85,000 join Facebook campaign against voluntary Romani lessons in schools

There’s been an unexpectedly negative reaction to a proposal by the Education Ministry to offer voluntary classes in Romani – the language of the country’s 300,000 Roma or gypsies – in Czech schools. A Facebook campaign against the proposal has already attracted over 85,000 supporters, although the authorities appear undeterred.

Helena Sadílková
Romani teacher Helena Sadílková teaches me some basic phrases in one of Europe’s oldest languages. Helena is not herself Romani, but she teaches the language – part of the same family as Hindi and Bengali - to students at Prague’s Charles University. She was involved in a recent survey of more than 1,000 Romani schoolchildren, a survey that showed only around 30% of them were fluent in the language.

Helena Sadílková supports the proposal by the Education Ministry to make Romani lessons a voluntary part of the Czech school curriculum, but says it’s also important to realise that there may be resistance among Roma parents themselves after four decades of official repression under the Communists.

“Parents were for forty years told by the teachers themselves or the social workers not to use the language, and they actually accepted the idea that Romani is a barrier to a good education or even acquiring good Czech. So if you now come to the parents and try to persuade them, let’s try to teach Romani to your kids, you’re actually totally reversing the position that they have taken, and that was taken by the representatives of the education system.”

The Education Ministry not only wants schools with large numbers of Roma pupils to be able to study their own language, it also thinks some non-Roma pupils might be interested as well. So they were unprepared for the huge response to a Facebook page called “Petition Against Teaching of Romani in Czech Schools”, which has so far attracted 85,000 fans. Education Ministry spokesman Tomáš Bouška says the campaign is proof of the need for more multicultural education in schools, not less.

“It’s a sensitive topic in general, and the only thing that the Education Ministry can do is introduce more integrated forms of education that would put both sides together and hopefully explain and declare that there is no need to fight, there is just need to speak. And what else can help than language. And as I said, it is just offered for certain localities, there will be course, we are just at the beginning, but it doesn’t mean that we are afraid of it or afraid of some groups of people against it. We have to educate – that’s our mission.”

Tomáš Bouška
The Education Ministry has repeatedly stressed the courses will be voluntary – it will be up to schools to offer them and only if parents, teachers and children are interested. That message seems not to have got through, with reports of some parents already contacting schools in protest, and a Facebook campaign against it likely to exceed 100,000 supporters.