A decade ago, I worked in the Czech Republic on a program aimed at reforming the education system to meet EU standards. I met many wonderful Czech educators employed in schools and organizations committed to including Roma children in mainstream education.
Roma children in the Czech Republic were segregated into “special schools” with poor curricula, lower teaching standards, and very few resources. “Testing” these children was a culturally biased process that resulted in the majority of them being pushed into the special education system. The system also segregated children with additional learning needs, unlike the inclusive education systems in the UK, Sweden, or other countries.
The aim of the program I worked with, called PHARE, was for all schoolchildren to benefit from inclusive policies and practice across the country. We helped develop an intercultural curriculum, and the Ministry of Education supported extensive in-service teacher training. EU accession for the Czech Republic was beginning to look like a great opportunity for real change in education, especially for marginalized and disadvantaged children.
In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that segregating Roma students into special schools constitutes a form of unlawful discrimination. Like many observers, I thought that the landmark judgment in D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic would allow the Czech government and educational professionals to offer all children equal opportunities.
Yet today, as the sixth anniversary of the D.H. decision approaches, all evidence suggests that there have been few meaningful changes in the practice of excluding Czech Roma pupils from being educated alongside their non-Roma peers.
Many Roma children experience discrimination in Europe; the situation in the Czech Republic is among the worst. The Czech education system continues to justify the structural exclusion of Romani children into “practical schools” or special classes in ordinary schools. This educational apartheid is promoted and validated by a community of professional educators who maintain their status as special teachers in a system of distorted testing arrangements.
This will ultimately have a damaging and lasting impact upon Czech society and economy as a whole. Already, EU funds allocated to many structural programs and projects are being frozen or withheld.
Czech professionals wishing to establish their reputation in the field of education will find it increasingly difficult because of their association with a system that violates human rights. Opportunities for conference participation and offers of teacher-exchange visits will be increasingly restricted for the same reason. And as the exclusion of Romani children continues, encouraging further flight of Romani families, other EU member states will pressure the Czech Republic to address the situation.
I know from personal experience that there are some brave Czech professionals who possess a vision of educational equality rooted in rights and dignity for all. In many of the projects I have seen, great strides have been taken to develop models of inclusion. These need to be officially acknowledged and implemented. However, such changes will require the moral leadership of both the government and the education profession as a whole.