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Czech ombudsman: Research confirms indirect discrimination of Romani pupils

Brno/Prague, 7.6.2012 18:12, (ROMEA)
The Public Defender of Rights (ombudsman) in the Czech Republic, JUDr. Pavel Varvařovský. Photo:  Romea.cz archive.

While the Romani population of the Czech Republic is between 1.4 and 2.8 % of the population, Romani children comprise 32 % of pupils attending the "practical elementary schools". Those are the results of research performed by the Public Defender of Rights (the ombudsman) in 67 randomly selected "practical elementary schools" in every region of the Czech Republic.

Teachers at these schools themselves estimated that 35 % of their pupils are Romani. Comparing these facts, it is rather obvious that Romani children are attending the former "special schools" to a degree that significantly exceeds their representation in the population. According to the Anti-Discrimination Act, this constitutes indirect discrimination in access to education on the basis of ethnic affiliation, discrimination that is being committed by the bodies involved in deciding whether to recommend pupils for "special education". (Indirect discrimination is different treatment caused by the unfavorable impact of a policy or measure that is neutral in design but has a discriminatory effect on a certain group).

The Czech Republic has been repeatedly criticized for discriminating against Romani children in their access to education. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), in the "D.H. and Others vs. Czech Republic" judgment of November 2007, stated that the Czech school system does not ensure equal access to education because Romani children are enrolled, to a significant degree, in schools outside mainstream education, which is discriminatory. Equal access to education and the provision of education to all pupils irrespective of their ethnicity or nationality is required by both the Anti-Discrimination Act and the Schools Act.

The ombudsman, which is the only state institution in the Czech Republic authorized by law to perform research into the area of equal treatment, decided to perform research into the ethnic composition of the pupils attending the former "special schools". The aim of the research was to acquire a relevant estimation of the Romani population of those schools which could serve as background material for evaluating their possible discrimination in access to education.

The ombudsman's findings correspond with the results of previous research by the Czech Education Ministry and the Czech School Inspectorate in 2009 and 2010, from which it can be deduced that the situation in the Czech Republic is not improving. The ombudsman's findings are all the more serious given that the ECtHR took into consideration the representation of Romani pupils in such schools in Ostrava only when it handed down its 2007 judgment. The ombudsman's research covered the entire Czech Republic, including regions where there is not a long tradition of Romani populations.

From the perspective of the future development of Czech society, the ombudsman's findings are disturbing, as they show the Czech Republic's largest minority group is not being integrated. Access to education is an essential prerequisite for succeeding on the labor market. This continuing segregation is creating the conditions for the next generations of Romani people to suffer even deeper economic and social poverty. The Czech Republic can therefore count on the problem of high, long-term Romani unemployment in the future, as well as the problem of excluded localities, the risk of socio-pathological phenomena, and growing tensions between the majority society and Romani communities.

The Czech education system is obliged to ensure that the largest possible number of children receive a mainstream education. The "specialized schools", attended by pupils whose disabilities are such that they require a less demanding curriculum, should only be attended in exceptional circumstances.

The research into pupils' ethnicity was carried out in 67 "practical elementary schools" providing education to a total of 3 954 pupils. The schools were randomly selected from a list used by the Czech School Inspectorate during its monitoring activities in 2010. Schools in all regions of the Czech Republic were selected in proportion to population distribution.

The ombudsman used two methods for acquiring data on pupils' ethnicity. The first method was to identify ethnicity on the basis of indirect criteria. This was performed by head teachers in the schools, based on their knowledge of the pupils, their families, their social contexts, etc. Teachers completed a questionnaire on each class and listed the number of pupils they identified as belonging to certain ethnic groups, not only Romani pupils. The second method was based on observation of the pupils and was performed by two staff members from the Office of the ombudsman directly in the classrooms. Their role was to view the pupils as they would be viewed through the eyes of the majority society, whose members identify Romani people at first glance without knowing anything further about them.

The research produced two separate estimates of the number of Romani pupils in the "practical schools", acquired by two distinct methods. Even though the numbers resulting from each method cannot be compared directly, their similarities prove, to a significant degree, the precision of both methods.

The research also revealed the diversity of views held by educators and parents on the question of equal access to education. Even though the Czech Republic has long been criticized for the disproportionate number of Romani children attending classes intended for pupils with light mental disability, some experts from the former "special schools" still deny that this has been the practice. However, the ombudsman considers the reactions of some Romani parents to his research to be very serious. These parents rejected the research project and insisted on their right to decide which school their children will attend, including the right to educate their children in the "practical elementary schools". The ombudsman says this position proves how deeply rooted segregation is in the mindset of the Romani population. In this context, the ombudsman reiterates that the right to education is a right held by the child, not the parents. It is the state which must ensure equal opportunities for all children and make it possible for them to achieve the best possible education.

Through this research into the ethnicity of pupils attending the "practical elementary schools" and his evaluation of their possible discrimination, the ombudsman has fulfilled his legal obligation to advocate for equal treatment. It is now up to the responsible state bodies, in particular the Education Ministry, to adopt measures to eliminate this discrimination. The ombudsman himself, on the basis of the results of this research, has formulated three legal recommendations, one addressed to the Government as a whole and two addressed to the Education Ministry. Another circle of questions - for example, on the procedure for recommending pupils attend "specialized schools", the work of educational guidance centers, the financing of teaching assistants, etc. - should be the subject of discussions with experts initiated by the Education Ministry.

The ombudsman recommends the Government submit an amendment to the Schools Act which unambiguously anchors the priority of the integration of all pupils with "special educational needs", including pupils who are disabled, into mainstream elementary schools. In this context, he reiterates that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, persons living with disability are to be equally ensured educations and mature democracies are doing just that.

The ombudsman recommends the Education Ministry resolve the discrepancy between its decrees on the education of pupils with "special educational needs" and the Schools Act. One decree, for example, exceeds the reach of the law by making it possible to assign children into classes for the disabled who are either not disabled at all or who suffer from a different type of disadvantage, i.e., children who are not progressing in elementary school or children who are socially disadvantaged.

The ombudsman also recommends the ministry task schools with the obligation to produce data on the exact number of pupils educated according to the program for pupils with light mental disability and for a precise inventory of the "former special schools" to be created. The ombudsman also recommends considering changing the schools' nomenclature.

František Bikár, Gwendolyn Albert, ochrance.cz, brf, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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