid.' I talked about the need to educate all pupils in natural educational groups (as they come to school, without selecting anyone out) and, within the framework of those groups, to strive for an education that is 'tailor-made' - that means maximally taking the educational needs of the individual pupils into account."
Radmila Jedličková, Deputy Director of the Grafická Primary School in Prague (a partner school in the "Every Child Matters" project), says: "During our study trips we have had the opportunity to observe specific instructional methods in an environment where pupils from various cultures and religious faiths, with different capabilities and skills, are all together. We were struck by one class where the students worked with focus and interest, either in groups or independently, and always had the opportunity to express their own opinions as well as the opportunity to defend them. We liked it that all of the pupils' ideas were positively accepted. It was evident that the students were captivated by their work. During the courses we noticed that the pupils and teachers were excellent at time management. We were also struck by the technique of pedagogical work based on the principle of invention, work that simply realizes the pupils' ideas with a minimum of financial input, such as using cards to divide children up into working groups, using sticky notes during surveys, etc. We noticed that thanks to the constant leadership and support of the pupils with their independent, individual acquisition of information, the classes were more diverse and more interesting for the pupils (which leads them to pay better, more constant attention)."
Mark Penfold, of Babington College in Leicester, England (a partner school in the "Every Child Matters" project), says: "Inclusion in instruction is not about treating everyone the same; it's about treating everyone so that they have the same opportunities and options for achieving the same outcomes. Inclusion in instruction is not about listing all of the pupils who have been included; it's about laboriously monitoring that no one is being left out. All of the children who have a teacher standing in front of them have different forms of intelligence and require completely different work. It's simply necessary to count on that. If you teach all of the children the same way, it does not necessarily develop the intellect of all of them. In 2011 we held a series of seminars in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I was surprised by how negatively educators in both countries spoke of Romani people. In England someone with such an attitude couldn't teach at all. I was angry to learn that Romani children in both countries are denied a quality education solely because of their ethnic origins and social backgrounds. For example, the director of a school that is the backbone of its community runs a 'practical primary' school and told us that the typical attendance rate among Romani pupils is 65 % and that the older the children are, the less likely they are to attend. When I asked him what the school does to prevent this, he said it does nothing. Then he added: 'What do you expect from Gypsies?' "
About the author:
Mgr. Lucie Fremlová (www.luciefremlova.co.uk) has worked with Romani communities for 16 years. She has been working as an independent consultant for the past six years with Romani communities all over Great Britain. She is the main author of a pilot research study from 2011 published by the Roma Education Fund under the title "From segregation to inclusion: Romani pupils in Great Britain", as well as a research study about the situation of Romani communities in England in 2009 for the British Education Ministry.
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