Zdeněk Svoboda
Faculty of Education
Mgr. Zdeněk Svoboda, Ph.D., has worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the Faculty of Education of UJEP since 2001. He lectures in social and special education, psychopedia, and ethopedia. From 2005 to 2014 he served as the director of the regional branch of People in Need in Bílina. He is an expert on the socially resonant topic of inclusion, and in this regard he participated in the resolution of the successful project The Path to Inclusion. In 2015, he and his colleague, Mgr. Ladislav Zilcher, personally presented this project to the Minister of Education, Kateřina Valachavá, and the Czech Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, at the Ústí Rector's Office.

There has already been so much said on the subject of inclusion that perhaps even teachers must know something about what it means. Could you, then, briefly explain this issue and outline its current status?

The biggest error in the notion of what inclusion is I consider to be the unjustified reduction of this educational concept to a mere increase in the presence of children with special educational needs in the regular school environment (in fact, integration) and the connection of various nonsensical epithets like surface inclusion, compulsory inclusion, but also, for example, the inclusion of Roma pupils or the inclusion of pupils with mild mental disabilities. Inclusion cannot be forced, nor can it be focused only on particular groups of pupils, which would be a denial of its essence. The mere presence of children with given special educational needs, or its opposite, those who are gifted, tells us nothing about the quality of their instruction, the support of cooperation among children, the active involvement of children, inclusion in peer relationships, feelings of acceptance and safety in the school environment, and similar cases. One must not confuse form and content. It is possibly easiest to define inclusion as a process of continual efforts to create a school environment that will be open, accomodating, respectful of the individual needs of all pupils, one that will try to involve all pupils and fulfill their educational potential to the maximum. It is an ideal to a certain extent, which makes sense for schools to approach with constant practice and the improvement of internal working processes. Current changes in school legislation and measures of financial support only open the door a bit more for inclusion. No one but specific schools, specific teachers, specific parents can decide through their approaches whether it is really attainable.

“Schools can move forward towards inclusion if they have good leadership
and high-quality, motivated teachers.”

You are the supervisor of the ambitious project, The Path to Inclusion, which you personally presented, along with Mgr. Ladislav Zilcher (the main decider of the whole project), to the Minister of Education. What do you see as the greatest benefit of this project?

I served as the supervisor of key activities within the framework of this project, which was oriented towards direct cooperation with schools, and the main aim was to try to create a strategic plan in at least five connected schools. The goal was to plan very concrete goals and activities designed to create an inclusive environment in those schools. We wanted simply to prove that schools can move forward towards inclusion if they have good leadership and high-quality, motivated teachers. At last we succeeded in achieving these plans in six schools, and we are very proud of the fact that these school teams managed to formulate more than a thousand individual sub-activities within which they will gradually try to move the educational process in the direction of our shared vision of an inclusive environment in schools. At the same time, our mutual cooperation gave rise to a method according to which similar processes can be conducted by other active and open schools if they have the desire and the interest.
More than four dozen conferences and workshops were conducted throughout the country within the framework of the project. Nearly 1100 school administrators participated and we had the opportunity to discuss the concept of inclusion in greater detail with the. And nearly 199 of those administrators participated in educational stays in schools in Great Britain and in Finland. We made many valuable international contacts which will allow us to draw on good examples of inclusive educational systems in action. Many methodological publications, research monographs and concrete materials have resulted from this project which schools can utilize in the development of their own inclusive practices. We believe that our involvement in international projects and other transfers of experience has contributed in the fact that our educational faculty has currently accredited fields of study in Special Education and Social Education within the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs, and also in the English language.

What do you say to the fact that regional representatives in Ústí have refused inclusion? They rely on letters from the directors of primary and special educational schools in the Ústí region and on a challenge from the Association of Special Education Teachers (ASP ČR) from 2015, in which is written that mild mental disabilities significantly reduce cognitive abilities and that the majority of pupils with such disabilities cannot be successfully educated in regular classes in primary schools. They say that they will not be able to concentrate on learning and that they will disturb their fellow classmates which will reduce the quality of education for all students.

While I regret such a decision, I don’t consider it to be at all suprising. They come from a traditional and stereotypical notion that children who are in the same classroom have to accomplish the same activities, achieve the same goals, and be evaluated by the same standards. Ústí has long been a region where proportionally more children are sent to the practical segment of primary schools and it cannot be taken as a model of pro-inclusive approaches. Nevertheless, even in this region there are excellent schools which are demonstrating that the application of this principle is possible, and the region could play one of the key roles in supporting the success of inclusion, whether it be in support of staffing and the quality of work in school counseling facilities, or a more active approach on the basis of efforts in methodological support for schools in this area, or in the form of increased support for teaching assistants, for example according to the model of the Karlovy Vary region. I believe that in the Regional Action Plan for Education there is a will and a place for beginning to make positive changes. Thus, it seems to fulfill the aforementioned “catastrophic” scenarios from the workshop of the ASP ČR, it depends a little on the approach and level of activity of the region.

From 2005 to 2014 you served as the regional branch director of People in Need in Bílina. What was the nature of your work?

I directed what gradually became a twenty-member team providing a wide range of social services and interventions. Our primary target group was the people at risk of social exclusion and the resulting negative consequences. We implemented, for example, social field work, social activation services for families with children, work and debt counseling or even a club for parents with children. Because a large part of our team consisted of colleagues with pedagogical education, we placed a great emphasis on activities supporting children within this area and we cooperated significantly with schools. We ran low-threshold clubs for younger and older children, specialized pre-school preparations, tutoring programs, self-help groups for children, but we also initiated the creation and adoption of interesting city programs for the prevention of truancy. All of our activities were directed towards motivating our clients to accept active resposibility for their own lives, we persuaded them that change is possible, and we tried to collectively create new life scenarios. This range of activities by these branches is still ongoing.

You also taught at a primary school in Bílina. Did you gain any experience there that led you to support inclusion?

I worked at the Lidická primary school in Bílina for a total of 13 years and was lucky that it was a school which was easily the most diverse of educational environments. I could teach in both regular classrooms and in classrooms especially for children with mild mental disabilities, like trying to work with individually integrated pupils. So I can compare the advantages and maybe the risks of these various approaches. We were one of the schools which joined in the first wave of the verification of preparatory classes and among others things, our school also educated the children of asylum seekers from the contemporary asylum facility at Červený Újezd near Bílina. My colleagues and I had the great honor of teaching children from several dozen different nationalities. Our approach, which today we would call inclusive, was typical for its functioning in many respects. Even today this educational program is called the Rainbow School and one of its most important messages is that life is diverse, people are diverse and it is necessary to respect each other and learn to live together. It’s no surprise that this school is one of those which often participated with us in projects. I appreciate the work of my former colleagues and we can also attempt to enrich each other further.

What negative factors affect a pupil who grows up in a socially excluded location?

Unfortunately, I must say that there are many effects, and they are interrelated and they strengthen each other. At the most common level it is possible to look for them in the actual locations where there is often unsuitable housing in overcrowded flats which is connected with various risk factors such as drugs, prostitution, or usury. Families are often afflicted by all the negative consequences connected with long-term unemployment, debt, a resignation from attempts at making changes. Children also suffer in this environment from a lack of models of adequate access to education and parents have only limited options to support them in school. We can attribute this to the overall setup of the Czech educational system where the relationship between success in school and the socio-cultural background of the family has long been very strong. The chances that these children will not succeed are therefore quite significant.

How can a school help those who are in such difficult circumstances?

Schools in this area are in a complicated position and can often only react to the consequences and not the causes of this situation. Some try very hard, but one cannot say that about others. Of course, they can offer children a whole range of support measures, but in order for their attempts to have a chance of success, they cannot remain alone. I see a way forward in effective cooperation with social service providers who can cooperate in changing the situation of families, with those providing tutoring, and other support activities. One of the conditions is also that towns must also be active in the matter of social housing, others in the matter of employment, and the police in the matter of fighting crime in socially excluded locations. I would also personally like to be an advocate for changes in the system of social transfers so that more would be directed to ensuring that the needs of children are more effectively controlled and made motivational. And it is on these grounds, for example, that experience in Great Britain is very inspiring, where intensive and interrelated educational and social support for children is interestingly combined with a clear and enforceable emphasis on cooperation with the family.

What project are you currently working on?

In the last few months our faculty has prepared a large inclusion project within the framework of the OP VVV named School for Everyone, again under the baton of our colleague Zilcher, in which we would like to build on the experience gained in the project The Path to Inclusion, whether by means of research activities, direct cooperation with schools, or by means of cooperation with colleagues in Great Britain and Finland. It’s an honor to us that our partners in this project are also Charles University in Prague, Masaryk University in Brno, and the organization People in Need. We are now in the phase when we are excitedly awaiting news of whether the project will be supported and whether at the start of the new school year we are going to be able to work with colleagues on gradually making the positive aspects that inclusion offers a reality.

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