According to a report published by Amnesty International, the discrimination of Roma children in Czech schools still prevails because the government is unable to cope with a deep-seated bias against Roma pupils within the education system.
The Czech Republic, according to Amnesty International, is therefore in violation of human rights and European Union laws. The Czech Ministry of Education has responded to the report by pointing to the government's adoption of a series of pro-inclusive measures, headed by an amendment to the Education Act.
Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, said that his organization and others in the field do not trust the government’s attempts to solve the situation. According to one of the report’s authors, Barbara Černušáková, research has shown that the new legislation fails to translate in practice. Cases of successful Roma inclusion in mainstream schools are the result of the individual efforts of teachers and directors, she says, not due to reforms in the system.
A research team visited 24 mainstream schools and four vocational schools in several Czech cities during the last year. Researchers spoke not only with dozens of Roma pupils and their parents, but also interviewed the teachers and school principals.
"The extended segregation of Roma children is an example of systematic prejudice. The schools let children experience what discrimination means, and at a very early age," said Shetty, who participated in the report’s public release in Prague. "By failing to properly address this issue for years, the Czech government is not only breaching European Union and human rights law but is restricting the life chances of tens of thousands of Czech citizens. Let’s call this what it is: racism, pure and simple."
According to the report, Roma children are routinely placed in "special schools" for pupils with "mild mental disabilities" with learning difficulties. Roma children comprise nearly a third of pupils in these schools, even though the Roma community makes up less than three percent of the population of the Czech Republic.
The report also attaches significance to discrimination in mainstream schools. It is possible in some areas for a school to be labeled as a "Roma school" if only 30 percent of its student body is Roma. In these cases, many parents of non-Roma students choose to send their kids to schools outside of their district, which is permitted by law.
According to the Ministry of Education, the government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka was recently praised by the European Council for its measures to combat discrimination in education.
"Among the most important steps in this matter is an amendment to the Education Act, which introduces supporting measures for any disadvantaged pupil, or regular and periodic inquiries by the Czech School Inspectorate regarding the pupil’s placement in certain educational programs," the ministry said.
Another step planned by the government is to establish preparatory classes for all children, or a compulsory year of pre-school education.
A long way to go
Shetty acknowledged that the Sobotka government has shown greater commitment to solving this problem than its predecessors. Still, a very long road is ahead. "We have seen empty promises to reform the Czech educational system come and go before. The discrimination of Romani children has been going on for decades. It is time for it to end."
The Amnesty International report comes at a time when the European Commission is preparing to evaluate the recent achievements of the Czech government on this issue. Last September, the Commission launched a process against the Czech Republic for violations of EU anti-discrimination law, which could eventually land the country before the European Court of Justice.
Eight years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Roma children had been incorrectly put into special schools. During its visit, the Amnesty International research team met with some of those who won this case. "It's sad that their younger siblings or relatives still face the same treatment. Even more so because the judgment is eight years old," said Černušáková.