Interview with Czech education reformer on legislative progress
"The system has not yet facilitated an education for some children corresponding to their actual educational potential, which has a direct impact on their options for future professions. I believe the situation will finally begin to change now," says Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková, who worked on reforming the schools in the direction of inclusive education at the Czech Education Ministry back when Ondřej Liška was minister. Today she is involved in the discussion of this issue as the chair of the Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education (ČOSIV).
News server Romea.cz interviewed Laurenčíková about whether the amendment to the Schools Act approved by the lower house last week will actually introduce a real hope of schools in the country becoming fair and open.
Q: How important is it that the amendment to the Schools Act was approved in this form, what basically happened?
A: This is a very important matter. Several alterations to the amendment were made in response to comments submitted by ČOSIV and by many other experts and organizations. Enrollment into a special school or assignment to a special class will no longer be considered a support measure in and of itself. Also, it will be possible to combine support measures to best correspond to the needs of a specific pupil. Last but not least, a very vaguely formulated provision on diagnosing mental disability was removed - that provision was phrased in such a way that it was open to two diametrically opposed interpretations. One of those interpretations could have led to children with difficulties other than intellectual ones - for example, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems, or specific learning disorders - being diagnosed as mentally disabled.
Q: Does that mean there is now no risk of these children being enrolled into schools outside of mainstream education, outside of "normal" schools?
A: Yes, the Schools Act in this form is a big step forward. In 2009 we had a working group at the Education Ministry comprised of experts from academia, NGOs and the schools... where we addressed paragraph 16 of the law, and we were very concerned that the provision dividing pupils with special educational needs into three categories needed be changed - those categories were pupils with disabilities, pupils with medical disadvantages and pupils with social disadvantages. Back then we wanted that provision to be changed, and now the approved amendment embodies that change - it now speaks in terms of pupils who need support measures and are entitled to them. That's a big success, it's the result of many years of communication between experts and the ministry. Finally, the law is now clearly heading in the direction of inclusion, but it is also clear that this step must be followed by others - such as, for example, a change to the financing system for schools established by Regional Authorities so that there will be a way to fund these support measures.
Q: Is this actually similar to what you attempted at the ministry under Ondřej Liška?
A: Yes, exactly. We designed a comprehensive National Plan for Inclusive Education, which was then "frozen" after staff changes at the ministry. In that plan we also worked with just one category: Pupils who are entitled to support measures. The current amendment is headed in that same direction. The previous categorization of children into three categories of special educational needs never worked. The categories of medical disadvantage and social disadvantage were especially very difficult to define and there were no corresponding sources of financing linked to them to support children identified as disadvantaged. Moreover, the "label" of social disadvantage was unpleasant to many children and their parents, they rejected it.
Q: Let's recall what is basically at issue here - why are the "practical schools" such a problem that activists, European institutions, and experts have repeatedly criticized the Czech Republic for failing to address them?
A: A large segment of the people working in the "practical primary schools" are under the impression that they offer an environment that aids children, that children feel safer in them, that they can experience more of an individual instructional approach in them, that they might not feel as different from other children in them compared to how they would feel in a mainstream school. These people believe the education system prepares the pupils of these schools for an adult working life by providing them with some practical skills. The problem, of course, is that a large segment of the children in these schools do not belong there, they have been enrolled there erroneously, they have never even been given the chance to enroll in a "normal" school and to experience a genuinely supportive approach in one that could make it possible for them to overcome whatever their handicap is. A large portion of these children are condemned a priori by the system to a life of much more restricted employability, because they simply never get the chance to acquire a full-fledged education that would make it possible for them to graduate from a high-quality high school and then college and to work in professions such as that of college instructor, doctor or lawyer.
Q: This inequality in access to education accompanies these children "condemned by the system" for the rest of their lives...
A: A large segment of these children, irrespective of their actual predispositions and talents, are a priori given material that is so far below grade level that while they may experience a relatively calm nine years of basic education, from the perspective of their lifelong use of that education, their options are fundamentally restricted. Many children enroll directly into the "practical schools", others fall out of mainstream education roughly around third grade, when they are labeled as "failing". I am of the opinion, however, that we should be discussing educational approaches that are failing, a system that is failing... We all can probably imagine that if we were to graduate from such a "special school", then in a society that remains rather biased against people of other ethnicities, biased against groups that are different from the "majority", it will be almost impossible to find solid employment, to economically take good care of our families. There are many other traps for these people lurking in society as a result, in the form of problems with housing and problematic behavior - the widest possible range of forms of addiction, etc. ... Education is what can override this vicious cycle being reproduced from one generation to the next and show people "the way out".
Q: Let's recall another basic matter that is discussed in this context: Are there many Romani children in the "practical schools"? Do we know this with certainty? Disputes are underway about whether it is even possible to collect "ethnic" statistics at all.
A: From investigations conducted by the Czech Education Ministry, the Czech School Inspectorate, and the Office of the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud), we see that around 25 % to 30 % of the children enrolled in the "practical schools" are actually Romani. It genuinely is not possible that Romani children would suffer from mild mental disability - the diagnosis required for children to be sent to the "special schools" - exponentially more than all other children. Here it is absolutely evident that children are being discriminated against because of their ethnicity.
Q: What about those statistics?
A: The anonymous collection of ethnic data would document whether discriminatory mechanisms are operating in the area of education. Such data should be collected repeatedly, even, so that we can measure whether the steps taken to combat discrimination are successful over time. I would argue with those who say we are not permitted to collect ethnic data by saying that I think this is, to a certain degree, an alibi given by those who defend the existing system.
Q: It's one thing to say that Romani children cannot be exponentially more afflicted by mild mental disability than other children, but another matter is that, given the environments in which some of them grow up, they could still be disadvantaged in a certain way... What about that issue? By the time a child begins primary school it's probably too late to address it.
A: Yes, and a mandatory final year of preschool will not resolve it either. The big problem is that we do not have a concept of early care here, i.e., care for children between the ages of one and three. Experience from abroad shows that in places where educators target socially disadvantaged families and work with them, ideally when the child is at an early age, when they help their parents learn how to develop their children and help them create an appropriate learning environment, then the children can attend preschool and primary education without any obvious handicaps. Another essential problem is that many socially disadvantaged children never attend regular nursery schools, where they might develop and learn how to cooperate with their fellow pupils. Such things are very hard to learn in a family environment that doesn't stimulate them. That means these children are missing other chances to overcome some of their handicaps.
Q: How might this work, then? One envisions a enormous army of competent, educated social workers in the field and drop-in centers.
A: I don't think that's the biggest problem. Yes, certainly there is a need to augment such services and invest in them. However, what is mainly needed is a comprehensive vision - in addition to an early care system and other services in the field, such as a network of mothers' centers, this doubtless includes the provision of social housing. It all forms a unified whole, and in some ways there is a lack of both vision and legislation.
Q: Let's return to the amendment to the Schools Act, or rather, to what will follow it: You say it is a hopeful, important first step. Won't the next steps be halted for lack of money?
A: I don't think so. The amendment will basically change the situation. If the law actually takes effect, then it's simply the case that wherever a pupil is in the schools system, he or she will be entitled by law to support so he or she can prosper in that school. Pupils will no longer have to enroll into a special school or "practical primary school" to receive the increased financing necessary to cover the support measures they need, which is how it currently works. Naturally, if this support is to be actually provided, it must be paid for, whether that means hiring a teaching assistant or purchasing special teaching aids or other professional services... The law says: We declare that this is binding. It will even be the case that it will be illegal not to meet this obligation. The Education Ministry has publicly expressed itself more than once on this and has pledged to link this amendment to a new system for financing the schools established by Regional Authorities so that the money these children need for their support will get to those schools. The ministry has not yet designed that new concept, but it is clear that this approach will require some additional money, that we're talking about billions. There is no reason that such a budget increase shouldn't be a priority - it seems that political will in this respect is unusually unified.
Q: I can imagine that politicians will now start talking about how there isn't enough money, that we must be realists, that we must move step by step, that we can't introduce inclusion into schools that are unprepared... All of this will remain an open question.
A: Certainly, such efforts to "distance themselves" will be made by politicians. However, I am of the opinion that the new law does not give the ministry the opportunity to delay this forever. Once it takes effect, what will be at issue is whether the ministry, the politicians, and the schools... are proceeding according to the law or not. This law simply creates a new situation.
Q: What about social pressure? Many experts are skeptical because they believe that not only are the schools not ready, but society is not ready, which is worse. Society is full of prejudices and some "white" parents pressure school directors to segregate Romani children. Isn't it possible that the "practical schools" might die out, but will instead become "ghetto schools" where the segregation of Romani children will continue?
A: I am of the opinion that many "majority" parents are afraid of children who are different when a school is not well-prepared to work with them - not equipped in terms of staff or teaching assistants... Parents could perceive that as a risk, and sometimes they are even justified in doing so. It can be presumed that a larger group of socially disadvantaged children actually need some kind of support from the beginning in order to normally thrive at school. Under the current conditions, therefore, difference seems like a threat to many people, because they don't sense that there is any support in place for it... As I said before, what is needed is a comprehensive plan. This first step, which is an amendment to the Schools Act, and the second essential step, in the form of financial reform, must be followed by other steps: A change to the educational counseling services, a change to the training of future pedagogues, a change in how the School Inspectorate works, and connecting the schools to social services....
Q: You are an optimist in any event - these changes will basically happen now, they can't be reversed...
A: Yes. The changes are already here, even. There are more and more schools who understand inclusion as something normal and are heading in that direction. The topic is reported on by the media more frequently. There is no longer a need to explain what inclusion is and why it's important, the discussion now is about which paths lead to it. That in and of itself is a big step forward in comparison with the situation five years ago. The shift is here. This topic is not perceived by society as some short of call from a bunch of crazy intellectuals and hippies or NGO idealists. It is a part of important government strategies, and it is now in the law. The tone of the public discussion is changing. I believe it can't be stopped.
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