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Czech ombudsman, EdMin to meet on discrimination of Romani children in schools

Prague, 1.8.2012 0:17, (ROMEA)

Czech Education Minister Petr Fiala will be meeting with ombudsman Pavel Varvařovský to discuss the situation in the country's practical primary schools. The ombudsman's office has determined that every third pupil enrolled in these former "special schools" is Romani. The ministry claims it is addressing the problem and taking it seriously, but says it takes exception to some of the recommendations recently made by the ombudsman.

The minister and ombudsman will meet on 20 August. "We will address several matters and that topic will be one of them," Varvařovský said. His staff recently conducted research which determined that Romani people comprise one-third of all pupils attending the practical primary schools, which are designed for children with light mental disability. The ombudsman says the findings confirm yet again that Romani people in the Czech Republic still do not enjoy the same access to education as everyone else.

The staff of the ombudsman's office will discuss their research with ministry officials. "We will discuss the recommendations at the end of our report. Our condition is that we use the time to discuss concrete legislative proposals. We won't just be having a chat," said Petr Polák, head of the Equal Treatment Department at the office of the ombudsman.

The ministry claims to be taking the ombudsman's findings seriously. "The ministry collaborates with the office of the ombudsman and with other institutions. We are prepared to accede to further legislative changes should it prove essential," said Czech Education Ministry spokesperson Kateřina Savičová

Experts have long warned that a disproportionate number of Romani children are ending up in the practical primary schools. The educational guidance centers that decide whether to recommend children enroll in these schools reportedly often confuse cases of "sociocultural disadvantage" with those of light mental disability. In 2007, the European Court for Human Rights confirmed that educators had unjustifiably recommended a group of Romani families from the Czech Republic enroll their children into these schools. Since then the state has been required to change the practice.

The ministry says the situation should improve thanks to two amended decrees that have been in place since last September. The amendments are designed to make sure that only children who truly belong in the practical primary schools will enroll there.

According to staffers from the office of the ombudsman, Romani children comprise 32 % of the pupils attending practical primary schools. Teachers in the schools surveyed estimate an even higher proportion of Romani pupils, at 35 %. The ombudsman says the Romani population as a whole ranges from only 1.4 - 2.8 % of the entire country. Varvařovský believes the Czech Republic is discriminating against Romani people through this process and is creating problems for itself in the areas of clashes between the majority society and the Romani minority, crime, and unemployment.

The research was performed in 67 randomly-selected practical primary schools in every region of the country. The ethnic composition of the pupils was determined on the basis of the head teachers' experiences and on the basis of staffers from the office of the ombudsman observing the pupils in classrooms. Many directors of practical primary schools have criticized the research, and the Association of Special Educators (Asociace speciálních pedagogů) has also cast doubt on its methodology and outcomes. However, the results of this research have simply confirmed the previous findings of the Czech Education Ministry and Czech School Inspection Authority.

Psychologists are now said to have begun examining practical primary school pupils once a year to see whether the reason for their being enrolled in the practical regime is persisting. There are also plans to improve parents' awareness as they decide whether to enroll their children into the practical primary schools. Most Romani parents agree to enroll their children into the recommended schools, and some have even tried to enroll their children directly into the practical primary schools without having them assessed first. However, these parents often are unaware that by enrolling their children into the practical primary schools, they are significantly decreasing their children's future chances of gaining a better education and employment.

The Czech School Inspection Authority has just conducted an investigation into whether the amended decrees have had any effect and the ministry will be receiving their report soon. "We intend to focus more on how schools' educational guidance centers work. We view one of our pivotal tasks as being the design and standardization of tests that will truly be culturally fair," Savičová said. The current tests used at the psychological counseling centers often disadvantage pupils who have not been given certain habits or knowledge in their home environments.

Experts have welcomed the amendments to the decrees but are recommending they be adjusted further. "It is still possible for children without light mental disability to be enrolled outside of mainstream education," says Klára Laurenčíková, chair of the Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education (Česká odborná společnost pro inkluzivní vzdělávání), who is a former deputy education minister.

The ombudsman has also pointed this out. In his view, one of the decrees currently contravenes the School Act because it makes it possible for socially disadvantaged children who are not disabled to be recommended for enrollment into a class together with lightly mentally disabled pupils. The ministry does not deny this, but says such pupils are educated according to a different educational program than the other pupils.

Fiala's ministry is taking exception to some of the ombudsman's recommendations, such as the proposal that the schools publish data on the number of children being educated according to the program for pupils with light mental disability. The ministry claims to already be publishing such data twice a year. While the ministry is not opposed to maintaining precise files on the former "special schools", officials doubt whether it will be really meaningful to do so.

The previous Education Minister, Josef Dobeš, faced criticism for not paying enough attention to including Romani children in mainstream education. During his tenure, several dozen experts who had been contributing to the initiation of the National Action Plan for Inclusive Education resigned in protest. Dobeš also delayed amending the decrees discussed above, which concern the schools' educational guidance centers and the education of children with special educational needs.

"Now that there is new leadership at the head of the ministry, we are noting, at a minimum, an effort to start addressing this agenda with greater seriousness and to once again devote systematic attention to it," says Laurenčíková, who has recently begun collaborating with the ministry again. The Government's Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion 2011 - 2015 is another effort to improve the current state of affairs. That concept counts on significantly reducing the number of practical primary schools in operation over the next three years and perhaps closing them down completely. The directors of these schools, however, do not like that plan. The state also intends to increase the per-pupil funding allocation for socially disadvantaged pupils and ensure the availability of nursery schools for all children residing in socially excluded localities so they can acquire the necessary habits prior to entering primary school.

Gwendolyn Albert, iDNES.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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