Commentary: Won't Czech education reform just rename the schools (again) without achieving equality for Roma?
Confusion, incessant attacks by critics, and uncertainties - these are evidently the main characteristics of the current state of Czech education reform. The proposals now on offer are yet another attempt to close the country's "special schools" and achieve inclusion.
What some welcome as opening the schools to all and stopping the discrimination of disadvantaged children, others see as a threat to an entire school system that does not have either enough money to fund inclusion or enough people to undertake it.
At the end of September the Czech media was filled with arguments on this issue. Czech Education Minister Kateřina Valachová had to respond to them.
Will schools be closing?
The Czech daily Mladá Fronta DNES first published a piece that bordered on disseminating a hoax, claiming that the "practical primary schools" (the former "special schools") would be closed and their pupils would then be sent to "normal" schools for which, of course, they absolutely are not prepared. Tomáš Feřtek of the EDUin NGO subsequently explained on the website of RESPEKT magazine that no, schools will not be closed, and that this reform rather consists of their gradual transformation.
Such transformation, of course, will not be easy, and the problems include the fact that the ministry is not informing school principals (to say nothing of the public) of its plans for specifically supporting or undertaking this change. News server Romea.cz asked the press department of the Education Ministry what those plans are, but received only a recording of the minister's press conference in response.
Valachová later provided a statement to the Czech News Agency stating that schools will not be closing. How their transformation will proceed, however, she did not explain.
In the context of the current reform, however, the question urgently arises as to whether this just won't all end up like it did in 2005. That was when the Education Ministry triumphantly closed the "special schools" - but actually just renamed them the "practical" schools.
Will the "special" schools change?
Czech education officials have long grappled with the fact that, compared to other countries in Europe, an exceptionally high number of children are assigned to "special" schools here. According to both domestic and international critics, these children - or rather, a large segment of them - are being unjustifiably removed from mainstream education, or the "normal" schools.
Critics have long drawn attention to the fact that "special" schools are attended by a high percentage of Romani children, who comprise about one-third of the pupils in the "special" schools. Teaching in these schools is done differently than it is in "normal" ones - the curriculum is reduced on the basis of the presumption that the pupils suffer from mild mental disability.
Graduates of the "special schools" have a minimal chance of studying at high school or attaining any kind of employment at all, to say nothing of decent employment. Moreover, the number of Romani children to whom the Czech counseling and school system has attributed this diagnosis does not at all correspond to the average rate of such a diagnosis for "normal" people, but exceeds it many times over, and the Czech system is, therefore, justifiably suspected of racial discrimination.
What will happen now? What if those fighting against inclusion are wrong, and their alarming reports of thousands of children from the "special" schools heading to the normal schools does not happen - what if, after the reform, the children remain in the very same schools with the same teachers?
If that is the case, is it believable that something will change for them? Isn't it more likely that all that will happen is that the teaching plan will be officially renamed, the "Appendix for Mild Mental Disability" will be officially removed from circulation, but everything will continue as before?
Isn't this just what happened 10 years ago, when the word "special" became "practical"? The problem is that many parents simply consider the "practical" schools a "bad address".
Is it imaginable that "normal", "white" parents will enroll their children into such reformed "practical" schools? How long will it take for these schools to get rid of their reputations - and is that even possible?
Will anything change?
According to expert Tomáš Feřtek, there is a risk that, in principle, absolutely no actual change will happen at some of the "practical" schools. Despite this, he sees no other path to reform.
"This basic plan for inclusion is a sound one, and the notion that thousands of children might be relocated en masse into the 'normal' schools is unrealistic. Those schools are simply not able to expand," he explained.
"Nevertheless, some 'special' schools have already begun to prepare for this change and are doing their best to attract 'normal' children, to behave like 'normal' schools. This change will not happen from one year to the next, but it is possible over the longer term. Naturally, it is also important that the reform facilitate the entry into 'normal' schools of children who until now almost automatically headed into the 'special' schools," Feřtek said.
Before the reform, it was a significant problem for the principal of a "normal" school to accept a child diagnosed with mild mental disability, or even just any child with "special educational needs". This was, on the one hand, a question of finances (for assistants and learning aids) and on the other a question of the curriculum, which was different than that used for other children and required individual care from teachers.
"It will not be the case, therefore, that children from 'special' schools suddenly flood the other schools, but rather that their numbers in those schools will gradually increase. That one-way line into spots reserved for them will no longer be running," Feřtek said.
The expert emphasized that it is an illusion to think of the Czech school system as a single unit - individual schools significantly differ from each other and will probably take different stances toward this reform. "Some will change, some will open up, others will do their best to set their ways in stone, and with others it will be possible to convince them to become inclusive by discussing it with them," the expert noted.
"That's just how it is," Feřtek said. "There is no other path to change."
Of course, he considers it a big problem that the ministry has not yet presented a clear plan for how this all will take place."I am not suprised that 'special' school principals are nervous," he told us.
"They seriously do not know what to expect. They don't know whether they will have to hire new teachers or whether they will be able to employ existing special needs educators who might not actually be qualified to teach various subjects per the 'normal' curriculum. Now it is essential that the ministry present them as soon as possible with a clear, comprehensible plan," the expert said.
It seems realistic to expect that if the ministry does not put the brakes on this reform and proves capable of handling it organizationally and supporting it, there is a chance that some schools will actually begin to change. The numbers of the children at issue will gradually begin to rise in the "normal" schools.
There will not be any great leap forward, no "shock therapy" - this will basically be something different than the reform-that-was-not of 2005. We'll see.
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