What We Learned From Leicester: Bringing Inclusive Education for Roma Children to the Czech Republic

Every journey begins with a small step, every race has a starting line. Keep on reaching for your goal, don’t give up, just give it time...

These are the words that children sing at a primary school in Leicester, one of the United Kingdom’s most multicultural cities. Amongst them are Roma children from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yet unlike teachers in the UK, most teachers here in the Czech Republic do not believe that this song can apply to their Roma pupils. And yet, 13-year-old Roman Gabor is a candidate for the position of Head Boy of the Babington Community College, a school for students between the ages of 11 and 16 in Leicester. This is the first time that the school has had a Roma candidate, but Roman will more than just a representative of the school’s Roma students, he will be a leader for the entire student body.

In order to learn from this inclusive model, the Open Society Fund Prague organized a study tour to the UK for 10 professionals from the Karlovy Vary region in western Czech Republic where the majority of Roma children are still segregated into so-called practical schools where taught a limited, low-level curriculum. We hoped the study tour would inspire the participants-drawn from various local agencies-to develop a strategy for inclusive education in their region.

Leicester has around 2,000 Czech and Slovak Roma families-most of whom fled their home countries due to pervasive discrimination-and the local city council agreed to help plan the tour. The Open Society Fund Prague hoped the teachers, school psychologists, and the social, welfare and school officers attending the study tour would be able to learn from the basic principles of inclusive schooling, how it works in practice, and the role of different authorities in a multi-agency approach.

The visit lasted three days and was incredibly intense, with visits to four schools, and lots of presentations and meetings with teachers and administrators. The highlights of the study tour were a visit with the city’s Lord Mayor Abdul Osman and a school play written and performed by Czech and Slovak Roma children called A New Beginning.

And indeed, moving to the UK has offered a new beginning for the Roma families. Forty-year-old Marie told us that in the Czech Republic her children were placed in a “practical school” together with children who have mild mental disabilities. Here in Leicester, they go to a mainstream school and they actively participate in all school activities. The school employs an assistant who helps Marie fill out all the necessary paperwork to obtain social services. Marie and her husband, along with 30 other Roma parents, attend evening English classes organized by a local school. Everyone was hard at work when we visited a class, and were thrilled to see their children flourish. For the study tour participants, it was moving to see these families thriving and enjoying their lives.

There was much to learn from the study tour. The schools in Leicester focus on developing children’s self-esteem, cultural identity, and personal skills, while Czech schools emphasize formal knowledge and discipline. Czech schools tend to blame families while the schools in Leicester offer help to families who are struggling. “What we see as a problem and a bother, they understand as a challenge for achievement,” said Světlana Sojková, head of school department in the Czech city of Sokolov and one of the study tour participants.

Olga Dacková, head of social workers for the regional office of Karlovy Vary governance “liked the positive energy and strong belief that every child can succeed and live a full life.” However natural this may sound, Czech schools are still feeling the effects of 50 years of Communism: focusing on discipline and rigid teaching styles, and dismissing the fact that without more attention and help, some children will lag behind.

The study tour provided lots of inspiration, and the Open Society Fund—Prague will continue working with participants to put together a strategy for inclusive education in the Karlovy Vary region with the goal of gradually convincing the 34 schools there to adopt an inclusive platform for their students. Perhaps, the first step should be to make teachers sing the song we heard in Leicester. Just believing in the potential of Roma students could make a huge difference.

Five years ago, the European Court of Human Rights issued its landmark judgment in the case of D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic. The judgment demanded an end to the longstanding practice in the Czech Republic of segregating Roma schoolchildren into so-called “practical schools.” But the past five years have seen little change.

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