Education matters. It shapes our identities, develops our social skills, defines our career chances. As such, it is one of the most crucial human rights we all have. Yet, a number of European countries continue to discriminate against groups of children, in particular Roma children, children with disabilities and children of migrant origin, by providing them with education in segregated settings. For years the system in the Czech Republic followed this same wrong pattern. Today it has a chance to evolve.
Ten years ago, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Czech Republic for discriminating against Roma children in education. That case, D.H. and Others v the Czech Republic, exposed the systemic deficiencies of an education system which routinely assigned Roma children to special schools for pupils with learning difficulties, thus providing them with separate education, often of a lower quality.
After years of impasse and international criticism due to a lack of implementation of the Court judgment, the Czech Republic amended its law on education in 2015 to progressively phase out segregated schooling for children with “mild mental disabilities”. This long-awaited legislative change foresees a number of measures that have the potential to establish a school system where all children in the country receive the same education chances. As from 2016, for example, children with “mild mental disabilities” are to follow the mainstream curriculum and since last September, all children aged 5 attend a free and compulsory pre-school year aimed at leveling learning and skill gaps. In addition, a system has been set up to provide all children with particular needs with adequate individual support in mainstream education, regardless of their ethnic or social origin.
This path is very encouraging. Pursuing it should remain high on the agenda of the new government. This will require a strong political commitment, because implementing the law will prove at least as difficult as adopting it. Vested interests in maintaining segregated education systems remain strong; funding for inclusive education and teachers’ training are often inadequate; and many parents continue to be reluctant about the inclusion of children from minority or vulnerable groups in mainstream education.
These obstacles pose a real threat to these children’s ability to build their future on an equal basis with others. The government should remove them. I see in particular four measures that it should adopt to achieve this goal.
First of all, the government should ensure that mainstream schools do not reproduce segregation in any other form, for example by setting up classes with a majority of Roma or classes which Roma children do not attend. There is also a need for stronger inspection mechanisms in order to ensure that schools do not discriminate, including in deciding upon admissions. In particular, the government should ensure that schools administrations adhere to national legislation and guidance indicating that testing should not be used as a selection tool for admissions.
Indeed, a second necessary step consists in adopting measures able to balance the distribution of students from vulnerable groups. The lack of such measures perpetuates unequal systems in which some schools have large proportions of children who may have specific educational needs, such as children from minority ethnic groups or children with disabilities. To prevent this situation, the government should systematically monitor the implementation of rules concerning the maximum threshold of places for such children for each school so as to allow for the necessary diversity in classrooms. Such a distribution should strictly be based on children’s individual needs, and in no case on their ethnic, social or other background.
Thirdly, it is crucial to mitigate the impact of residential segregation, which is a factor that undeniably contributes to the concentration of children from vulnerable groups in specific schools. If school districts coincide with neighbourhoods with a high concentration of persons from disadvantaged groups, it is very likely that the school population will reflect the same levels of concentration, thus resulting in de facto educational segregation. Therefore, shaping alternative school districts that mix neighbourhoods with different social characteristics may facilitate a more balanced distribution of students from different groups and lead to a more inclusive education system.
Arguably, however, all these measures will not succeed if they do not get the support of all parents. The alienation of families from ethnic minorities, with a migrant background or with children with disabilities and their lack of participation in school activities and life hamper the establishment of a truly inclusive education system able to provide all children with the same learning chances. It is necessary that the government and the school administration raise awareness among all families about the advantages of inclusive education, explaining them that well managed, diverse classrooms increase children’s achievements, both in terms of school results and the acquisition of important social skills, as demonstrated by recent OECD studies.
School segregation represents one of the worst forms of discrimination, causes a waste of talent and scars the life of the children concerned. It tears at the democratic fabric of society, reinforcing vicious cycles of marginalisation and discrimination that threaten social cohesion.
The Czech Republic has now the opportunity to turn the page and show that inclusive education is not a utopian project but an achievable goal with positive effects on the future of children and social cohesion. Investing in it should therefore become a top priority for the new government.
Anna Šabatová, Public Defender of Rights of the Czech Republic Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights