EDUin’s Bob Kartous: inclusive education in the Czech Republic still facing plenty of hurdles

Photo: Klára Bílá

One of the mainstays of a new school law that is to take effect in 2016 is securing inclusive education for children in schools nation-wide. This concerns not only children with physical and mental disabilities but children from socially disadvantaged families and children from the Romany minority who often end up in so-called practical or special schools with a limited curriculum. Although a series of education ministers have tried to change this practice the country has not so far made significant progress in embracing the concept to inclusive education. In this week’s Panorama I talk to Bob Kartous from the NGO EDUin about some of the problems involved.

Bob Kartous,  photo: Marián Vojtek
“There is a mixture of problems that present hurdles to the effective implementation of the concept of inclusive education in Czech schools, for example- financing, overworked teachers, big classes. Generally it is very hard for Czech education ministers to negotiate with the treasury a significant increase in public spending on education. According to the OECD’s Education at a Glance monitoring service the Czech Republic is one of the countries with the lowest education funding in relation to the country’s GDP. But the fundamental budget for the implementation of the inclusion program is ensured, at least according to the Education Ministry. Secondly, teachers in the Czech Republic are not well-paid. OECD statistics reflect that. And then there is an obvious, strong reluctance to change the approach to some groups of children, especially those belonging to the Roma ethnicity. Unfortunately this problem mirrors the general attitudes of the majority population in the Czech Republic.”

So basically, what you are saying is that there is a lot of prejudice involved still – that teachers simply do not want Romany children in their class because they expect problems and so they are automatically put in special schools –is that what happens?

“Yes, the long-term practice of putting Roma children in special schools, based only on their social disadvantage, is something that makes this sensitive social issue worse and effectively reproduces social exclusion. A lot of people, even those personally involved in education, are convinced that practical schools with a limited curriculum are the best option for the Roma because they believe that these children are not suited for a better education. It is a misconception that is deeply rooted in their mindset. “

The long-term practice of putting Roma children in special schools, based only on their social disadvantage, is something that makes this sensitive social issue worse and effectively reproduces social exclusion.

The government and the Education Ministry have for a number of years now tried to change that – why is it not working? What are the main problems -apart from prejudice on the part of teachers?

“The main problem is that there is a lack of teachers who are able to change their approach. But in the interest of objectivity it is important to say that not only individual teachers but also some schools have successfully implemented inclusive education. I can name the elementary schools in Poběžovice, Trmice, Deblín and several more that support inclusive education and can serve as success stories, and even as a role-model for others, but to date no one has been keen to learn from their experience and follow their example.”

So what is essential for inclusive education to work –what are main factors that need to be in place?

“It is essential to have strong support from the Ministry of Education. A lot of previous reforms failed simply because teachers felt they had been left alone with their problems. It is important that the current education minister, Kateřina Valachová, be seen as an ambassador of inclusive education. And what is also necessary, besides financing of course, is support from the founders of these schools, i.e. municipalities and regional governments. But there are strong concerns regarding whether they will manifest goodwill.”

What about parents? Do they pose problems as well?

Photo: Klára Bílá
“Yes, there are two problems with parents. Parents from the majority population often manifest their reluctance to enroll their children in classes with Romany children. On the other hand, parents from the Roma minority are often not able to support their children enough, to prepare them for elementary school and help them cope and that is a big handicap for their children.”

So would compulsory pre-school help?

“It could help, for sure, but there are various concerns in preparing this legislation. The proposal is on the table, but part of the experts involved say it will not help families who need it and only bother those who do not belong to the target group. There is a reasonable argument that children from socially disadvantaged families should be stimulated and taught certain skills earlier than at the age of five. “

What about disabled children – are they being integrated more successfully?

“Yes, I think so. There aren’t strong social stereotypes with regard to these children and the inclusion –especially of physically disabled children –is not proving such a big problem. The problem is that there is a dense network of special and practical schools which have cared for disabled and socially disadvantaged children for years and the people who are engaged in these schools try to ensure their survival within the Czech education system. And that presents a problem because it is something like a conflict of interests.”

A lot of people try to argue that inclusion is not the right way for the Czech education system and that almost everything in the system is working fine.

Would it not help to close them down then, or at least to reduce their number?

“That’s a political problem I think, because a lot of people try to argue that inclusion is not the right way for the Czech education system and that almost everything in the system is working fine. These people try to persuade the public that it is not necessary to change anything and that placing disabled and socially disadvantaged children in special and practical schools is alright and that they are educated enough at these schools, that it is not a threat to their future and their chances of getting a higher education.”

But is not the ministry – are not Czech officials countering these arguments?

“That’s a problem because if you look at some of the people surrounding the education minister you will see that many of them use these arguments themselves.”

But if that is true then what are the chances that the new legislation that will go into effect next year can be successfully implemented and move things in the right direction?

“I think there is a fair chance if the Ministry of Education and the founders of schools will cooperate to support this change, if they support the new rules and manifest their goodwill to teachers, assure them that they can do something good for the future of this society, that they are the agents who can make the change happen. But I think that the risks are obvious – that this chance to change something will fail and in that case all the critics of inclusion will say “see, it is not working”. So the failure of this reform could very negatively influence the future of inclusive education in the Czech Republic.”

Photo: Adriana Kratinová
We have spoken about disabled and socially disadvantaged children. What about foreigners? The Czech Republic is going to take in some 1,500 migrants in the next two years. Is the education system prepared to help their children join the mainstream education system, overcome language barriers and so on?

“Good question. I think there are two possible and contrary answers. I think that Czech schools are able to absorb the children of 1,500 refugees and probably far more. But I am afraid that the Czech society itself is not able to accept the fact that there are people in need and that we are affluent enough to help them and that is something truly sad.”

Finally, under the best circumstances –if the social inclusion reform works – when can we expect to see results, see a radical change for the better?

“That is not easy to answer. We need to wait for it to take effect and then in a year we could see some practical impact. But I think we will need to wait for more than three years to see if something important changes or not. “