Litany of Failure: Pressure Mounts for Education Reform in Czech Republic

Two fresh studies have again criticized the Czech Republic’s failure to stop channeling Romani children into dead-end “practical” schools—which leaves them under-educated and unqualified for a job—at a rate which dwarfs their non-Romani classmates.

The Council of Europe’s top human rights watchdog, Thomas Hammarberg, singled out the performance of the Czech Republic in his new report Human Rights of Roma and Travelers in Europe [pdf]. Released in late February, the Commissioner for Human Rights’ report highlights that an estimated 30 percent of Romani children in the Czech Republic are placed in “schools designed for pupils with mild mental disabilities, compared to two percent of their non-Roma counterparts.”

Commissioner Hammarberg reiterated his conclusion about the Czech Republic from his March 2011 country report:  “with thousands of Roma children effectively excluded from the mainstream education system in the Czech Republic and condemned to a future as second class citizens every year… is now time to speed up the implementation of the inclusive education agenda.”

He is not alone in his assessment.

A January 2012 study [pdf] by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that “in spite of a decision to progressively integrate disadvantaged students into mainstream schools” the placement of Romani students in “special schools” is “still very high.”

One of the OECD report’s recommendations is for more data collection contextualized according to socio-economic background, minority status, special needs, and income level of students to be able to inform policy regarding student outcomes.

Yet current data collection efforts aiming to get a better picture of the number of Romani children still caught in “special schools” (now renamed practical schools) has been hijacked. Practical school teachers have boycotted recent efforts by the Czech Ombudsman to collect fresh data on the numbers of Romani children still being taught in their schools. The teachers refuse the researchers access to the school grounds and to information about the ethnicity of enrolled students.

A lack of data disaggregated by ethnicity surely hinders the development of targeted programming decisions aimed at addressing discrimination in the education system. Yet such a concern presumes the existence of a cohesive strategy designed to promote inclusion in schools. The problem is two such inclusion strategies exist and it is unclear which one trumps. And, in the mean time, neither is being implemented in practice and neither has a clear funding source.

The lack of funding for these strategies, moreover, is not a function of a lack of available funds. European Union structural funds can be accessed by the Czech Republic to make the changes needed to transform the education to make it more inclusive. But in recent months, controversy has erupted around the Czech government’s use of these funds. In January 2012, the European Commission stopped the flow of money to the Czech education ministry—some 1.9 million Euros—after a December 2011 audit found serious irregularities in the way the money intended for educational projects was being spent and monitored.

It is time for the controversies to stop and serious reform efforts to start.  This is where the international community can help build the pressure for change.

This week, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers—the political body charged with overseeing the implementation of European Court judgments—will debate the Czech government’s record on pursuing inclusive education. Specifically, the Committee will look at the Czech Government’s efforts to implement the DH and Others v Czech Republic case, which was decided by the ECHR in November 2007.  This case was brought by 18 Romani children who challenged the disproportionate placement of Romani children into “special schools” on account of their ethnicity – and they won.  The court ordered the Czech government to end the discrimination against Romani children and redress insofar as possible its effects.

The committee will need to ask the hard questions of the Czechs: Why are international bodies reporting no change on the ground in schools almost five years after the DH judgment? When will it start funding and implementing a coherent policy on inclusive education? What is its plan to use structural funds better so that Romani children can see tangible benefits?

The Czech government will also come under the scrutiny of other states on the United Nations Human Rights Council in October, where its record in meeting its international human rights obligations will be assessed. Two of those obligations are to ensure non-discrimination and the right to education for all children. At the moment, the Czech government should get a fail grade on both.

The Czech government needs to live up to its legal obligations. It has shown itself unwilling to do so to date. But they are part of a community of states and laws which are committed to the key principles of equality, dignity, and respect.  This is why diplomats in Geneva, Brussels, and Strasbourg also need to use all the tools at their disposal—funding, peer reviews and bilateral pressure—to end the Czech government foot dragging and give Romani children a better chance in life.

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