RIGHTS activists have long pointed out that special education schools house a disproportionate number of children from Roma communities. They have alleged that these children are being over-diagnosed and are thus stripped of any real opportunities early in life as they fall further and further behind others of the same age while studying in schools meant for children with mental disabilities.

Ombudswoman Jana Dubovcová and her office have now come up with research that quantifies this problem.

An expert group led by psychologist Oľga Bindasová carried out research on the testing of competence of children for school and how this testing affects the children’s fundamental rights, focusing on children with cultural, social and linguistic barriers – mainly children of Roma ethnicity.

Researchers found that psychologists from pedagogic and psychological advisory centres diagnosing children do not take into account the different environment the children are growing up in, and noted that children are being tested in the state language, Slovak, rather than a language they actually understand. As a result, many children end up in special classes even though they do not really have special needs.

The research was carried out between May 14 and June 3, 2014 in 11 primary schools and 11 special schools around Slovakia, and 21 advisory centres. It follows Dubovcová’s report last year, which she notes, parliament still has not discussed.

On August 20, Dubovcová presented the results of the research and met a number of experts, psychologists, NGO representatives and the government’s proxy for Roma communities Peter Pollák to discuss the diagnostics and re-diagnostics of children from socially excluded communities.

Why is special school a problem?

Placing the children from marginalised communities into special classes or schools has life-long consequence for the pupils, as by enrolling in a special school they enter a vicious circle. They are most likely to remain in special schools for the rest of their schooling, which means they will never get access to secondary education with final state exams, never mind university education.
This is a direct violation of the children’s right to education, Bindasová charged. Special schools and special classes are mainly composed of children from Roma communities. Some 5 to 11 percent of children placed in special classes show absolutely no sign of needing special attention. Many others show only slight signs, and would be part of the mainstream education system in most other countries.

With the results of the research in their hands, the ombudswoman’s office openly called this diagnostic practice as leading to discrimination of children.

Most respondents in the research claimed that the psychology advisory centres use the same pattern in diagnostic testing, which means they do not take into account the personal circumstances of the child and the specifics of the group the child belongs to, Dubovcová said. This is a major problem regarding the whole diagnostic practice.

“It is a violation of their rights if the specifics of a certain group of persons are not taken into account,” she said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Proposed solutions

Based on the research outcomes, Dubovcová came up with a number of measures that she believes could remedy the situation.

What the children from socially disadvantaged communities need is a long-term, good-quality compulsory pre-school education free of charge, Dubovcová said.

“If we continue relying that the children will be helped by their family, which lives in poverty, we will be hoping in vain,” Dubovcová said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Dubovcová also proposes that special classes for children with mild mental disabilities should be abolished altogether and the children should be integrated into regular classes.

“That is the only way to do away with discrimination,” she said, as quoted by SITA.

Government Proxy for Roma Communities Peter Pollák noted that he has been taking efforts to prevent children who do not belong in special schools from being sent to them. He charged that the special schools only produce “professional social allowance recipients”, people who are unable to find a job on the labour market, SITA wrote.

“I’m convinced that the A variant, that is light mental disability, should not be part of the special schooling, but a part of the regular schools, just like it is in other countries of the world,” he said, as quoted by SITA.

Furthermore, the diagnostic tests should be modernised and take into account the circumstances of the life of children in Roma communities, and the children should be re-tested, as it could allow some of them to be transferred from special schools to regular classes.

Bindasová stressed that diagnostic tests need to be changed in order not to diagnose only intellect, but also look at practical intelligence and creativity.

The state should also finance a programme focusing on how children from poverty-stricken families spend their free time, according to the ombudswoman.