Czech ombud: Inclusive education the only way out of life in a segregated society
Anna Šabatová, the recently-appointed ombud, brings a very important personal experience to the post from her pre-1989 past. As a dissident against the former regime, she has experienced what it is to be a minority in society.
Helping people who are not part of mainstream society, for whatever reason, is an issue close to her heart. That includes children who are disadvantaged for medical or social reasons.
The following interview was published in the third issue of the magazine Škola All Inclusive. News server Romea.cz brings it to you in full translation.
Q: You worked for the Office of the Public Defender of Rights from 2001-2007 as Deputy Ombud when Otakar Motejl was in charge. This year you have returned there. How has the situation in the area of human rights changed in the interim?
A: When it comes to the ombud's work, the issue of human rights is much more represented in that work today than it was during the initial years of the existence of this institution. That is related to the expanded scope of the ombud's remit, whether it has to do with protecting persons in detention and preventing their ill-treatment, protecting people from discrimination, or overseeing the deportation of foreign nationals and similar issues. Generally I'd say that human rights violations are not committed intentionally in a democratic society, or committed with the conscious intention of violating someone's rights. It's always more or less to do with the insensitive exercise of public power, with neglect, with a lack of professionalism in social services, or with long-term, persistently stereotypical views held by society. Often these rights violations are not clear-cut, they are not immediately recognizable to everyone as violations.
Q: Is the view of fundamental rights changing over time?
A: Yes it is. Ten years ago, when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not yet exist, we would have naturally considered it a violation of their fundamental rights for people in institutional care to be ill-treated, or subjected to restraint, or punished, or given bad food, but Czech society did not yet take a critical view of the very fact that people were spending their entire lives in institutions. Since acceding to the Convention we must now view that fact critically also and do our best to change it. Another example - 13 years ago, when we at the office began investigating the first cases of children being taken away from their parents, child welfare staffers were not asking themselves very often whether such interventions into the lives of these families were justified or when they might be disproportionate. Today, basically, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights has been projected into the new Civil Code here, along with the findings of the Constitutional Court and the unifying position of the Supreme Court, and far greater emphasis is being placed on preventive social work with families. I could give you many other examples. It is important to talk about human rights, to take an interest in them, and to oversee their protection.
Q: You have been the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud) for several months now. What do you see coming up as a pivotal topic now, what do you want to focus on?
A: It is my obligation to focus on all of the problems brought to my attention that are within the remit of the Public Defender of Rights. I can't just choose to address only some and not others. However, I have never made any secret of the fact that topics concerning the protection of persons in detention and advancing the right to equal treatment are particularly close to my heart. Especially with respect to discrimination, I am convinced that many prejudices still survive in this society that lead to the tolerance of unequal treatment. Victims of discrimination, in such an atmosphere, very often don't even want to defend themselves because they fear their situations will further deteriorate if they do. That's not right. I therefore consider it important to do our best to overcome stereotypes, to change the approach taken by politicians and society as a whole towards these topics.
Q: The Czech Republic has long been criticized for its unequal conditions in education. What do you see the biggest problem as being here? What can be changed? Is it possible to do more?
A: Every child has the same right to an education as every other child. Naturally not everyone will become a doctor or an engineer, but the state should guarantee the same chance to all children at the beginning of their lives. It is unacceptable for the state to interfere with the lives of future generations by creating obstacles for certain children in their access to education. This is slowly changing, and in connection with the current governemnt and the activities of the Human Rights Minister, I see there is hope for a possible change for the better. There is no doubt that I would start more of a discussion about equal opportunity in education with the founders of schools and with the parents of all children. I often see concerns about the changes to the system coming from those quarters. It should be clearly stated that equal opportunities in education are advantageous for all of society from both the economic and the human point of view.
Q: Inclusive education is often discussed as a way to meet the goal of equitable education. What do you see as the advantages and the risks of introducing inclusive education into practice?
A: I consider inclusive education the only way forward if we don't want to live in a segregated society. It would teach children to perceive difference as something natural from the time they are very young, to expand their social perceptiveness and sensitivity. This is something that is a bit lacking in our society. We are surprised by these displays of various kinds of extremism, but they all flow from an inability to respect and understand difference, as well as from prejudice. I consider overcoming prejudices in society to be the most difficult aspect of introducing inclusive education. That is basically the only risk I see related to it. This isn't about its financial cost - the money we will save from ending segregated education can be invested into inclusive education. The main thing is that there is a need to start now, not to spend time looking for ever more possible risks while we let yet another generation grow up without the opportunity for a proper education. I see the greatest danger in the fact that many educators are not prepared for this educational model. Teachers are the fundamental building blocks of the whole system. Without properly evaluating and using them, without sound teachers, no inclusive education model will ever work.
Q: Currently an amendment to the School Act is being discussed which would change the conditions for educating pupils with special educational needs. What impact on the everyday life of schools do believe the adoption of that amendment will have?
A: The best law in the world will never ensure equality and fairness. That will always depend on many factors, primarily on the people (who are not always lawyers) who will apply the School Act in practice. The amendment I had the opportunity to comment on is undoubtedly a good beginning. It is comprehensible, you can tell what the idea behind it is - and I daresay that's more or less a sporadic occurrence these days. I like the notion that the degree of support for each pupil will be developed on an individual basis. Children will no longer be unnecessarily labeled as belonging to one of three categories, and everyone's responsibilities and rights will be clarified, including the responsibilities of individual stakeholders (the children, the educational counseling facilities, the parents, and the schools). On the other hand, the amendment will not take effect until 2017, and I disagree with such a delay. Every year we wait intensifies a dismal state of affairs for thousands of children. I also disagree with expanding the capacity of "zero-year" classes in the schools. The state must focus its efforts on building nursery schools. I see the future of equal opportunity there.
Q: What is your view of the situation in which our education system, and indirectly, the schools, forces the parents of pupils with special educational needs to pay for teaching assistants from their own resources?
A: That is just one symptom of the fact that our primary schools are not based on the existence of a diverse environment and do not know how to work with one (not financially, not organizationally, and not in terms of the people concerned). Basic education is still provided free of charge in this country. Depending on the specific circumstances, if the parents of children living wih disabilities must often pay extra for assistance, then this could well be discrimination. The parents may seek a court decision instructing the schools to refrain from this discrimination and providing a remedy for the effects of this bad conduct. Under certain circumstances, they can also ask for proportionate monetary compensation. However, parents are not taking advantage of these legal routes, either because they don't know anything about them, or because they are concerned that by doing so they will deteriorate their relations with local officials or the school. I also understand their lack of faith in the court system, which makes its decisions ponderously and slowly. I am also very familiar with the story of a woman whose child has autism and who did not give up, taking her case all the way to the Constitutional Court, and I consider that court's judgment against her to be extremely unfortunate. The lady is now filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. I am convinced she will win and I am crossing my fingers for her. I will be supporting her in Strasbourg with a legal opinion.
Q: What kind of school do you want for your grandchildren?
A: A well-worn cliché occurs to me when you ask that question, one I would like to avoid, but here goes - I definitely would like the school to develop the children's natural curiosity, not to evaluate them according to their results on a scale of 1 to 5, but to take into consideration the effort they invest into their work and to evaluate the whole journey taken by the children from point A to point B. I believe that is still missing from the Czech schools. I would like the school to teach them respect for others, and to show them (not in any forced way) that every person enjoys a place in the sun and can develop under the right conditions. Naturally I would also like them to have good memories of the time they spent in school one day.
First printed in the third issue of the magazine Škola All Inclusive, which is published by the People in Need (Člověk v tísni) organization in collaboration with Palacký University in Olomouc as part of the "Systemic Support for Inclusive Education in the Czech Republic" project.
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