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Laurenčíková: Delays to Czech education reform are uneconomical and unethical

Prague, 9.11.2010 22:26, (ROMEA)

Klára Laurenčíková has been advocating for fundamental changes at the Czech Education Ministry to promote the inclusion of disabled and socially disadvantaged pupils into mainstream education. After first working as Deputy Minister, she was removed from that position in March of this year when then-Education Minister Miroslava Kopicová decided to shut down the group dedicated to social programs in then elementary schools. Laurenčíková continued her work as director of the Special Education Section before going on maternity leave in June. After returning to work, she accepted Czech Education Minister Josef Dobeš's offer to work as an external adviser. The concept she has been advocating has been de facto suspended by Dobeš.

Viktor Hartoš, who was supposed to implement the new special needs education concept, has left the ministry. He said conditions at the ministry made it impossible to implement the concept. Did you leave for the same reason?

A couple of weeks after my return, I realized the direction the ministry was heading in was unfortunately not the one we had been aiming for over the past few years. The basic reason I decided to stop working as the minister's adviser was the drastic reduction in personnel of the department in question (which had previously been a group and was reduced to a section). In addition to downgrading the importance of the work we had been doing, the chances and opportunities to fight for attention and for space to be given this agenda within the framework of the ministry were greatly reduced. That agenda mainly concerns the prevention of high-risk behavior, the provision of special needs education, and the topic of institutional care. The implementation of the concrete steps of our concept has now been frozen to a certain extent, because the staff implementing them were either forced out or do not have adequate conditions in which to perform their work at this moment.

Weren't such developments (or something like them) predictable? Wasn't it naive to accept the external adviser position?

I stayed at the ministry because I considered it important to at least try to explain the purpose of the agenda we had worked on to the new management and to generate support for the opportunity to continue the tasks we had started. As an adviser to the minister I wanted to ensure support for continuing the reforms we had prepared.

Your concept was completed before Viktor Hartoš was hired. According to him, it just needed to be implemented.

Ministr Dobeš wanted Mr Hartoš to design a concept for special needs education, which is a rather general assignment. Mr Hartoš oriented himself very quickly and realized that the necessary materials on both mainstream and special needs education which we had previously drafted were well-designed. He realized that the conceptual materials which had been approved by the previous government were just waiting for Minister Dobeš to decide whether they would be implemented or not. In particular, these were the Action Plan for Early Childhood Care, amendments to the decrees regulating the education of children with special educational needs and the activity of the educational psychological counseling facilities at schools (the PPP/SPC), and the National Action Plan on Inclusive Education. We designed the amendments to those decrees in March of this year and they were adopted at a meeting of the ministry leadership, chaired by the minister herself. After that, the standard process of their being approved began, including a commenting procedure whereby others review the proposal.

Ministr Dobeš claims he does not want to introduce your concept because you did not pay sufficient attention to the comments generated during that procedure.

Naturally there are some new elements of the concept which might be perceived as controversial. Not all of the staff involved in the system currently in place responded to the concept with total satisfaction. However, I am of the opinion that it is necessary to take responsibility and to seriously concern ourselves with whether the current practice meets children's needs or not. It is absolutely necessary to rid the system of all elements that preserve existing barriers or that even facilitate a discriminatory approach towards certain children. Both the Czech ombudsman and the Czech School Inspection Authority have said the current legislation, specifically the unamended decrees at issue here, contain discriminatory elements. Minister Dobeš, when reviewing how the comments had been incorporated into the amendments, discovered they had not been incorporated to the full satisfaction of all those who commented. However, we are convinced that the maximum possible consensus has been achieved given the current situation and we must stop delaying and continue with the steps that have been designed.

What in your opinion needs to be systemically changed first and foremost?

The existing system of normative financing must be changed so that norms can only be raised when the support being financed is concretely described. This would make the money needed by disadvantaged pupils more accessible. We also need educational psychological counseling facilities to clearly describe going forward what kind of support each pupil needs. We need teachers to be prepared during their own training both to take an individual approach to each pupil and to work on the overall climate of the school. We need to start preparing children for school as early as possible and link teachers' interventions to social workers' interventions.

Could you be more specific about the services for disadvantaged pupils?

This mainly concerns the services of school psychologists, special educational needs teachers, social skills teachers, and teaching assistants. Pre-school preparations are key, as is an individual approach to ensuring the necessary support measures are in place at all levels of the education system for the pupil concerned. Teaching services performed directly in children's homes have delivered very good results. The interdisciplinary collaboration model also works.

How does your concept approach the future work of "practical" schools on the education of children who are not intellectually disabled?

We proposed cutting the section of the decree which currently makes it possible for as many as 25 % of the children attending "practical" schools to have no actual mental handicap. Based on the judgment of the European Court for Human Rights, the Czech School Inspection Authority investigation and the Czech ombudsman's consultation, we did not consider the existing legislation sustainable.

We would like to transform the entire elementary school system, both the mainstream schools and the "practical" elementary schools. This would not involve a fundamental reduction in the number of schools. Rather, we see the way forward as changing the way these schools operate and are anchored in the system itself. Our proposal would make it possible for some of the non-disabled children now enrolled at "practical" schools to continue to attend those schools, but their curriculum would not be reduced and the schools would not be permitted to educate them according to the Framework Program for Children with Light Mental Disability.

You said the financing should be stratified differently, that more should be invested into services connected to the specific needs of particular disadvantaged pupils. Would the changes you propose cost more? If so, maybe that is why Minister Dobeš is avoiding launching your proposal. The current government's "savings" mania concerns the Education Ministry too.

There does not have to be a dramatic increase in cost. Rather, this is about restructuring how financing is disbursed. The redesign of the current flow of money would be addressed by teams of experts as part of the National Action Plan for Inclusive Education. The ministry has to set its priorities and allocate the amount necessary. However, further delays in implementing the systemic changes already designed are, from my perspective, not only unethical, but uneconomic in the long run.

Your opinion was recently supported by a World Bank study which claims that if the Czech Republic were to meet certain criteria, its investment into overcoming the differences in educational achievement for various sections of the population would generate threefold returns. Money invested into the education of Roma would not just be returned to the state, the state would make a profit.

Exactly. I believe it is necessary to emphasize that aspect as well so the current government understands that transforming the existing system is meaningful and necessary from more than one point of view.

Could your concept help eliminate segregation in mainstream elementary schools? I have encountered mainstream schools more than once where there are classes in which about 90 % of the pupils are Roma. According to the parents with whom I have spoken, these children are being instructed in essentially the same way as if they were at a "practical" school.

The instructional methods used by "practical" elementary schools, including smaller class sizes, teaching assistants' services, etc., may also be applied by mainstream schools. The teaching methods themselves can be transferred. However, together with the educational psychological counseling facilities and school founders, we need to redesign the current conditions under which these methods are being applied.

We want to support the development of inclusive education in cooperation with other ministries, to review the overall complex of the causes of these current problems, and to seek a solution together. We must offer parents real choices when they decide on their children's education.

High numbers of pupils in the classroom, of course, prevent teachers from providing that individual attention.

Yes, definitely. I believe the way forward is to link financing to specific degrees of support. That way even mainstream schools would be able to access more financing in the future in order to create adequate conditions for the education of pupils who need support measures.

Specific changes the amended decrees would introduce:

So-called "equalizing measures" aimed at minimizing or preventing school failure particularly among pupils who are either disabled or socially disadvantaged. These measures will be established primarily by the school, based on its evaluation of the pupil's needs (since schools for the most part manage to respond more quickly to a pupil's needs and have more information about them than the educational psychological facilities do). In collaboration with practicing experts and the academic community, the ministry will prepare a catalog of equalizing measures describing in detail the options for support intended for various groups of pupils suffering from either intellectual or physical disability or social disadvantage (e.g., pupils with lower levels of specific learning disabilities, pupils from "socio-culturally disadvantaging environments", pupils whose parents are foreigners, etc.). The catalog will also more closely define the various target groups of disabled or socially disadvantaged pupils for whom various forms of support are particularly designed. Through this step, the ministry will try to provide schools with the needed methodological support to prevent school failure for disabled and socially disadvantaged pupils. Many of the measures will also be usable for non-disabled pupils who also experience problems during the course of their education.

Integration into mainstream education is emphasized as the preferred form of educating all disabled pupils. However, all of the other forms of education for disabled pupils will remain in place (such as special classes or schools).

Unlike the existing legislation, a new regulation will make it impossible to educate pupils who are not intellectually disabled according to educational programs designed for intellectually disabled pupils. Clear conditions will be established for the education of non-disabled pupils at schools established for intellectually disabled students.

A change in the labeling of schools is also included - the "practical" elementary school label will no longer be used, as its use to date has been illegal.

The activities of teaching assistants providing essential aid to disabled students will be expanded to include promotion of the students' mobility and self-help during the course of education and other events organized by the school. This concerns interactions which many disabled students fundamentally require in order to facilitate their access to education which it would not be appropriate to call on others (parents or personal assistants) to perform.

The rules for assigning disabled pupils into education are newly drafted so that informed consent is a necessary condition of their being assigned into any form of special needs education or educational program designed for disabled pupils. A sample of the informed consent form to be signed in order to assign a pupil into an educational program for pupils with light mental disability or into a special elementary school is included in the appendix to the decree.

The responsibility of the educational psychological counseling facility at a school to review the special educational needs of each pupil and the support measures implemented on his or her behalf is newly established. Facilities must also review the reasons a particular pupil was assigned into a particular form of special education.

The monitoring of the individual educational plans for pupils with special educational needs will be reduced to a frequency of once a year at least.

New regulations govern the assignment of pupils to schools for the purposes of diagnosing them. The time period during which a pupil may be assigned to a school for such purposes is reduced to between one and three months for those forms of education not involving individual integration measures. The responsibility of the educational psychological counseling facilities at schools to propose and especially to evaluate the diagnostic assignment of pupils is newly established.

New regulations govern the assignment into education of pupils who have been granted asylum, pupils enjoying temporary protection and pupils who have applied for international protection. These pupils will continue to be assigned to schools on the basis of recommendations by the educational psychological counseling facilities that are part of the the Facility for Foreign Children. The aim of this regulation is to improve the counseling care provided to this target group.

New standards for teaching assistants are included in the appendix to the decree.

The new decree on providing counseling services at schools and at educational psychological counseling facilities would introduce the following essential changes:

Time limits would be established for:

a) the start of services (within at least three months of being requested)

b) the release of reports on the examination of pupils (within 30 days from the ending of services)

The required components of the examination reports are specified in more detail.

The decree establishes a new need for the facilities to report to parents or guardians on:

a) the rights and responsibilities flowing from service provision

b) if a pupil is recommended for education in a program designed for disabled pupils, the differences between that program and the mainstream program and the possible results of assigning the pupil to one or the other program with respect to the pupil's future work life and social standing must be explained to the parents or guardians. This information is very significant, particularly in relation to recommendations that a pupil be educated according to an educational program designed for pupils with intellectual disability.

Staff of the educational psychological counseling centers would be authorized to perform examinations of children in the child's home environment (in cooperation with child welfare authorities), particularly in cases where it is not possible to acquire information essential to perform the diagnosis at a counseling facility or school. Currently, staff are only authorized to perform diagnoses at schools or their own workplaces.

Appendices to the decree have been developed, in particular an appendix on the standard activity of special education centers and the standard activity of special needs teachers.

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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