The Czech government is planning a major overhaul of the country’s preschool education system. The final year of preschool should be compulsory, while children at the age of two would be entitled to a place in nursery school. But the country currently lack some 60,000 places in preschool facilities, and officials are not very clear on how to secure funding for these ambitious plans.
When the Czech minister for human rights and equal opportunities, Jiří Dienstbier, revealed his priorities in office earlier this week, one of them in particular provoked colourful reactions from experts and members of the public alike. Mr Dienstbier announced that besides tackling poverty, social housing, equal access to education and other issues, he would like to grant two-year-old Czech children the right to be placed in preschool.
Minister Dienstbier said other countries had successfully introduced similar arrangements which he sees as crucial for implementing the policy of equal opportunities. If children are entitled to start preschool at the age of two, adults would no longer have to choose between pursuing their careers and starting a family.
But Mr Dienstbier will face an uphill struggle to see his plans come to life. The Czech Republic chronically lacks places in preschools and kindergartens; this year, some 60,000 children could not be placed to these facilities due to lack of capacity.
The government also plans to make the final year of kindergarten compulsory, which, along with Mr Dienstbier’s idea, would require a substantial increase in the number of preschool facilities. Most of them are run by municipalities which would certainly require additional funding.
The human rights minister was not very specific about how the government wants to achieve that. But his colleague and fellow Social Democrat, Education Minister Marcel Chládek spoke to Czech TV some time ago about the details.
“One way is to get EU funds for the reconstruction of schools and nurseries; the other is to set up a national fund with between one and two billion crowns a year for expanding existing capacities. That should help municipalities which will cover 50 percent of the costs, and the rest will be paid for by the state.”
The Czech Republic’s Union of Town and Municipalities cautiously welcomes these ideas but says that first, a detailed plan needs to be put forward for a debate. The mayor of Chomutov Jan Mareš is deputy head of the union.
“We certainly do not oppose the idea. But there are several issues, particularly with regard to funding, the need to be resolved. Another problem that would need to be addressed is what should be done with the increased capacities once the number of children at preschool age drops again.”
Minister Dienstbier says his plan should be implemented within the next two or three years. Meanwhile, the government has scrapped a proposal put forth by the previous cabinet which saw the establishment of “childrens groups” as a way addressing insufficient capacities in preschool facilities. But these groups would only provide babysitting, and are not deemed a suitable substitute for regular kindergartens.