Roma Children Do not Have a Stimulating Environment

A few months ago, ten years passed since the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in favour of 18 Roma children who were sued with the Czech state for discrimination in education. How is the verdict fulfilled, what has changed in the Czech Republic since then?

Magdalena Karvayová is an active Roma woman with an inspiring destiny. As a child, she experienced bullying but was able to graduate from high school and now continues in a private college. She now helps other Roma, especially in matters of legal literacy and education.

Thanks to the campaign and initiative you are pursuing in Ostrava with your colleague Jolana Šmarhovyčová, the Czech court also ruled last year in the Czech Republic that Romani parents who complained that the Pěší primary school refused to accept their children were right. Are cases where the principal rejects Romani children on enrolment frequent?

The campaign for enrolling Roma children in quality primary schools in Ostrava has been running since 2014 in four localities. This is definitely not an exceptional case. Even now we are dealing with a similar case, although even more complicated. It is an excluded locality, in the vicinity of which there is only one school but divided into two buildings. One of them is for children with "study prerequisites". This is a school where children from the majority go, while only Roma go to the other. Whenever a Romani parent goes to enrol a child in this school, the child ends up in the other school. Many forms of segregation of Roma children begin with enrolment.

What reasons do schools give for such a course of action?

They usually explain it by saying that they have no place.

How do you work with families?

We mainly tell them what their rights are as parents. It is one of the fundamental human rights, the right to equal access to education. We don't work with them the way most non-profits do. We do not take them as clients but as partners. We work with the whole community. We give them the tools to bring about change themselves. We also motivate them not to give up the effort to enrol a child in a good school. The goal is for them to be able to fight for their rights themselves.

So, is it the case that Romani parents often do not know the difference between a practical or segregated school, where they went to themselves, and a regular school? How do you try to get that information to them?

Yes, they have no information, and this is one of the reasons why there were so many children in the Czech Republic in practical schools. Most Romani parents themselves went through practical schools, where they received only a very limited education. They do not know that there are different types of primary schools and they usually send the child to a school that is close to their home, i.e. an often-excluded locality. It is logical that if they do not understand the education system, they simply send the child to the nearest primary school they know, because they went to it themselves, or the children of their acquaintances go to them. But such a school is either a former practical school or a segregated school near an excluded locality. So, it's such a vicious circle.

What other reasons are the fact that so many Roma children were placed in practical schools in the Czech Republic (previously they were called special)?

There are several reasons. It is a long-term practice of pedagogical-psychological counselling centres, which diagnose Roma children as "mildly mentally handicapped". The issue of how to diagnose children in counselling centres has been addressed for a long time.

In poor families in excluded localities, children do not have a stimulating environment. There are no stimuli, toys that would help them develop, for example, the children never held a crayon in their hand or went through a book before coming to enrolment or to a pedagogical-psychological counselling centre. Moreover, in Romani families, parents may not even speak Czech to them, but Romani. How you can turn out in testing that takes place in a language you don't understand.

But the Roma themselves often prefer a segregated school ...

The situation with practical schools is already being addressed by an inclusive amendment to the Education Act. But will that solve everything?

The main benefit of the amendment, which has been in force since September 2016, is that a mild mental disability no longer serves only as a sticker condemning a child to attend practical school. Thanks to the amendment, based on the diagnosis, support measures are now sought individually and most suitable for the child so that he or she can stay in a regular school. An important change is that the funds go directly to the child, the amount is derived from his needs and is the same size regardless of whether the child is in a special or regular school.

For Roma children, however, the problem will not be completely solved, although the inclusive amendment to the law was originally adopted precisely due to pressure from international organizations, mainly the European Commission, on the Czech Republic in connection with the situation of Roma children.

So, what are the problems at the moment?

A big problem in the Czech Republic is the inconspicuous segregation in mainstream schools. It happens that two classes are open in the same school, one for Roma and one for other children. There are also segregated schools with two buildings, like the school mentioned above. There are schools near the excluded localities, where only Roma go. Some former practical schools have just changed their name and become segregated schools mainly for Roma children.

What could be done about it?

But the Roma themselves often prefer a segregated school ... For Roma parents, the most important thing is the safety and satisfaction of their children. That's why they put them in a school they know and where there are a lot of Roma. Romani children in mainstream schools also often face bullying.

Do you have personal experience with this?

Yes, in elementary school I felt bullied by my classmates.

What family background do you come from?

My father had a master's degree in political science, but he never had the opportunity to pursue an education in the labour market. He lived most of his life as a freelance fortune teller. Her mother did not finish high school and worked as a maid. We lived very poorly.

Ever wanted to put you or one of your siblings or acquaintances in a practical school?

They wanted to put me in a practical school, even though I had good results at school. They were bothered by my behaviour and rather wanted to "get rid" of me.

At the same time, you graduated from university ...

I studied at the Townshend International School in Hluboká nad Vltavou. I then have a bachelor's degree in comparative law, which I studied at the Anglo-American University in Prague.

What environment and children in international the high school were they?

It was the best experience of my life. There were students from all over the world, a total of 200 nationalities. It was the first time I felt accepted as I was. For the first time, I didn't feel like my classmates and teachers were looking at me as "worse." They took me just like everyone else. On the other hand, I was unique to them, because at that time I was the only Romani woman who studied there. When I started studying there, I basically didn't understand English. But the teachers gave me time, they worked with me. In three months, I was named the best student of the month. In addition to getting a great education there, I mainly grew up there as a person, my personality was formed there. Thanks to that school, I am who I am today.

So, can you compare the environment and atmosphere in Czech schools with the environment in an international school? How did you perceive the transition from one school to another? What did the environment of international school give you?

In fact, in a regular Czech school, where I went before, I felt like "nobody". I was demotivated, unaccepted, I had very low self-esteem. I had almost no friends except one. I was a "dirty gipsy" for them. I meant nothing to them.

When I transferred to an international school in eighth grade, I became the happiest person in the world. I began to gain confidence, I felt unique. At the same time, I learned to perceive and respect so many different cultures and religions. Studying in such an environment enriched me incredibly as a human being and gave me a broad awareness of the world. I have learned many social skills that help me in my daily life.

In the Czech environment, there is a prejudice that Roma are not interested in their children's education and education in general...

It is not true. The problem is that they lack knowledge of the education system, as I said. Their living conditions must also be taken into account. Living in excluded localities, poverty and debt bring problems every day, such as how to pay for something or how to feed children. In the environment of existential problems, there is not so much space for solving education.

Was it difficult for your family to support you in your studio?

In high school, my parents had to pay a tuition fee of 16 a thousand crowns and studying there last six years, as in a Czech six-year grammar school. My parents and siblings literally went hungry because so much money went to my studies. We lived in really poor conditions then, but we knew that education was the only way out of that vicious circle.

They could no longer support me at university, I always had a job while studying. Although sometimes it was difficult to get it.

Have you struggled with prejudice while looking for a job?

Yes, I struggled with that often. I don't think they put me to work several times because I'm Roma. I just wanted a part-time job as a receptionist. They were looking for someone to speak English and I studied the whole high school and college in English, but often they didn't give me a chance at all.

Do you think that it would help Czech society if more children went to a school like you attended, where they have the opportunity to meet people from other cultures, nationalities, from different parts of the world?

That would certainly help. I hope that one day all Czech schools will be like the one I attended. Inclusive education is a process that affects the whole of society, and we are still at the beginning. Inclusion in education is fundamental and I think that improving this will help everyone.

On the contrary, would it be helpful to include teaching about Roma (history, culture, traditions) in school curricula? If Czechs found out more about the Roma and could it help young Roma to increase their self-confidence?

Yes, exactly. It would help break down stereotypes about the Roma and promote understanding between Roma and majority of children. It would also help Roma children perceive their identity. It is not about increasing self-confidence, but about being proud of who we are, because the predominance of negative news about the Roma affects not only the majority but also the Roma community. We need to learn about our past and know our culture in order to have a Roma identity.