Throughout the Czech Republic, Romani children will often find themselves in different schools, in different classrooms, with a different curriculum, by the time they reach kindergarten. All due to their ethnicity.
Sitting in Prague with Jan Stejskal in the courtyard of the Dobrá Trafika café, tucked away in Ujzed Street, his face registers a keen sense of hope while also acknowledging the frustrating barriers he and many others must battle.
Stejskal has worked for various Roma advancement organizations for the better part of a decade and knows the struggles many Romani children face.
“I have to be optimistic…. because even the most stupid and racist Czech can’t blame a little three-year-old kid for being Roma,” Stejskal says.
“But there are a thousand ways to discriminate. If the schools don’t want Romani children, they find a way to exclude them.”
According to Beata Bislim Olahova, the project manager within the Hungary-based organisation, Roma Education Fund, Roma children are widely referred to “special” or “practical” classes, which are designed for children with mental disabilities.
“They are disproportionately represented in special schools and classes throughout Central and Eastern Europe,” said Olahova.
Nearly a decade after the DH and Others vs the Czech Republic case ruled that Roma children were being ethnically discriminated against by being pressured to attend “practical schools”, Roma children still find themselves locked out of mainstream education.
The problem with this is twofold – with the ethnic discrimination of children having profound social and economic repercussions. Attending a practical school essentially means once students graduate they are often destined for menial jobs at best, while obtaining the necessary requirements for further studies is almost impossible.
“Continued placement of Romani children into practical schools is de facto segregation and has adverse consequences for the development of the Romani community,” Olahova explained. “It is entrenched in Eastern and Central Europe and denies Roma children their fundamental right to quality education, as well as being an incredibly inefficient system.”
Stejskal believes the issue of segregation and ethnic discrimination is embedded in the education system in the Czech Republic, and many teachers still see Romani children as intrinsically different to other students.
“Roma children are still seen as inferior. Teachers feel Roma children are not intelligent so they ‘adjust their curriculum’ accordingly. Schools see Roma children as too loud, too unruly, and too wild,” Stejskal explains.
The complicated reality is that many children funnelled into “practical” schools and “special” classes are there as a result of parental consent.
Most parents have been educated in the “practical” school system, an almost mandatory practice during the Communist era.
“Parents do give their consent, but I would say it is not informed consent. Parents just want to protect their children from the harassment. The schools cannot guarantee their children’s safety,” Stejskal said.
When asked of the challenges of working within the system, Stejskal is honest, “Working in these roles can be challenging, but I have to be optimistic. Roma have to be able to see successful Roma people in education and the communities.”
While the segregation of Romani children continues, the REF and other organisations are making strides in Romani advancement.
“We are very proud of the steady increase of Roma in higher education, with statistics showing a tertiary education completion rate of 69 per cent — only three per cent lower than the European average, “ says Stejskal, “The Roma Education Fund awards about 1500 tertiary scholarships to Roma students.”
The issue is also linked to a host of other social issues, which combine to limit Roma people’s integration within mainstream Czech society and in turn perpetuate stereotypes against Roma people. Keeping the Roma people uneducated feeds into poor job security, insecure housing, poverty and general social exclusion.
Education is key to eliminating poverty and halt the expanding number of ‘ghettos’ with such localities more than doubling in the Czech Republic since 2006.
According to the the latest available research, the Czech Republic is losing ground compared to its nearest neighbours.
Ms Olahova said the Czech Republic diagnosed ten percent of children as developmentally delayed, Hungary classed six percent, which contrasts with the European average of two percent.
According to Stejskal, these special classes can be almost entirely Romani. “80 or even 95 percent of these practical schools and segregated classes are Roma, with Roma children generally having access to only low-quality education,” Stejskal explains.
Hungarian Romani pre-school aged children are more likely to receive early education than their Czech counterparts with almost 80 percent of Roma children in preschool.
Olahova said “This is probably because preschool is compulsory and free of charge, and it is likely to further improve [in Hungary] as the new law on public education lowers the compulsory age to three years.”
The Czech government aims to introduce compulsory education for preschool aged children in 2017.
The Roma minority in the Czech Republic face different challenges to their counterparts in neighbouring Slovakia and Hungary, with Stejskal suggesting the issue is down to a lack of political clout.
“The Roma minority here [in the Czech Republic] is different, compared to Slovakia. They [Slovakia] have something like 30 mayors already… Roma are already in many influential positions,”Stejskal says. “A ten per cent Roma population represents a significant amount of voters who can pressure governments to take the problem seriously compared to maybe three percent Roma population in the Czech Republic.”
While the segregation and discrimination of Roma children is unlikely to disappear overnight, organisations working on the frontlines of Roma advancement show there are increasingly positive signs in the region.
*Words by Sarah Collard. Follow her on Twitter.