Red tape and revelations on route to my Czech revolution

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Mark Waldron is headteacher of an anomaly - a British private school where the fees are subsidised by the state. Only the state happens to be the Czech Republic. Here he describes the joys, and the bureaucratic challenges, he faces

My day starts at 6.45am - an hour earlier than my previous job in the UK - so I can be ready for the staff briefing. I am told the man to blame for these early starts is the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, who died in 1916. It is amazing to think that, after a century which has seen two new states, two world wars, occupation by both Nazis and Soviets and a Velvet Revolution and Divorce, the working habits of a 19th century monarch can still affect the timetable of the English College in Prague.

That same Austrian legacy was evident when the school celebrated its graduation ball in the depths of winter. Held in splendid neo-classical surroundings, students effortlessly waltzed around the dance floor in elegant ball gowns that would have looked perfectly natural in fin de siecle Vienna. When I asked gently why we were having a graduation ball four months before the students took their International Baccalaureate (IB) exams I was told it was to ensure that everyone could attend as no one had yet failed to graduate - the sound Czech reasoning I have grown to both love and fear where absurd practices (and there are many) possess apparently rational explanation.

The English College in Prague enjoys what may be a unique position: a fee-paying, independent Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference school that exists within the Czech state system. We are not an international school - more than two thirds of our pupils are Czech - but most of the teachers, including "Mr Headmaster", are native English speakers and we try to deliver the best of both worlds.

The most obvious manifestation of this is our arrangement, in place since the school began in 1994, that students graduate with both the IB Diploma and the Czech school leaving exam, the Maturita. It's a very satisfactory arrangement with relatively few compromises - the main one is that our Czech students must do Higher Level Czech at IB, a sensible requirement that makes sure they maintain their Czech identity and local cultural awareness.

In return the nice people at the Czech Education Ministry give us a subsidy for each Czech student in the school which helps keep the fees down and allows us to appeal to a wider socio-economic base. I suppose it is a voucher system of a type, but the credit comes to the school, not the parent. All this has worked well for 15 years. Places are offered before we know family income and fees are calculated subsequently based on ability to pay; about a third of our students are on bursaries that come out of our school budget.

Making sure we get pupils who will benefit from the education we offer is not so easy - while pupils need a reasonable level of English, in my interview I try to ascertain commitment and raw intelligence as once they arrive and are surrounded by the English language the bright, motivated student will make enormous progress. The complexities of modern Prague make these interviews fascinating and we admit large numbers of Vietnamese and Chinese pupils, most of whom are now actually born in the Czech Republic.

Occasionally I have to resort to German or pigeon Russian to speak to parents. It is humbling to hear a 12-year-old Czech who has never left the Republic speaking English with a fluency I know I will never achieve in her language - even though I attend a weekly Czech lesson.

The founders of the school were rightly proud to have two high-level patrons - Prince Charles and Vaclav Havel, who visited earlier this term. The British-Czech balance in our patrons is reflected in the governing body, where we aim for a 5050 mix.

The overwhelming motivation students have for applying to the college is the English language and I would guess nine out of ten applicants state their aim as gaining a UK university education (I hope the British Government knows just how significant higher education is and will continue to be in the UK economy).

One of the differences from the British system is that it is compulsory for heads to teach for at least an hour a week. As a former history teacher, my weekly dose of teaching typically sees me journeying through the intricate details of the French Revolution with a bright and challenging group of Higher Level IB students.

Should the headteacher take on a class? My immediate thought is yes - not only does it keep me in touch with the chalkface, but it also alerts me to the way in which systems I am responsible for affect the daily routine of teachers. The unbelievably complex absence reporting system might have survived even longer had I not had to use it myself.

On the other hand the number of times I have to be away makes me worry that I am short-changing those I nominally teach. A greater hazard, as a history teacher, is how often I find myself explaining to bright and radical teenagers the best means to rid oneself of a despotic government - however enlightened it may seem. Teaching Rousseau was far less troubling when I wasn't part of the management.

The pupils are not afraid to express their views, as I always find when I make my monthly visit to the fully elected student council. At a recent meeting the main topic was the use of the internet and whether teachers can be "friends" with students on Facebook. It's a tough audience and at the end I am neither sure what I think about the matter nor what I have decided.

The teachers too feel free to vent their frustrations - which sometimes I share.

One of them has been over restrictions the ministry is trying to impose on all schools over the Maturita and the national curriculum.

We are pleased that we can offer the IB, with its UK-style practical work and critical thinking, alongside a more traditional, knowledge-based Czech approach.

But as a national curriculum and central written exam loom, we need to fight hard to maintain the two qualifications without compromising either. Of course, we, and our parents, students and international universities, are very happy that what we offer is rigorous and effective, but the price of the subsidies is that we must convince the bureaucrats of this, too.

The ministry's desire to control what is taught in schools is not limited to the school leaving exam but also to our pre-IB curriculum and this is threatening some subjects in particular. The biologists are faced with several months of mushroom taxonomy while the historians are struggling to see how they can continue to teach 20th century world history.

The proposed curriculum is not all bad; there is a refreshing emphasis on literature and literary criticism in Czech, a sensible approach to acquiring English language skills and an impressive PSHE programme. What depresses me, though, is the idea that the centre knows best, and to see the Czech system about to follow the mistaken paths that British education took in the late 1980s.

It is the lack of flexibility in the face of manifest reason that is most depressing and forces us to play games, whether that means defining drama as extra English or ICT as information literacy; the lessons don't change but the boxes are ticked.

The bureaucratic hurdles we face go beyond the curriculum. Too often I am told that something cannot be done because of Czech Law 37b of the Civil Education code or some such rule. I need to trust the bursar to know when these rules can be dodged and when they certainly cannot.

We are currently looking for new premises, so I am becoming more aware of laws regarding school buildings - including the one that requires a sink in every classroom. No one can tell me exactly why this law exists but the best guess is so you can wipe the blackboard clean. When the obvious point was made that we no longer have blackboards, I was told that we might one day return to chalk and it would be wrong not to be prepared.

It feels churlish to moan as I prepare to join a trip to Krakow for the weekend. Of all benefits of being in central Europe here is the best of all. Long, low-cost weekend school trips by train to Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Krakow, not to mention sports outings to the mountains, lakes and forests, enormously enrich our curriculum.

Yet the cultural differences remain intriguing. What astonishes me most about all this is how my secretary, who bravely stood up to the Communist authorities on the streets of Prague in 1989, is now like a rabbit in the ministry's headlights when it comes to the latest nonsensical requirement. I think this may well be a major cultural or historical divide. The Czechs have had a history that teaches them to survive by compromise while we Brits, largely free of the threat of occupation, have tended to bullish resistance on the rare occasions that our liberty has been explicitly threatened.


- Compulsory education begins in the Czech Republic when the child is six or seven.

- At 15, teenagers either go on to a "gymnazium", providing academic qualifications for university; a vocational school; or a business academic school. School entrance normally involves an exam, and students usually leave at 19.

- The Czech Republic is one of the very few European Union countries without a standard school leaving exam. All assessment is internal and leads to a school leaving certificate called the Maturita. There are controversial plans to introduce a standardised Maturita exam for the whole country but they have already been delayed, and the opposition Social Democrats have pledged to abandon them.

- The Maturita is traditionally assessed by an oral exam in four subjects - the topics for which are chosen by the drawing of lots before entering the exam room - plus one written essay exam. Students also have to pass each year in all subjects - otherwise they must resit, or repeat the year.

- University entrance is based on individual entry exams set by each university.

- Teachers must have a degree in their subject but no PGCE-equivalent course as such.

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