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Czech NGO analyses the multiple interpretations of proposed education amendment

Prague, 3.10.2014 17:32, (ROMEA)
Eduard Zeman, who was Education Minister from 1998-2002, was appointed Education Ombud in 2014. He says there is nothing wrong with the country's
Eduard Zeman, who was Education Minister from 1998-2002, was appointed Education Ombud in 2014. He says there is nothing wrong with the country's "practical schools". (Collage:

Section 16 of the much-discussed amendment to the School Act should be taught at law departments as a textbook example of how to create a law that can be interpreted to meet any purpose. The Czech NGO People in Need (Člověk v tísni) points this out through an article recently published in Zvoní magazine.

Czech MPs are currently discussing the amendment. The fundamental change it would introduce concerns how to assess what instructional approach to take toward children with special needs.

A so-called "support measures system" is included in the amendment. According to the proposal, neither children who are mentally or physically disabled, nor children who are at risk of social exclusion should be primarily assessed according to the diagnoses of either counseling or medical facilities, but according to the kind of support they need in order to be educated as best they can.

This is unequivocally a big step in the right direction. That makes it all the more surprising is that just before this amendment to the law was approved by the government, an item was added to the second paragraph of Section 16 at point "i".

The erratic "i"

This provision in the list of support measures introduces an unexpected innovation, namely, the enrollment of a child, pupil or student into a "specialized school" or "specialized class". This immediately introduces two problems.  

The first is the paradox of having a category of measures designed to ensure that children are not unnecessarily transferred away from mainstream schools into the "practical schools" (previously called the "special schools") that includes precisely such a transfer as a "support measure". The second problem is the impact this could have on children living with moderate to severe disability.

As Deputy Education Minister Petr Mlsna assured Czech Television viewers, such a step would only be used as a last resort. The other support measures that come before "i", the option of transfer, would legally take priority over "i".

Are the bureaucrats planning to send all children to the mainstream schools and then to wait until after each child has received an individual study plan, a teaching assistant, and the necessary alterations to the mainstream school environment before they transfer those who actually need a "specialized school" into one? What about the profoundly disabled children who genuinely need direct enrollment into a "specialized school"?

How are we to cope with the rest of the guile in this legislation? For example, a school must provide "support measures", but a teacher cannot "accompany a pupil to the counseling center", and the motion for a counseling center to assess a pupil can only be legally filed by the school in extraordinary cases - how, then, is the school supposed to provide the "support measures"?

Measures intended to compensate for disadvantage are supposed to serve children irrespective of whether they are being educated in a mainstream school, a "practical school" or a "specialized school". The provision in letter "i" is absurd and incomprehensible, even if we were to believe that the bureaucrats added it in order to stop the reassignment of neglected children into the "practical schools".  

Another interpretation of "i" is that it has been added precisely so there will be a legal basis for the reassignment of neglected children into the "practical schools". Does that seem far-fetched?  

According to the latest statistics, the population of the "practical schools" is still 28 % Romani, and Education Ombud Eduard Zeman let it be known in an interview with the journalist Martin Veselovský that "enrolling children into the 'practical schools' on the basis of their lack of language skills is logical." In other words, Zeman believes it is appropriate to enroll a pupil who doesn't speak Czech well into a different, and not completely standard, system.  

Zeman acknowledged in the interview that a lack of language skills does not mean a child's intelligence is lower, but he said he believes such children complicate "regular attendance" in the schools. When such opinions are being expressed by representatives of the education system, then it is necessary to take seriously our second interpretation of "i" described above - and our knowledge of the conditions in the localities where children at risk of social exclusion live backs up that interpretation.

Inclusion for the chosen

There is another problematic point in Section 16. At Section 16 (a), the law states that "Assessment of a mentally disabled child or pupil for the purposes of this law is always based on an assessment of the child's or pupil's adaptive and intellectual capabilities in the context of his development and his social and cultural environment." A similar formulation in the draft amendment turned up this summer at a different place in the law but was removed and anchored here in Section 16 after criticism from organizations involved in education.

We can imagine an optimistic interpretation in which this formulation is a piece of great news. Neglected children, who can sometimes display characteristics that make them seem mentally disabled, will now have the opportunity to be educated in mainstream schools, which will bring them closer to the opportunity to catch up with everyone else and the hope that in the future they will get better jobs and succeed in the rest of their lives, because the counseling centers are taking their family backgrounds into account, thanks to which they may be weaker in some areas.

However, we must not permit the reiteration of the famous cliché that "Roma are ineducable and not interested in education", or that "mentally disabled children and children who don't keep up with the rest will never be able to experience success in a mainstream school". These beliefs are expressed not only in online commentaries, but unfortunately by several teachers as well.

The best list of "support measures" in the world will not improve the schools until we change our perceptions of children who are disabled. Naturally, there are many educators in the schools who are doing their best under the current conditions to actually support the children in their care.

However, there is currently no support for those teachers in their work. There will not be any support coming to them from this amendment as designed, either, unless this conceptual change occurs hand in hand with financing for it.

There are no indications of any such funding; during the first reading of the law in the lower house, Czech Education Minister Chládek was unable to answer the question of how the steps introduced by the amendment would be financed. When there is no societal demand for change, when society is not critical of the views mentioned above, then it is hard for politicians to attempt any change.    

Prospects for the future? Rather pessimistic.

The question, however, is not to what extent practical experience, societal moods and well-worn stereotypes should be taken into consideration when designing legislation. Rather, the question is whether the School Act can introduce a new method for diagnosing children to determine the degree of their mental disability.  

Should a school counseling facility have the option of "labelling" children as mentally disabled whose IQ tests range between 70 and 90? Especially when a ministerial document, "Czech Education Strategy Policy to 2020", warns of the dismal state of such facilities and claims that they are helping to maintain the selectivity of the education system instead of making it possible for children to compensate for their disadvantage?

The prospects for such children are, in the current situation, rather pessimistic. The formulation that the assessment of mental disability will always be based on assessing "the child's or pupil's adaptive and intellectual capabilities in the context of his development and his social and cultural environment" can be interpreted rather broadly - all it will depend on is whether those in charge want to let this or that child into a mainstream primary school, or not.

First published in the magazine Zvoní.

Kateřina Lánská, Člověk v tísni, o.p.s., translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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