Roma community organizer: Teachers have to learn to work with a heterogeneous class

At the end of her five-day fact-finding mission to Czechia, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic criticized the country’s slow progress in addressing discrimination against Romanies. She said that, despite the government’s good intentions, the Roma in this country still face discrimination in almost all areas of life – education, housing, on the labour market and in dealing with the police.

Magdaléna Karvayová | Photo: Radio Prague International

I spoke to Magdalena Karvayova from the Awen Amenca association, which focusses on securing equal access of Romani children to quality education, and asked for her take on the commissioner’s findings.

“Unfortunately I have to agree with her because, as she stated, discrimination still occurs in all the fields mentioned, such as housing, education and there are even cases of police harassment – it is still a big issue which is not being solved.”

Where do you see the biggest problems?

“Well I think that discrimination as such is a big problem, but the biggest problem I see in housing and education. Because when Roma people are being segregated in socially excluded localities and in education they won’t have any chance of getting out of the vicious circle of poverty and social-economic exclusion.

“Another big issue I perceive –the driving force behind this discrimination – is the deeply-rooted prejudice and stereotypes that the society harbors towards the Roma people.”

Are Roma schoolchildren still segregated on a mass scale?

Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“Unfortunately yes, I have worked in the sphere of education for the past 15 years and  discrimination still occurs – it just takes a different form. Because nowadays we do not have special schools or “practical schools”, however it happens that within a building we have segregated classes where Roma children are placed, or we have –formally -one school with two segregated buildings which are ten minutes away from each other.”

What is the reason given? Is it language difficulties?

“There is not only one reason. The issue is very complex. Sometimes they call it a language class, or a math class, they find an objective reason to set up a separate class. Or, they say it is a class for children who are a little bit slower or who have ADHD, a behavioral disorder or what they do is that even if they are in one class the Roma children are educated according to a reduced curricula. So even if they are in one class they are still being taught according to a reduced curricula –with a lower outcome.”

Is there a will to change this on the part of the authorities? Are the respective laws in place? Why is progress in changing this so slow?

Illustrative photo: Romy Ebert

“With regard to education, yes, there is some willingness, after the infringement procedure and international pressure from the European Commission and the Council of Europe, and I do not see so much problem in issuing the education policy but in its implementation in practice.”

Is this to do with teachers’ attitudes and the attitudes of the general public?

“It has to do with what you described, but the key players are the local municipalities which are the establishers of the schools and the school staff. And we also have to work to eliminate the prejudices on the side of the majority parents – because when they see Roma children sometimes there are tendencies to take their own children out of the school.”

The commissioner spoke about wanting to finally see a breakthrough. What do you think is most important in bringing that about?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“In the sphere of education, I think teachers have to learn how to work with a heterogeneous group of children. They should stop labelling children and just work with the potential that is there. This practice of “diagnosing” should really stop. Of course, if the children have special educational needs then let’s meet them, but let’s do it properly. And another important thing is the attitude. If the attitude changes, if there is willingness and love on the side of the teachers, if they know how to approach children, then it will take a few simple steps which could make a big difference.”