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Czech Republic

Salaries have risen but basic materials are lacking. Nick Holdsworth reports on the classroom crisis

MANY Czech schools are so starved of cash that they are having to ask pupils to bring their own lavatory paper to school, say secondary heads in the republic.

They have warned that schools will grind to a halt by the end of the year unless rigid spending rules are relaxed.

An increase in teachers' salaries at the cost of overall maintenance budgets has forced many schools to make cuts to essential repairs and savings on books and teaching materials.

Heads claim that pledges by Czech prime minister Milos Zeman to put education first and increase spending mask the true picture, which includes deteriorating buildings, outdated sports equipment, shortages of textbooks and illicit use of capital spending budgets to support day-to-day running costs.

"Every week, sometimes every day, teachers come into my office and ask for money - for maps, books, software or new furniture. I have to say sorry, maybe there will be the money and maybe not," said Josef Filous, president of the secondary heads' association.

In his school, a solid old brick and stone gymnasium (high school) in Slovansk Square, in a suburb of Brno, the 30-year-old chipboard desks and classroom chairs are well beyond their usable life and the pitted, cracked surface of the school's tarmac sports yard can only be described as a health hazard.

Government spending on secondaries is up to 71.6 billion crowns (pound;1.35bn) this year compred with 66.5 billion crowns (pound;1.18bn) last year, but a 12 per cent increase in teachers' salaries offsets any benefit.

Around 85 per cent of the pound;350,000 annual budget of Dr Filous's school goes to pay staff salaries and other fixed costs. More than three-quarters of the remainder is needed for heating and lighting, cleaning costs and a compulsory capital spending "investment" account designed to provide cash for major repairs and purchases such as computing equipment.

But this ring-fenced cash can only be spent on single items costing more than pound;650. Most schools in the republic freely, if illegally, dip into this account for smaller repairs or running costs and, like his school, have large paper debts as a result.

"Technically, I owe this part of my budget more than 1 million crowns (pound;17,750), but with a ridiculous budget of 20,000 crowns (pound;355) for small repairs or furniture purchases, there's little else I can do," said Dr Filous.

Appealing for help from parents, such as in the provision of pirate computer software, is also against the rules but schools find ways around the problem. Slovansk Square gymnasium's student parliament issued a plea for parents to help fund a computing and Internet classroom, and local software providers turn a blind eye to schools that bend the copyright rules.

Secondary heads plan to put funding firmly on the political agenda in the run-up to next year's general election, with a media blitz aimed at putting parents in the picture about the real conditions in schools.

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