Still Separate and Not Equal

Despite the Czech Republic's commitment in 2016 to fostering Roma children's inclusion in

mainstream education, progress has been painstakingly low.

by Alice Millerchip and Emily Mason

31 January 2020

Denisa Gaborova remembers well the day her seven-year-old daughter, also called Denisa, came home from school crying. She had been told she could not attend a class field trip to a farm several miles from her elementary school. Her teacher said it was because there was no room on the bus, but it was only Denisa and the four other Roma children who were being left behind.

"She didn't want to go to the school that day," Gaborova recalled. "She said the teacher was mean, taking the other children and not 'us'." Although she has other examples of the teacher favouring non-Roma students - other students are given stamps and stickers as rewards for good work, but not little Denisa, she says - Gaborova wants to keep her daughter in a mainstream school, rather than send her to one of the so-called "Roma schools."  

"I want her to actually not be separate, not with just Roma," Gaborova said. "Have a good education with the other children; be better prepared for high school, a better future." 

That was the ambition of a far-reaching reform initiative in the Czech Republic, which was launched in 2016 in an attempt to combat discrimination against Roma children in the education system. However, experts say that, so far, the reforms have failed to significantly improve things for young Roma, with prejudice, poor teacher training, old habits, and deeper unresolved issues such as housing combining to stunt progress.

At the same time, the sudden shift to "inclusive" schools and classrooms has been a challenge for teachers, with the potential to create negative attitudes toward inclusion overall.

Little To No Impact

As of 2016, Roma children were six times more likely than non-Roma children to be placed in special schools - separate schools in the Czech education system for children with mental disabilities - according to a European Commission report.

That report confirmed that discrimination was continuing almost a decade after the European Court of Human Rights found the Czech Republic guilty of indirectly discriminating against Roma children by siphoning them off to these special schools, with the diagnosis "mildly mentally disabled." The court had ruled that Roma children were disproportionately represented in special schools and being taught to lower standards, thereby limiting their future educational and career opportunities.

Facing international pressure and criticism for not doing enough after the judgement in 2007, the Czech Republic acted after the European Commission report in 2016, amending its education law to curtail segregation. Yet the 2016 reforms went even further than Roma inclusion and aimed to gradually eliminate special schools altogether so that children diagnosed with mild mental disabilities could be integrated into the mainstream system.

The government also introduced a compulsory year of preschool education, in hopes of increasing enrollment of Roma children. Taken together, these measures aimed to provide equal educational opportunities to all Czech children.

Yet three years after the amendments, Roma parents still find themselves subject to an arsenal of tactics to keep their children out of certain schools, according to critics. In fact, data from the ombudsman's office show that even without a diagnosis, Roma children still end up in separate schools. While only 2.3 percent of the Czech population is Roma, as of 2018 there were 13 primary schools with over 90 percent Roma students. The same report showed that children being educated according to a reduced curriculum (as a result of the "mildly mentally disabled" diagnosis) had decreased by only 1.6 percent since the Education Act was revised in 2016.

"Our conclusion is that the amendment of the school act in 2016 had no impact on segregation," said Miroslav Klempar, chairman of Awen Amenca, an organization aiming to integrate schools in Ostrava. "Not at all." "Former special schools" remain very much "un-abolished," and today serve as de facto Roma schools, Jindra Maresova, the director of Nadace Albatros, a Roma activist organization, said.

"It's a very low quality of education; not all of them - they really, really try - but mostly they are very poor quality," she added.

However, Maresova acknowledged that social pressures gear Roma parents toward these former special schools, not least because of a desire to protect their children from bullying. "[Pupils] are usually children of former pupils, so the parents know they [the teachers] are friendly and they would rather put their children into these schools."

The mainstream alternative can seem terrifying. In 2018, a Roma eighth-grader attempted suicide after being bullied at her primary school, TV Nova reported. "It began with insults because of what I look like and what I am. They said I am a 'shitty gipsy'," the girl said.

The Challenge of Mass Inclusion

It was not only Roma children that the inclusive education reforms targeted. Czech teachers are now responsible for teaching a mainstream curriculum to students of various learning abilities. While many educators agree that the reforms have increased financial support for educating all children, training teachers to deal with inclusive classrooms has been difficult.

Often, it is children with mental disabilities that pose challenges in the classroom - not necessarily Roma children - stressed Jana Strakova, an associate professor at the Institute for Research and Development of Education (IR&ED) at Charles University in Prague. And these challenges create negative attitudes toward inclusion as a whole.

"I think Czech teachers need help," she said. "Educators do not have sufficient expertise to educate heterogeneous groups of children, and they do not have sufficient help to do this.

"They do not know how to handle children with behavioural problems," she added. "They have the feeling that they are alone, and that they have no one to ask for help, which to some extent is true."

Various organizations, like the NGO People in Need (PIN) - one of the largest nonprofits in Central Europe -

offer training services to help teachers adapt to inclusive education measures. Tomas Habart, program manager of PIN's "Varianty" education initiative, said that around a decade ago, Czech teachers were fairly independent. However, with increasing demands since the education reforms, they do not feel prepared to teach inclusive classrooms.

"Now, they often feel like they are being attacked by parents, NGOs, and officials," Habart said. "Many of them feel like they have many more responsibilities but aren't getting enough support."

And although the new role of teaching assistant - introduced in the Czech Republic with the reforms - can provide help to teachers, finding candidates to fill these auxiliary positions is no easy task.

"Generally, the teaching assistant profession is not attractive to many people," said Jaroslava Simonova, who works with Strakova at IR&ED.

Teaching assistants are poorly paid in the Czech Republic, and the country has a very low unemployment rate. Further, the teaching assistant profession is not yet well-established in the Czech educational system, Simonova said.

This hiring problem has deep consequences. The lack of teaching assistants is one of the main barriers to inclusive education, according to principals of mainstream primary schools in the Czech Republic, cited in a 2017 Open Society Fund Report. The report analyzed the impact of the inclusive education reforms in their first year.

"The teachers are not very skilled in inclusive education at all," said Maresova, of Nadace Albatros. "Here there is a very short history of talking about being inclusive in education - this is something nobody taught them."

If teachers are provided with sufficient training and aid to cope with the challenges that come with inclusive classrooms, Strakova said, they will start to have more positive experiences. In turn, positive attitudes toward inclusive education may emerge.

Magdalena Karvayová Awen Amenca receiving an award for her contribution to human rights from US Embassy
Magdalena Karvayová Awen Amenca receiving an award for her contribution to human rights from US Embassy


A Vicious Circle

However, Strakova also acknowledged that the ingrained beliefs of Czech educators continue to hinder the inclusion of Roma children in schools.

"The problem is complicated and deeper than we realize because of the way Czech teachers perceive their task as educators," she said. "They do not feel responsible for every child. They only feel responsible for the children that 'deserve' it." Educators often categorize "deserving" children as those who come from families that care about education, she said. Many Roma children don't fit into this category, at least in the minds of their teachers.

"For some teachers, it's difficult to find some functional ways of cooperation with parents," Felcmanova said. "Racial prejudice is sometimes behind all these feelings toward Roma children, so it's a mixture of these [reasons]."

Within the school community, people think parents should be responsible for filling gaps in their children's education, said Lenka Felcmanova, vice president of the Czech Society for Inclusive Education, an NGO working to integrate Czech schools. But with 72 percent of Roma dropping out before high school, it's unrealistic to expect some parents to supplement their child's studies.

Zuzana Ramajzlova, project manager of PIN's social work program, works with families in excluded localities to provide them with educational and social support. Although she said the inclusive education measures have brought positive changes to schools in some areas, schools near socially excluded localities still struggle. For one, given the pressures of daily life, education is often not a priority for many Roma families living in socially excluded localities, she said.

Many of the Roma parents Ramajzlova works with only have an elementary school level of education themselves, and many are former pupils of special schools. Their negative experiences with school create a negative attitude overall toward the education system.

As a man of Roma ethnicity, Klempar from the Awen Amenca NGO regularly faced discrimination at school, despite being the smartest in the class. He recalled a particular experience in sixth grade when his science teacher was walking up to the front of the classroom.

"She passed me and said, 'It stinks in here. Oh, it's a gipsy.'" As a community organizer and advocate for quality education for all Roma children, Klempar said the Roma children he works with still complaining of similar encounters.

"We hear from the children about teachers coming to class and saying, 'You will be nothing, it's a waste of time for me to teach you,'" he said. "Some teachers are talking like this openly."

When teachers openly show prejudice against Roma children, the children are not motivated to learn, he stressed. Attitudes like this can provoke children to misbehave in the classroom, further fueling the stereotype that Roma children are disruptive.

"Roma children are demotivated to learn and can even be rude to the teachers," he said. "It's a circle, and in most cases, it starts with the teachers."

In Ostrava, the same eastern Czech city where Klempar works, Roma mother Denisa Gaborova says it can be near impossible for her to schedule a meeting with her daughter's teacher, and she often feels the conversations are unproductive.

"They are not harsh; they are not rude or anything. They are speaking politely because they know you can complain." Gaborova says. "You can feel you are a second-class citizen; they are speaking to you from on high."

Jolana Smarhovycova and Miroslav Klempar on "Anti-Discrimination Act 2009–2019  10 years on the road to fairness" conference in Czech Parliament
Jolana Smarhovycova and Miroslav Klempar on "Anti-Discrimination Act 2009–2019 10 years on the road to fairness" conference in Czech Parliament

Digging Deeper 

If the government really wants to tackle the problem of discrimination, Simonova said, officials need to look beyond the educational system to other problems, such as housing segregation and Roma unemployment.

"I think the government took the [inclusive education] measures because it seemed easier to change something in schools," she said. "But the problem lies in the broader, socio-economic background of Roma children, and to solve that would be much more complex."

Around half of the Roma living in the Czech Republic are estimated to be "socially excluded," according to a 2016 Czech government report, cited by romea.cz, a Roma news site. Pushed to the outskirts of society, families

in socially excluded localities often face financial, employment, housing, and health difficulties.

Jaroslav Faltyn - director of the Department of Preschool, Basic, Basic Art, and Special Education at the Ministry of Education - argues that it is social factors, rather than legislative obstacles that keep Roma students separate. He called for "complementary cooperation" from departments outside the Ministry of Education.

"This is, rather, a social problem," he said. "In the education segment, we have fixed, I would dare say, all the things we can fix as representatives of the education segment.

"How many vulnerable children [are] coming from families with alcohol, drugs, drug abuse from a very early age, during pregnancy, during early childhood?" he asked. "Imagine that these children are coming from families where there are sources of very serious health problems."

The Ministry of Education made one year of preschool mandatory in 2015 to combat low enrollment rates among Roma. However, most Czech students attend preschool for three years and enter primary school able to read and count. Meanwhile, Roma children with only one year are far behind, leaving teachers frustrated.

But even with the preschool programs, many Roma parents do not enrol their children to protect their children from hostility in schools.

"You don't want your small child to face racism and hostility," Klempar says. "So the Roma parents would rather have their child at home as long as possible."

Meanwhile, Faltyn emphasized that some Roma parents were not necessarily avoiding the "former special schools," either. Although the 2016 reform allowed children in special schools to be retested if unsatisfied with their results, he said that many Roma parents do not take their children to be re-evaluated.

"It's important to motivate families so they can support their children," Ramajzlova emphasized. "Cooperation between the education system and social services is necessary to really improve the situation."

Klempar's organization, Awen Amenca, has seen some success enrolling Roma children in mainstream schools by educating parents on their rights and the benefits of mainstream schools. The organization advises every parent to insist that schools accept their applications so that they have to reject the student formally, which can then be appealed. The organization also sends out a list of enrollment dates for the mainstream schools.

Martin Klener is a teacher at a groundbreaking elementary school in Trmice, located on the outskirts of Usti nad Labem, an industrial city in north Bohemia. He has found cooperation between schools and parents to be important for positive student outcomes.

"Sometimes there are parents who are afraid of sending their children to school because they think teachers are enemies and that we are hurting their children," Klener said. "When we persuade the parents that it's important for them to send their children to school, it's halfway to a win."

Pushing Children - to Succeed? Or Pushing Them Out?

Many non-Roma parents also resist inclusive measures because the education system seems to work fine for their own children. Because of this resistance to change, there is often little effort on the side of municipalities to push for inclusive schools.

At the same time, PIN's Habart said: "There is a demand from a significant part of the voters for segregation, which influences municipalities.

"There is the central vision of the Education Ministry but there is also a lot of power at the local level, which sometimes goes against the central strategy."

Klempar and Gaborova also report a slew of tactics to keep Roma children out of schools, including asking for money upfront with the school application, which is restrictive for low-income parents; claiming that the school is at capacity; not accepting applications; only accepting online applications, and hiding the enrollment dates for mainstream schools from Roma parents.

"The biggest obstacle is that the schools are always trying to find some ways to get rid of Roma children," says Klempar.

At the same time, advertising the enrollment dates for segregated schools never seems a problem in Roma neighbourhoods. "There are posters all over the excluded localities on every corner, and in every shop, there are fliers for segregated schools everywhere in the excluded localities," he added.

Klener's school in Trmice is an outlier in pioneering inclusive education. The school, where one-third of students are of Roma ethnicity, has gained national recognition for its inclusive efforts. The school welcomes children of various backgrounds, non-native speakers, and kids with disabilities. As early as 2015 - even before the national reforms - the school's principal, Marie Gottfriedova, was presented with an award by the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic for her success in implementing and advocating for inclusive education.

"I am convinced that the principal plays a key role in the methodological support of teachers," Gottfriedova said. "It should be clear about the educational vision of the school, what the pedagogical accents of a particular school are, what the educational goals are, and what steps [need to be taken] to achieve these goals."

It is Gottfriedova's leadership and support that Klener, who has been teaching at Trmice for 15 years, credits as the reason for the school's success with inclusive education.

"Our principal and former principal are not afraid of making changes," he said. "They want us to move forward."

Of the 19 students in Klener's classroom this year, four are of Roma ethnicity; three have learning disabilities; one has spinal muscular atrophy and is in a wheelchair; and one, who is Vietnamese, has been working to improve his Czech-language skills with a teaching assistant. Around seven of his students are socially deprived in some way.

Klener explained that tailoring teaching methods to cater to all children, regardless of their ability or background, is something that teachers at Trmice do well.

Working in groups has helped his students learn from one another, he said, but stressed, "Each class is different. Something that works in one class doesn't necessarily work in the second one. And when something doesn't work, it's important to not be afraid. Instead, we must try to find different strategies."

Alice Millerchip is a recent graduate of journalism and international relations at the University of Richmond, with bylines at the Henrico Citizen and Richmond's Capital News Service. She attended TOL's "Going on Assignment" reporting course last summer. Emily Mason is a junior journalism and English major at New York University, with bylines at amNewYork, Straus News, and Washington Square News. She was a TOL intern last semester.



A Survey on the needs of Roma children enrolled to good quality primary schools in Ostrava from January 2014 until January 2015 and  identifying the difference in the quality of education among the basic primary schools and segregated primary schools

Different educational outputs in relation to continuation in secondary education and the differences between segregated and non-segregated schools.  

Training manual on community organizing

WHAT IS COMMUNITY ORGANIZING?

A process by which people are brought together to act in common self - interest and in the pursuit of a common agenda. Community organizers create social movements by building a base of concerned people, mobilizing these community members to act, and in developing leadership from and relationships among the people involved. Organized community groups seek accountability from elected officials, corporations and institutions as well as increased direct representation within decision - making bodies and social reform