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Commentary: Romani children in the Czech schools

1.11.2016 7:35
--ilustrační foto--
--ilustrační foto--

News server Romea.cz published a news item several days ago about the Czech Education Ministry tracking the number of Romani and socially disadvantaged children currently being educated using the "Framework Education Program for Pupils with Mild Mental Disability". That particular curriculum has been used up until now in the "practical" primary schools.

Those schools were created several years ago by re-naming the schools originally called "special schools" (zvláštní školy) after those schools were criticized in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the EU for being a sort of dumping ground providing a less than full-fledged education primarily to Romani children. Such children once comprised a high percentage of the pupils in such schools, between 50 to 70 %, even though Romani people comprise just 4 % of the population as a whole here.

With the onset of freedom after 1989 and the expansion of human rights protections here, the awareness has spread among Romani people (who up until now have generally been walked all over by everybody else) that people must actively strive to protect their rights if they actually want to enjoy them, and that in a democratic society, such enforcement of rights is entrusted to the courts. In the early days of the post-1989 era, back when this country was still Czechoslovakia, it became a member of the Council of Europe in February 1991.

That decision made it possible for five boys and 13 girls, together with their parents, to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg asserting that between 1996 and 1999 they had been either directly enrolled into or, after a certain amount of time spent in a mainstream primary school, re-enrolled into "special schools" in Ostrava just because they are Romani. By 1996, the Czech Republic had already been bound for years by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which bans discrimination on the basis of nationality or race.

The initial judgment from the Strasbourg court took into consideration the fact that this enrollment or re-enrollment always involved the written consent of the children's parents and was sometimes even initiated by the parents. After the first Chamber rejected the complaint, the plaintiffs appealed, and in 2007 the Grand Chamber decided through a vote of 13 to four that the complaint was justified and that the plaintiffs, who were referred to at the time by their initials, because they were still minors, as "D.H. and Others", had been the victims of indirect discrimination, and therefore the court tasked the Czech Republic with paying them financial compensation (the four dissenting justices were from the Czech Republic - Judge Karel Jungwiert - Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain).

It was then up to the Czech Republic to attempt to create conditions in the Czech primary schools that would eventually absolutely rule out the possibility that Romani children could be discriminated against in their access to education. Renaming the "special schools" as "practical schools", or introducing the "Framework Education Program for Pupils with Mild Mental Disability" did nothing to prevent such discrimination from persisting.

To be fair, the state has not been entirely inactive on this issue either. The Education Ministry announced in October that at the end of November and beginning of December it will publish the results of its collection of data from both mainstream and "practical" primary schools, where what is being tracked is how many Romani and socially disadvantaged children are being educated using which kinds of curricula.

The move is a response to the D.H. judgment, according to which Romani children in general (i.e., not just the specific plaintiffs in that case) have been discriminated against and segregated in education. "Current practice demonstrates that in some schools, these children are still being segregated," the ministry is now openly reporting.

An "inventory", or an estimate?

I have known Jarmila Balážová since 1997, when she was a member of the Working Group on Romani Affairs that advised Czech Minister without Portfolio Pavel Bratinka (ODA) in the Government of Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus (ODS). She has always espoused her Romani identity and was herself a diligent student.

For that reason, I am glad to quote her here in her capacity as spokesperson for the Czech Education Ministry: "As far as ascertaining qualified estimates of how many Romani pupils are being educated according to the Framework Education Program with the Appendix for Mild Mental Disability (and under no circumstances is this an 'inventory' or 'statistics on Romani pupils in the schools'), this has been performed in the past by the Czech School Inspection Authority on the basis of its fulfillment of the judgment in the matter of D.H. and Others versus Czech Republic. The schools already report data to the Government in accordance with the Schools Act (Section 28 paragraph 5), and these estimates are additional data that are essential to establishing qualified estimates about certain indicators of education and the education system. These are not statistics, nor is this part of the statistical reporting that the schools are advised of when they are supposed to elaborate data. It is essential to emphasize that nothing new is being sought here, this is the fourth year in a row that primary schools have provided this data in the Czech Republic," she told news server Romea.cz.

The specific form of this information, according to the ministry, is that of qualified estimates of the numbers of Romani children and pupils enrolled in primary schools, and is primarily to do with the various kinds of education being provided to them in order to address any necessary adjustments to the kind of education they receive. "This approach is in accordance with the Public Defender of Rights and other interested parties. This information is ascertained within the framework of fulfilling the judgment in the matter of D.H. and Others versus the Czech Republic and is annually submitted to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe," Balážová said.

This year the qualified estimates will be available after they have been processed during November and December, i.e., at the same time as all other data is available about the new school year. After it is available, the Education Ministry will file a report on these issues both with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and with EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová.

This year the ministry will be undertaking the qualified estimates in connection with an amendment to the Schools Act that has recently taken effect. Balážová says much has improved since the D.H. judgment was handed down in 2007 and that the ministry has taken many steps to correct the situation.

"With the amendment to the Schools Act, the provision of money to schools for support measures was also instituted. Schools can apply for EU money, they can apply for teaching assistants, and they can apply for new hires to aid with improving the environment of the schools generally. The new support measures include, for example, school assistants to visit families, for example, those who are socially excluded and impoverished, since as you know, more than 100 000 people live in socially excluded localities where there are more and more single mothers, etc. The schools can apply for funding for psychologists, who frequently are lacking in the schools, but who can address, for example, the prevention of bullying," Balážová said.

"If we are speaking generally about the segregation of Romani children, that is a more complex problem related to housing and to job opportunities, so logically this also involves other ministries. Within the framework of inter-ministerial collaboration there are projects, for example, with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, etc., to address this," the spokesperson told news server Romea.cz.

Protecting Romani children from discrimination first taken up by Public Defender of Rights Varvařovský

The D.H. judgment was handed down in 2007, i.e., when the coalition Government of Bursík (Greens)/Kalousek (TOP 09)/Topolánek (ODS) was in office and the right was openly governing. At that cheerless time, the baton of protecting Romani schoolchildren against racial discrimination was passed to the then-Public Defender of Rights (the ombudsman), Pavel Varvařovský.

After the death of the Czech Republic's first-ever ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, Varvařovský served from September 2011 until the end of 2013, when he stepped down. In June 2009, the Anti-Discrimination Act was fortunately adopted, and that meant the ombudsman became the state body responsible for protection against discrimination.

Staffers in the Equal Opportunities Division of the ombudsman's office got to work, and during the 2011-2012 school year they repeatedly visited the "special schools" (by then better known as the "practical" primary schools) where they estimated how many children in the classes were Romani through visual observation. The sample of schools was very representative and included roughly one-third of all "practical schools", i.e., even schools in areas where Romani people do not live.

The difference in the estimates arrived at by the ombudsman's observers compared to the estimate provided by the principals and teachers who willingly cooperated with the survey was just 3 %. The report published by the ombudsman is unfortunately not dated, but it states in its conclusions that "If approximately 150 000 - 300 000 Romani people live in the Czech Republic and the overall number of inhabitants is, according to the most recent census, 10 562 214, then the representation of Romani people in the Czech Republic is approximately 1.4 - 2.8 %. The author estimates the number of Romani people who suffer, even just partially, from social exclusion, to be less than 150 000 - 200 000, and the total number of Romani people who have at least privately espoused their Romani identity at some point will probably be twice that. We should, therefore, find a similar ratio of Roma in the schools visited. Percentage-wise, however, their proportion was (as mentioned above) either 32 % or 35 % of the school populations. Such a proportion can either be explained by Romani people being exponentially more likely to suffer from mental disability than the majority society, or it can be explained as a result of misconduct by several of the bodies involved in the process of deciding where to recommend a pupil enrolls in school."

The ombudsman's report also mentions the work of the Czech School Inspection Authority, which had also involved itself in estimating Romani pupil numbers. According to an interview with ministry staffer Klára Laurenčíková last year, new conditions at the Education Ministry for addressing this issue were created after the departure of Education Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) in the summer of 2013 and most definitively after Education Minister Marcel Chládek (ČSSD) was replaced by Education Minister Kateřina Valachová (ČSSD) in 2015.

(Some) teachers are against children - the Romani ones, that is

Jiří Pilař (TOP 09) has been expressing the opinion for years that the "practical" schools should not be abolished and that Romani children should remain segregated in education. After leaving the Education Ministry under Czech Education Minister Ondřej Liška (Green Party), where he had been director of the Special Education Department, Pilař established the "Association of Special Needs Educators", which brought together those most vocally opposed to the inclusion of Romani and other pupils into mainstream education.

While that association was able to create a few obstacles to inclusion, in the end it did not manage to stop it. Now, instead of that organization, a new group or initiative has been created that also calls itself an "association" on its website, the "Association of the Teaching Profession" (Učitelské profesní sdružení).

Through its website, this group is fighting against inclusion in the primary schools and against the Government making these qualified estimates of the numbers of Romani schoolchildren in the schools (which it refers to as conducting an "inventory"). The "association" is not registered with any court, apparently has no statutory or other governing bodies, and just lists its spokesperson as a Jana Karvaiová.

Given that 58 000 teachers work in the Czech primary schools, the 98 names of the teachers listed on this "association's" website comprise a mere 0.17 % of all primary school teachers in the country. It is, of course, also true that anybody can write what he or she wants on Facebook or anywhere else online as long as one does not call for discrimination, hatred or violence.

The Britské listy news server asked my opinion of the stance that this group of teachers has taken on inclusion and published these remarks of mine: "The Association of the Teaching Profession, which isn't even a registered group, is, as can be seen from the statements of the woman designated as their spokesperson, a tribunal of persons who want to continue to segregate Romani children and thereby also discriminate against them. That is why on their website they take a stand against the necessary estimates of the number of Romani pupils in classes and schools, which is based, given the need to protect personal, sensitive information, on estimates made by principals and teachers that are absolutely anonymous. This group is also against incorporating children with disabilities or social disadvantage into mainstream education (inclusion). Sometimes they do this out of traditional conservatism, but more frequently it is for personal reasons."

Injustice and unfairness are very entrenched in Czech society. The basic stance of rejection adopted by the Association of the Teaching Profession is expressed by the statement they have issued about these qualified estimates of Romani schoolchildren: "This conduct absolutely contravenes human rights."

To make such a statement without reference to an international treaty, or to part of some law by which the Czech Republic is bound, is just to make a lot of noise - it has about the same weight as writing that conduct contravenes the principle of "the good", or is against "truth and love". The opposite is, in fact, the case, as we have seen in the reference to the Czech legislation made by Balážová above (Section 28 paragraph 5 of the Schools Act).

I am always glad to emphasize that everything in this country, from the invention of the wheel, through the discovery of writing, to the principles of "liberté, égalité, fraternité", has been imported from somewhere else. For that reason, I would like to add the following quote here: "Special measures taken for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups or individuals requiring such protection as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall not be deemed racial discrimination, provided, however, that such measures do not, as a consequence, lead to the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups and that they shall not be continued after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved."

That is Article 1 (4) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (negotiated at the United Nations), which is ratified in the Czech Republic, and by which first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic have been bound since January 1969. It embodies a principle that permeates all of the regulations that protect fundamental rights and freedoms in the Czech Republic, in the European Union, in the Council of Europe, and in the rest of the world.

The author is a journalist.

Petr Uhl, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Inkluzivní vzdělávání, sčítání žáků, segregace, Vzdělávání



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