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Czech Republic: Study says mandatory preschool could paradoxically worsen Romani children's situations

1.7.2015 5:55

Mandatory preschool attendance could contribute to further stigmatization of Romani children and problems for their entire families. Such attendance will also not make it easier for them to adapt to primary school.

Those are the conclusions reached by an extensive study conducted by the Demographic Information Center, an NGO whose mission is to popularize demography, and the "Here and Now" (Tady a Teď) NGO, which runs activation programs and provides educational support to children growing up in social exclusion. Based on a questionnaire and field research, the study opposes the Czech Education Ministry's proposal for the final year of preschool to be mandatory for all beginning in September 2017, a measure intended to spur socially vulnerable people, who are frequently Romani, to send their children to preschool.

"Repression" won't help

"The experiences of schools attended by more children from socially disadvantaged environments demonstrate that their absence rate is very high and cannot be improved. There is no reason to believe it will be better during a last mandatory year of preschool," says Daniel Hůle, a manager of the research project from the Demographic Information Center.

"Repression will just worsen the situation of the families, including their children," Hůle says. Reportedly there are completely clear reasons why some parents do not send their children to preschool even when there are enough places available.

"First and foremost, they have no rational reason to send their children to preschool when the mother is already staying home with two other young children," he says."Then there are naturally financial problems - primarily for meals at the preschool."

"There are costs for the events the preschools are doing their best to offer more and more - swimming, going to the theater, " the researcher says. "If children from impoverished families are unable to participate in such events, that means more stigmatization for them."

Hůle says the state should reflect on the reasons families do not send their children to preschool as opposed to beginning to force them to do so. The state should also focus on reforming primary schools, not transferring these problems to the preschool level.

"In the European Union we have by far the highest number of delayed first-grade enrollments - more than 20 % of school-aged children delay enrolling. The Slovaks are in second place, where more than 7 % of children delay enrollment, " he says.

"Parents here are afraid of primary school, and not just the parents of the impoverished or the socially disadvantaged. Schools focus on performance and do not know how to work with different children. To transfer the children's obligation to attend school one year earlier in their lives won't solve anything under these circumstances," the researcher says.

"The Roma are to blame"

Today roughly 90 % of children attend a final year of preschool - 111 000 in the 2013/2014 school year. According to the study, roughly 1 500 children in that particular cohort were disadvantaged.

The obligation to send children to preschool, of course, would apply across the board to families who do not send their children to nursery school for other reasons. "The state would have to enforce attendance, establish a mandatory minimum attendance time, and that would require the necessity to excuse children, just like in primary school," says Hůle.

"Parents would have to 'procedurally excuse' their child for every cold. They would not be able to spend their vacation time in June at the sea as easily, etc. That would interfere with the mobility of people from 'the majority'. They would feel this to be an interference with their convenience. They would look for someone to blame. In the current atmosphere in society, in my opinion, the culprit would be easily, quickly found:  'The Roma are to blame! Because of their children, we all have to do this!' That decidedly would not benefit the integration of Romani children," he says.

Hůle believes that from the perspective of aiding children from socially disadvantaged environments, the costs of mandatory preschool attendance are also absurd. "The costs, according to our calculations, come to roughly CZK 250 000 [EUR 9 000] per socially disadvantaged child per year. For that money, however, it would be possible to provide children and their families with much more efficient individual care and support," he explains.

Three scenarios

The study researched three possible scenarios:  Introducing mandatory preschool per the ministry's proposal, introducing a selective obligation to attend only for certain families, and establishing an entitlement to attend preschool from the age of three, which is the solution the study promotes.

"In our constitutional legal framework it is not possible to establish this obligation selectively, the state must require it of everyone or no one," Hůle said. That leaves either the ministerial proposal or the introduction of an entitlement to preschool.

"The child welfare authorities would issue recommendations for certain children to attend preschool. Those recommendations would be linked to elements motivating parents to actually send their children to preschool - the option of being reimbursed for transportation, meals, etc., as well as social activation services for families," Hůle summarizes.  

"The basis would not be repression, but motivation, and it would not involve introducing an across-the-board obligation. Moreover, it is important for this to concern, if possible, children from the age of three, not the age of five," he concludes.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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