Still Waiting: Czech Republic Drags Its Feet on Roma Education Reform

Jofranka is one of thousands of Roma children in the Czech Republic who have been systematically denied one of the most basic rights: access to a decent education. When she was six years old, though she had never been properly tested, she was sent off to a segregated school for children with learning disabilities. Now, at age 19, she faces a bleak future, with few job opportunities and little chance of rising out of poverty.

Next month, Europe’s premier political body charged with promoting human rights has an opportunity to make sure that children like Jofranka (not her real name) have a shot at getting a regular education, without discrimination, alongside the majority of non-Roma Czech children. When the Council of Europe’s key decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, meets on March 8-10, education for Roma children in the Czech Republic will be high on the agenda—and the Committee must demand a fast U-turn by the Czech government to fix the problem.

At the moment, Roma children in some parts of the country are 27 times more likely than non-Roma students to be placed in “special” or “practical” schools with an inferior curriculum. Worse still, the Czech government, by its own admission, has no plans to make concrete changes to remedy this situation until 2014. In short, this means that at least three more years will pass before any Roma child will benefit from plans to integrate Roma children into mainstream schools. For many Roma children, this change will come far too late. Every year that goes by will make it harder for them to catch up with their peers in regular classes.

That the Czech government has no intention of implementing its inclusive education agenda until 2014 is even more striking when placed against the backdrop of the 2007 European Court of Human Rights judgment—DH and others v Czech Republic. The decision in the DH case, which was brought by 18 Roma children including Jofranka, held that the differential treatment of Roma children had no justification and amounted to discrimination under the European Convention for Human Rights.

The Court directed the country to compensate the victims and to take measures to end the violation. Noting the historical discrimination against Roma in the country, the Court said the Czech Republic had a duty not only to end the segregation of Roma children, but to design an education system that “help[s Roma] to integrate into the ordinary schools and develop the skills that would facilitate life among the majority population.”

The Committee of Ministers is the top European body charged with ensuring the Court’s decisions are respected. Three months ago, the Open Society Justice Initiative, along with the European Roma Rights Center and the Greek Helsinki Monitor, submitted information to the Committee of Ministers ahead of its last meeting about the status of the DH judgment. We highlighted that the situation in the Czech Republic remains essentially unchanged since the Court handed down its judgment in 2007, with no concrete steps taken by the government to remedy the problem, nor plans to do so in the near future.

Disturbingly, we had also found that the Czech Ministry of Education, tasked with ensuring inclusive education, had taken backward steps over the past six months, with its last Director of the Department of Special Education and Equal Opportunities, Viktor Hartos, quitting after declaring that no political will existed inside the Education Ministry to institute genuine reforms. In his October 2010 resignation letter, Mr. Hartos stated:

As the team leader I cannot identify, either professionally or personally, with the current approach of the Education Ministry toward fulfilling the obligations flowing from the condemnatory verdict of the European Court from 2007. No genuine effort is being made to contribute toward resolving this serious problem that affects society as a whole; rather, there is a tendency to be satisfied with mere formalities.

At its November 2010 meeting, the Council of Ministers heard also from the Czech Republic, which described its national action plan for inclusive education. But its submission was not enough for the Committee—lingering questions remained about the progress of implementation of these inclusive education plans and other general measures to protect Roma children from discrimination in education. They asked the Czech government to come back in three months—March 2011—to give them a better answer.

The answer will come far too late for Jofranka, who, when Amnesty International caught up with her in 2009, had been channeled into a vocational school—one of the only options available for her after years in a “special school.” At that time, Jofranka was worried about her chances of getting a job as a baker because of discrimination against Roma.

But the answer—and practical actions to back it up—should be a top priority for the Czech government, which currently holds the Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (a political commitment by European governments, civil society and international organizations to improve the socioeconomic status and social inclusion of Roma).

All children deserve a shot at a good education, one which is inclusive in design and scope. The Czech government must speed up the pace and make sure that Roma and other marginalized children are mainstreamed into regular schools with the support they need, starting with the next school year beginning in autumn 2011. And the Committee of Ministers needs to act firmly to make sure this happens.

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