Will pre-school classes for Roma children help close educational gap?


Last week the government approved the setting up of pre-school classes for children in areas with large Roma populations. The move is a bid to eradicate the huge gap in education between the Roma and majority Czech society. But as Rob Cameron reports now, not everyone believes it will have any great effect.

There are no official figures for Roma education, only estimates, but they make depressing reading. Less than 2 percent of Romanies receive a regular academic education, while some 75 percent of Romany children are placed in "special schools" for the mentally retarded. So why do they end up there in the first place? Iveta Pape is from the "Nova Skola" organisation, which runs educational programmes for Roma children.

"That's a difficult question, because there are of course two sides to every argument. People say 'Romanies aren't interested in education, they don't encourage their kids to go to school.' We can sit down and argue about that all day, but it would do nothing to change the fact that Roma children are being sent to the wrong schools. If they really belong in such schools, then it means that 70 percent of one ethnic group are mentally retarded. Which, frankly, is rather hard to believe."

And that view seems to be backed up by research. In 2001, for example, the Open Society Institute found that 64 percent of all Romany children tested in special schools could successfully complete the curriculum of mainstream schools. Iveta Pape says there are, however, important social differences between Roma and other children, differences which are rarely taken into account by the rigid Czech school system.

"The problem is that the traditional Czech school is simply unprepared to handle "different" kids. Kids who are bilingual, kids who come from a different culture with different traditions and different values. And the result is that the teachers simply don't know what to do with them. Most Roma kids are NOT transferred from primary schools to special schools because of poor results. They're transferred to special schools because the teachers don't know how to control them."

But Iveta Pape says a much deeper problem is that even those Roma who do receive an education are rarely able to find jobs afterwards. Unless that situation is changed, she says, there is little point talking about improving educational standards among the country's 300,000-strong Roma population.

"Czechs often say 'Romanies only have themselves to blame because they don't go to school and that's why they can't get a job.' Rubbish. Even those Romanies who do go to school and train to be a cook or a waiter for example, will never find a job in a Czech hotel or a Czech restaurant. And then try and explain to them that it wasn't a waste of time going to school! When people won't even employ Romanies as waiters, then it's hardly surprising that the parents don't encourage their kids to go to school, is it? What's the point of going to school when there's no chance of getting a job anyway?"