Czech education experts: What is needed for inclusion
Is Czech society heading toward a fair school system that will not discriminate against medically disabled or socially disadvantaged children? A system that will not discriminate against children because they are Romani?
The amendment to the Schools Act approved last week has filled some experts with optimism, while others are more skeptical. News server Romea.cz has reached out to eminent figures involved in the discussion about the Czech schools with several questions - below is the first batch of responses.
Tomáš Feřtek, EDUin
Q: Does the form in which the amendment to the Schools Act was approved represent a genuine step forward toward inclusion? Some experts consider it a fundamental breakthorugh, others are more cautious. What do you think?
A: In and of itself the law will change nothing, it just expands options. However, it is heading in the right direction. Any school can access support now, and support is not linked to a diagnosis. Those are essential changes. Now it's about whether money will be allocated to this change to facilitate the implementation of these various degrees of support.
Q: How do you explain the fact that this change has sparked relatively little media interest? The problem of "special schools" has been discussed here for many years, intensively and passionately, and suddenly it's as if that discussion never existed.
A: This issue was already too complex, and from the point of view of the public, the amendment doesn't represent any sort of essential change, because the public does not understand why it is revolutionary. Even those opposed to this change did not manage to win enough media support or public support for their cause, so in the end what is being written about is mainly the ban on home schooling and video poker, because that is more comprehensible for the media.
Q: What other steps must follow for us to actually head in the direction of fair, non-discriminatory schools? Might not the reforms get jammed up if politicians claim there is no money for them? What kind of budget increase will the implementation of these reforms require, in your view?
A: Yes, money is a big problem, but it's not the only one. For this to work, it will be necessary to de facto change at once the way in which schools established by Regional Authorities are financed, to introduce a standard for the profession of teacher into practice, and to introduce a functional career system for education. Given the current state of the ministry, I find that all but unimaginable. I don't have any idea how much money this will cost, but various estimates in previous years have spoken of billions to tens of billions. It depends on what all we include in the systemic change.
Q: Some skeptical observers believe that heading toward inclusion could run into the problem that society is not prepared for it. There are too many fears and prejudices in society, "white" parents will defend themselves against inclusion and pressure school directors to continue the segregation of Romani children and other disadvantaged children in some form. These observers believe politicians will back down in the face of this pressure.
A: That's a real problem, but let's consider that such inclusion is actually proceeding rather quickly now, even under conditions that currently are not very good. Today more than half of all children with some sort of problem are attending mainstream schools, which means that there are many schools that know how to resolve these difficulties. I think the priority should actually be to support those schools and those specific teachers who have taken charge of a particular child. If it turns out that the school has handled that child's arrival in the class well, then that significantly decreases the voices of parental protest against inclusion. On the other hand, if the number of teachers inclined towards inclusion increases, but no one helps them manage the situation, then that just enhances those skeptical voices. Support for the teaching profession is a crucial aspect in this case.
Věra Pokorná, Cogito
I can't respond to all of your topics, I don't feel competent to do so, but I have been following inclusion both in our country and abroad for more than 30 years. I hoped that after the 1989 revolution the situation in our country would improve. For the time being it doesn't look like there is much improvement. I am of the opinion that there are several causes for this:
1. After the Velvet Revolution, the integration of children was begun very energetically, primarily children with physical disabilities. (Not even Professor Matejček would recommend integrating children with mental disabilities, even though they can be integrated if the conditions are prepared for them, and they can greatly profit from integration). However, everything took place back then at the level of dedicated, enthusiastic teachers who were longing to see change of any kind in the schools. Even those teachers, however, were professionally unprepared for integration. That is why a significant disillusionment occurred, and in quite a few cases the teachers began to oppose inclusion. To perform such work without professional preparation was exhausting.
2. Many institutions for disabled children were in remote locations where it was difficult to find work in the post-revolution period. That is why the staffs of children's homes and specialized homes were concerned about the homes being closed. Their resistance to such change was also strong.
3. There was no figure at the Education Ministry or among its advisors for whom inclusion was a priority.
4. There are no experts in higher education who have significantly advocated for the idea of an inclusive society. They write about the principles of inclusion, but significant research work about positive inclusion does not exist in the Czech Republic.
5. Only discussions of integration make it into the media from time to time, most often on Czech Television's channel 24, but the moderators of such programs problematize any positive results of integration.
6. There is no active interest in inclusion, not from professionals and not from the public. The People in Need organization and several parents' groups are engaged in this issue, but the parents are not sufficiently convincing, because it is evident that the issue is their own personal problem. People in Need has a good reputation for its charity activity and its foreign missions, but experts do not know much about its activities promoting inclusion, and teachers sometimes view the requirements of inclusion as a burden.
7. Society continues to be assured, by politicians from the left and the right, that economic welfare is the focus. The President does the same thing. He brags about how many economic relationships he has established on his trips abroad. I miss a spiritual vision in our politics.
I am, however, a great optimist - I am convinced that an inclusive society is the future we should be advancing toward as fast as we can. A healthy society thinks about those on the outskirts, those who are ill, who are vulnerable - and such people know more about humanity and about life, about what cannot be bought, than the strong, the successful, and the wealthy.
That's why it is necessary for there to be pressure on the media to explain the positive aspects of inclusion in a convincing way, with documentation. The most important thing for inclusion is not money, but convincing as many people as possible about its correctness, transforming attitudes, transforming the approach taken toward disabled children. In this country a system has established itself that takes a gentle approach towards such children, that relieves them of any challenges. I am of the opinion that we must be gently demanding of all children.
These children have gotten used to the fact that we require nothing of them, and that makes life easier for pedagogical staffs as well - but they do enjoy getting to know these children, and they are pleased when they do understand something. It's possible to motivate them to work through the work itself. Their self-esteem increases when we demand something of them.
In Western countries where inclusion has been established, it is evident that gifted children also profit from this coexistence. It is not the case that children who have difficulties discourage the gifted children from learning. Of course, the prerequisite is the creation of an environment where the children themselves actively contribute to instruction, where they lead themselves to understand what it is they have been tasked with. If they learn through drills and memorization, then in such an environment weaker pupils really would be a burden.
Last year I introduced into the Czech environment the teaching method of the late Professor Reuven Feuerstein, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2012 for his lifelong work. This is one way in which it is possible, with the aid of this approach, to actively develop inclusion here in the way it is done abroad. Even integrated children must be prepared for inclusion prior to their insertion into a bigger collective and must be worked with intensively.
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