A British study has shown that Romany children who were placed in Czech special schools have no problems following the mainstream curriculum when they attend regular schools in the UK. The research, carried out buy the UK-based NGO Equality, is grist to the mill of critics calling for a fundamental change to the unfair Czech schooling system.
The Czech Republic’s notorious practice of placing disproportionately large numbers of Romany children in de-facto segregated schools has been for years the target of criticism from international institutions and advocacy groups. But little has changed – bar the name of the schools – since 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights said the Czech education system did not ensure equal access to education for all.
Supporters of the status quo often argue that special elementary schools, renamed to practical, are best suited for children from a socially challenged background. But when these children leave the country and start attending mainstream schools in the UK, they do not face the obstacles presumed by Czech educators. That is one of the findings of a study put together by the British NGO Equality. I sat down with the NGO’s founder and chief executive, Alan Anstead, who told me more.
“We conducted research of Czech and Slovak pupils studying at mainstream schools in the United Kingdom. 85 percent of them had attended special or practical schools, or de-facto segregated schools in the Czech Republic or Slovakia.”
The NGO Equality interviewed 61 Roma primary and secondary school students in the UK, along with parents and teachers who work with Roma students. The results of the research, carried out last summer, shows that placing Romany children in special schools in the Czech Republic is unsubstantiated.
“The research found they were just below the average score in math, literacy and in science subjects, the three main core subjects that are measured for 11 to 15-year-olds. And that for many of them perhaps recently arrived in the UK, not speaking English before they came here, is quite an achievement, mostly due to the extra efforts that teachers in the UK have given them to make sure that they can join in the class, learn from the lessons and participate fully in them.
“That help has also been extended to parents, to talk to them about what schooling involves, what their roles as parents – homework and other things. And that seems to work really well in a number of schools in the UK.”
In the Czech Republic, pressure to place Romany children in special schools also ensues from teachers and school directors. They are often afraid that the parents of non-Romany children might take their children out of the school for fear that Romany pupils might slow the education in that particular class. Alan Anstead says that attitude is not at all common in the UK.
“I think mainly because that view does not exist here. Most of the teachers until recently never heard of Roma and never had Roma in their classes. So they taught them the same as any other migrant group that came to the UK which means they need a little bit more help with the language and other skills as well but to keep them in the mainstream class with other pupils, not to segregate them, not to think them any differently than others but catering for where they might have a specific need in the short-term basis. And that seems to have worked. So without having a baggage of ideas and prejudice against the group, they just treat them exactly the same as any other migrant group that recently came here.”
According to Equality, Roma people who leave the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the UK have established communities in the north of England, the Midlands, the south of England and in north-east London. That’s where the research took place, and Alan Anstead says eastern European Roma were naturally not the first migrants to send their children to local schools.
“The schools are varied, depending on the catchment area and the area around the school and what the demographic makeup is of the people there. But yes, all of the schools had British as well as some other migrant groups there. Most Roma came to the cities in the UK, and cities here are invariably quite multicultural, so most of the schools they go to have a great range of different nationalities.
“But that’s something the schools celebrate, and they have different days when they celebrate a different culture, a different language, and let the pupils to show other pupils what it is that their makeup is about.”
In this respect, the crucial difference between the UK and eastern European countries is that while the Czech Republic and other post-communist nations are fairly homogenous societies with small numbers of immigrants, the UK is truly a multicultural society.
“The UK has had a very multicultural background since the 1950s, particularly in cities, so that’s quite a long time for these systems to work, and of course in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that has been a lesser period. But I’m quite optimistic that in the future, things will change as more and more people visit these countries – I myself lived in Slovakia for three years, and I’ve seen quite a change there, and so I’m quite optimistic that’s going to happen.”
There are around 500,000 Roma living in the UK, according to an estimate from a previous study by the NGO Equality. It’s not clear how many of them came from the Czech Republic but they have been coming steadily since the 1990s. Non-segregated and prejudice-free education has been one of the major motivations, along with much better employment opportunities, says Equality’s Alan Anstead.
“They see more opportunities in the UK to work, and they also see it as a long-term opportunity for their children, to escape from what they felt was an unfair score system, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia where the children went to segregated special schools whereas in the UK they would go to mainstream schools where they study exactly the same syllabus as every other pupil in that school. That’s one of the prime reasons – opportunity for the future.”
In the Czech Republic, the estimated unemployment rate among the Roma varies anywhere between 60 and 98 percent. They often live in segregated areas, like in the Šluknov region in northern Bohemia, in Most, and another 300 sites across the country. Some 80,000 people live in these areas where general unemployment rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. Alan Anstead describes how they go about finding jobs once they arrive in England.
“Many start off with temporary contracts or working as self-employed, and from that move on to jobs that are perhaps more suited to what they had done in the past. But most do work in one form or another. For those who have no possibility to work and are very close to poverty line, many sell The Big Issue – a magazine whose vendors take a percentage of the profit – and that normally gives them a step up and they often find a more stable employment.”
One of the deepest-rooted anti-Romany prejudices harboured by the Czech society labels Roma people as abusers of the welfare system. But according to the experience of Equality’s Alan Anstead, Czech Roma in the UK do not rely on the system in any greater extent than anyone else.
“Most of them, when they come here, they are almost invisible to the social services. They go where they have family and friends, they come here to work, and that’s what they do. They send their children to school, they will go to the doctor when they need it and they will access the rights in due course when they are entitled to that if they fall on hard times or when they are entitled to child benefits for example as anyone else in the UK.”
The situation of the Roma community in the Czech Republic has deteriorated dramatically over the last several years. The numbers of Roma people living in poverty is on the rise, it is ever more difficult to find employment, and the Czech education system has shown fierce resilience to change and become more accepting to pupils from different ethnic backgrounds.
The European Roma Rights Centre, a Hungary based advocacy group, is now in fact preparing a new lawsuit against the Czech Republic over segregation in schools, this time to be filed at Czech courts. But Alan Anstead says some progress has been achieved in these issues, albeit the Czech Republic seems to lag behind other countries such as Slovakia.
“I think that if there is any difference, it is perhaps in the political system. I don’t think there is a strong will among the Czech political class at the moment to make that change. I think it’s slightly different in Slovakia, I think there is this willingness to go ahead.
“Of course, it has to take time, it has to be done properly, and that does mean that you can’t just change tomorrow and we’re off on a new course, but to move in a constant flow towards something much more mainstream, fairer and with equal opportunities for all, regardless of nationality and ethnicity. I think that’s coming; I just think that in the Czech Republic, the political system is less willing than other countries to do that but I think some willingness among teachers to move forward.”
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