Gov't mulls closing remedial schools, citing savings
Nonprofit says abolishing schools for disadvantaged would actually raise costs
Posted: March 20, 2013
Principal Jana Matoušová says integrating children with disabilities into mainstream education is beneficial for all of the students.
By Clare Speak
For the Post
Figures have been released for the first time illustrating the likely cost of integrating all children into mainstream education.
The Czech Republic has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups for the ongoing segregation of Roma children into remedial - or so-called "practical" - schools, a practice that continues today despite being ruled discriminatory by the Strasbourg Court in 2007.
As the government reviews its policy on tackling social exclusion, Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková has announced plans to gradually close down existing remedial schools attended by a large number of Roma pupils. It has been suggested the closure of such schools would reduce the overall cost of education, though until now, there has been no data available on the probable cost of such reform.
The nonprofit organization Rytmus, which focuses on education for children with learning disabilities, has released the results of a one-year study that found the total cost would in fact be likely to increase around 10 percent.
"The motivation behind our study was simply to have an idea," project coordinator Adam Gajdoš told The Prague Post. "You can get a general feeling for how the funding schemes need to be set up, which items bring the highest increase to the budget and what resources are available to cover this. There has not been any attempt so far to calculate this in the Czech Republic, and examples from abroad are not really helpful."
The case study of an anonymous Czech town of around 25,000 inhabitants showed that, although there would need to be an increase in funding, 60 percent of the money needed is already in the system and being used to fund remedial schools.
"The point is that while it's probably going to be more expensive, about half of the resources are already there," Gajdoš said. "We're not starting from scratch. This is a positive thing to realize."
"Of course, the system needs to change, and that's a complex issue, but the focus should be on trying to gain a consensus on actually needing a transformation and getting this through to headmasters and the municipality," he continued. "We were pleasantly surprised that none of [the school principals and authorities] really refused to cooperate, as there's always a danger that someone would say no, and this case study was based on getting everybody to cooperate."
Gajdoš says that even without the interest of the municipal authorities, it is not unknown for individual schools to adopt their own inclusion policies. "Schools can improvise and do things with even half of the money, if they only try and want to. There are multiple examples of schools in the Czech Republic that have tried this and been successful," he said. "Money is always problematic, but the primary thing would be the political will, as well as the openness from parents and teachers to trying something new."
One such school is the elementary school and kindergarten Červený Vrch in Prague 6, where, despite limited funding and a lack of specialist knowledge, staff have worked to make the idea of inclusion a reality. Here, inclusion extends to all children regardless of ethnicity or ability. Currently, staff members say the school does not have any pupils who "officially identify themselves" as Roma.
"We started 12 years ago with a boy in a wheelchair. I wasn't sure we could do it, because we're not trained, and it wasn't easy," said Principal Jana Matoušová. "But he was so happy to be here. At first, he had to stay on the ground floor because we didn't have a lift, but after several years the local authority paid for one, and when he got upstairs to the other classrooms, for him, it was like a new world. It's very good to have those children here, because we can open up the world for them."
"We had another child with a mental handicap, which was very difficult, but our teachers are very hardworking. They had to study and create a special educational plan. It's always hard because as each child is unique, each plan is unique, too, and we have to discuss the plans with the teachers, the special pedagogical education center and, of course, the parents."
Matoušová says that although the teachers have more work than they would have in schools without disabled children, the extra work - and the stress of chasing extra funding - are worthwhile.
"I have to ask the local authority for the money twice, and then they give me the minimum amount," she explained. "The money isn't guaranteed for each year, so it can be stressful."
Matoušová says none of this would have been possible without the open-minded attitudes of both teachers and parents. "At the beginning, the parents of the other children were surprised, but now, when we ask in our parent surveys what they think is one of the school's biggest advantages, they cite inclusion."
"When parents come for the first time with their child, they often ask if there will be a disabled child in the class, because they want their children to be in the class with disabled children," she continued. "I think we changed the minds of the parents."
Despite the success at Červený Vrch, a recent petition against the proposed closure of remedial schools attracted 76,000 signatures from parents and teachers. The petition against "interference in practical schools" was initiated by teachers at mainstream elementary schools in Pardubice and Litomyšl. It expressed concern that the new system will not be able to cope with the requirements of disabled students and would have a detrimental effect on the education of all children, and urged the government to find other ways of tackling discrimination against Roma children.
"Children [in remedial schools] are in ideal conditions for education according to their abilities," said Jana Sauerová, one of the petition's initiators.
But to dismantle the segregated system, Gajdoš says, inclusion policy needs apply to all pupils. "The argument that Roma children should not be in [remedial] schools because they don't have a disability is missing the point," he said. "The arguments against inclusion are always put as that we shouldn't abolish these schools because then children with disabilities would have nowhere to go."
"The word 'inclusion' is almost exclusively mentioned in relation to the Roma, and it is just part of the problem," he continued. "You can hardly see an inclusive school working just with the Roma and not with disabled children, because in the end, the same approach is needed."
Clare Speak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org