Today the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, concluded a visit to the Slovak Republic which focused on inclusive education of children with disabilities and Roma children. At the same time, since the visit took place shortly after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová, the Commissioner met with representatives of the media to discuss the safety of journalists.
Concerning inclusive education, Commissioner Muižnieks calls on the Slovak authorities to start addressing the continuing segregation of Roma children and children with disabilities in education in a more comprehensive manner. Noting that little meaningful progress has been achieved in this field since his visit in June 2015, the Commissioner stresses that “measures to tackle school segregation cannot be ad hoc, piecemeal and temporary. They must be bold and sustainable and reflect a long-term vision of inclusion shared by all stakeholders and supported across all levels and areas of the administration.”
The Commissioner welcomes the acknowledgment from the government of the need to tackle school segregation, as well as some of the legislative and policy measures that had been put in place since his last visit. Overall, however, current efforts do not appear to be commensurate to the inclusion challenges the country faces. Although he found examples of successful desegregation and inclusion, these often depended on the good will and efforts of individual schools, parents or other actors, but were not the result of a systemic approach.
The Commissioner notes the lack of a clear roadmap to desegregation at the national, regional or locals levels. This became apparent during his visit to a primary school in Šarišské Michaľany, which had been faced with a Regional Court judgment for having Roma-only classes in 2012. Despite efforts by the school, including through temporarily funded projects, segregation appeared to have worsened since the judgment. A lack of guidance from the state on how to achieve successful desegregation and retain non-Roma pupils remains a major problem.
The non-enforcement of legal obligations in the field of inclusion was also evident in the case of a girl with Down syndrome and a hearing impairment the Commissioner met, who had been refused enrolment in a mainstream school. The Commissioner was informed that even after a judgment of the Supreme Court in favour of the child, the school refused to enrol her, without facing further consequences.
The Slovak Republic should therefore introduce in law a clear obligation to desegregate and an enforceable right to inclusion. This should be combined with a strong and internally coherent system of support to schools and pupils, including providing teaching and other assistants, funded through a stable budget that makes it reliable and long-term, and not primarily through temporary projects. The Commissioner also found a huge unfulfilled need for training of teachers. ”Knowledge about dealing with pupils with disabilities and diversity in classrooms should become an integral part of teacher training for all teachers,” he said.
The Commissioner notes with interest the intention of the Slovak authorities to reform their primary school entry diagnostics. In line with his Position Paper on inclusive education, he hopes that this would provide an opportunity to shift the focus from measuring children’s abilities - to decide whether they should be enrolled in special education - to assessing how their needs can be best met in mainstream education.
The Commissioner welcomes discussions about strengthening pre-primary education, which is crucial for preparing all children for mainstream primary education. He particularly notes proposals to introduce a compulsory year of pre-primary education, and urges the authorities to introduce this soon. However, he also recommends that this discussion is broadened to look at how availability, accessibility and quality of early childhood and pre-primary education can be strengthened across the board, including for children with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Commissioner emphasises that tackling school segregation should be seen in its wider social context. For Roma, this involves tackling anti-Gypsyism, including the importance of politicians refraining from perpetuating stereotypes about Roma, which serve to create public hostility towards them. It also means addressing spatial segregation of Roma and other forms of discrimination, including with regard to policing. For persons with disabilities, inclusive education should go hand-in-hand with a process of deinstitutionalisation, to significantly reduce the number of persons with disabilities being provided with care in institutions, rather than in their own communities.
Concerning the safety of journalists, the Commissioner met with representatives of the media, who expressed shock, fear and distinct mistrust in the state institutions that have to ensure the free and safe exercise of their profession. The Commissioner calls for a prompt and effective investigation in the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová in order to identify and punish the perpetrators, but especially those who ordered the murders. He also calls for an urgent public discussion about media freedom and the safety of journalists, focusing in particular on political discourse. “The rhetoric has to change and the smear campaigns have to stop. Derogatory remarks about the press by public officials jeopardise the essential role of free media in a democratic society, and create an insecure environment for journalists,” said the Commissioner.
Furthermore, these broader discussions should focus on ensuring good cooperation between the police and journalists, who should be able to rely on effective responses if they are threatened. He also invites the authorities to review whether legislation and practice sufficiently protect journalists who make information requests, and ensure they do not increase the vulnerability of journalists working on sensitive topics.