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Roma kids from special schools put Czech education system to shame in Great Britain
13-02-2012  Daniela Lazarova

Thousands of teachers around the country are up in arms. They are unhappy about the government’s plans to gradually phase out special schools – or schools for children with a mental or physical handicap – and integrate as many of these children as possible into the education mainstream.

The high number of special schools for children with light-to-heavy physical or mental handicaps and the policy of automatically sending problem children to such schools has long been a matter of controversy and has elicited heavy criticism from the European Commission. There are currently 34 thousand children studying at these special schools and – according to an expert study - approximately half of them need not be there. They are children with learning difficulties or disabilities which could be overcome with the help of an assistant. Many of them are Roma children who get sent to these schools almost without question.

After years of inaction the government has finally moved to address the problem – ordering a gradual phasing out of these special schools and integrating as many children as possible into the education mainstream. The move – which is part of the government’s Strategy against social exclusion has sparked a storm of opposition from primary school teachers.

Over 18, 000 primary school teachers have signed a petition against the decision. Teachers say the inclusion of children with special needs into standard classes will inevitably slow the pace of education for everyone and damage gifted children. Jana Sauerova – a primary school teacher- is the initiator of the petition.

“Children with special needs are far better off where they are. Special schools have smaller classes and professionals who develop their education fully in line with their individual potential.”

Many parents are receptive to this argument particularly when warned that their own –talented –child might suffer as a result of this “experiment”. And the Education Ministry is now under pressure to review the decision.

However support has come from an unexpected quarter.

Equality, a UK national support organisation for the Roma, has just released the results of a study showing that a number of Roma children who had previously been placed in special schools in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, were successfully completing primary and secondary education at integrated, mainstream schools in the United Kingdom.

Dominika Kandracova’s parents emigrated from the Czech Republic two years ago. She and her four siblings now go to school in Peterborough and have no problems keeping up with their class. Her father says the Czech education system never gave her a chance.

“They said she was slow to understand and her Czech was poor. So they put her in a special school and when we went back a year later to ask that they transfer her they would not have her –so she had to stay at the special school.”

According to the study conducted by Equality the average attainment of Roma pupils aged 9-15 in numeracy, literacy, and science at UK mainstream schools was just below average. Only a small percentage of the overall number of Roma pupils (2 to 4 percent) at the schools surveyed were regarded as requiring special education needs because of learning difficulties or disabilities that made it more difficult for them to learn or access education than most children of the same age. These Roma pupils are given extra help within the mainstream school.

This is precisely what the Czech government wants to achieve here in the Czech Republic. The outcome of the British study is highly encouraging, though it will take much more effort on the part of the education authorities to convince Czech teachers that it can be done – overworked, underpaid and with too many children in their class most of them simply see it as an additional burden.

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