Apartheid begins in the school

A third of Roma children in the Czech Republic attend special schools for the mentally handicapped. A situation against which a number of associations are speaking out, and which ends up backfiring on the state when it has to foot the social and economic bill.

Published on 8 December 2009 at 15:39
A disused brick factory serving as shelter for Roma families in Uhříněves, east of Prague. Photo : www.romove.radio.cz/ Mark Wiedorn

According to recent estimates by the World Bank, Roma cost the Czech Republic no less than 16 billion crowns (€650m) a year. Though it isn’t so much the Roma themselves, we should add, but their maladjustment to society. The experts say this phenomenon is chiefly due to the below-average level of education most Romani children receive, after which they have no chance whatsoever of landing a decent job. And the state is losing money because unemployed Roma do not create any economic value or pay taxes, though they do draw social security benefits. The World Bank figure does not allow for such “incidental costs” as the mediocre quality of life for socially excluded Roma, mounting social tensions, ethnic conflicts, crime and so on and so forth.

For nearly 20 years now, national and international NGOs have been sounding the alarm about the disproportionate number of Roma children placed in special schools, a fact corroborated by the first sociological survey ever commissioned by the Czech education minister. 30% of Roma children attend schools for the mentally handicapped, as against roughly 2% for the country’s “white” pupils, which corresponds to the worldwide average. The vast majority of the remaining Roma children attend “Gypsy schools”, where the results are not much better than in the schools for the mentally retarded.

Local populations press for segregation

In Brno, the local population is well aware of the scholastic segregation. But the town council, which runs Brno’s public education system, is completely oblivious to this reality. According to one councillor, there are no “classes for Roma” and “classes for whites”; the children attend the school corresponding to their place of residence. And the locals are pressing for even more segregation: “white” families in Brno, as elsewhere in the country, are simply of the opinion that Gypsy kids are more stupid and unrulier than their own children – and more inclined to violence. And as the authors of one petition put it, “It’s bad enough we have to live with them, at least we shouldn’t run in to them at school….”

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The segregationist pressure is linked to another reality: every year, nearly a third of Roma children fail to get into a “Gypsy” primary school and, after being diagnosed “mentally retarded”, are assigned to so-called “specialised” schools. This is peculiar to the Czech Republic, which has four times more children attending special schools than Austria, and a hundred times more than Sweden. The percentage of “mentally retarded” Czech Roma is ten times the average. There are two possible explanations: either Czech Roma are less intelligent than those in other countries, or our society is racist and systematically relegates them, from childhood on, to a second-class status.

Cold economic calculation

For over 30 years psychologist Petr Klíma has been working in a child counselling centre, of which he is now the head. It is centres like his that recommend placement in “special schools”. Based on his experience, “Roma kids fail the tests en masse. I’m not inventing, it’s a fact: 80% of them are borderline mentally retarded.” Klíma feels Roma families ought to be grateful that special schools exist, thanks to which their children can acquire the rudiments of literacy.

Throughout the Czech Republic, dozens of centres dole out the same recommendations as Klíma. “I truly think the vast majority of my colleagues make these recommendations entirely in good faith,” says Jana Zapletalová, psychologist and director of a counselling institute. “We need to change that. But it will not be easy.” To her mind, a change of method begins with an overhaul of primary schools. It absolutely vital to increase their budgets in order to create smaller classes , train teachers, hire assistants and give pupils individual attention. Let’s not forget the economists’ cold calculations that the Czech Republic loses 16 billion crowns (€640m) every year owing to an education system that turns out thousands of jobless Gypsies. Viewed from this angle, investing billions of crowns in improving the education system would seem a wise economic choice that promises a net return on investment.

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