Articles| Education of elites in the Czech Republi...

Education of elites in the Czech Republic

25. January 2014 - MF Dnes, příloha Víkend Prestige secondary schools are being widely discussed today in the context of resignations by the principals of the PORG grammar school. But what are institutions of this type good for? What results do they have and what methods of teaching do they use? “We don’t bone up,” says one of the students. "We’re learning how to think.”

What would you think is pinned up on the wall over a 12-year-old girl’s bed? A portrait of a boy music band? A poster showing horses with flowing manes? Jiřina Porubová has a quotation from Honoré de Balzac, copied by her own hand there: “The greatest happiness of a man is to be able to live for something for which he would be willing to die.” Jiřina Porubová is a student at the Open Gate eight-year grammar school in Babice, Central Bohemia. She therefore goes to one of the prestigious private schools, which is relatively expensive by local standards and is intended to produce future elites.

Martin Mudra, normally a teacher at a ‘standard’ grammar school, works as an external teacher at another private school, located in Nebušice near Prague. Thanks to his jobs at schools of two different types, he is able to make comparisons: “When children at a traditional school are given homework they usually pull a long face. If I forget to give homework to students at the elite school they ask disappointedly: “No homework for us today?”
The complex of buildings in Babice is a fine example of architecture. Its interiors often have a panoramic window instead of a cold wall at the end. The young people inside have better outlooks in many directions.

The missing centuries
In this traditionally plebeian country where even the educated strata come from a plebeian background it is not uncommon that people look down their nose at schools such as Open Gate or PORG, resenting them as intruders that disturb the deep-rooted egalitarian environment. “But such views are also heard in other places in the world,” says Ondřej Šteffl, who established PORG in 1990 and currently is the head of Scio, a company dealing with educational issues. “In France, people look askance at graduates from two or three prestigious lyceums, in America at graduates from Harvard. People with such education then take important positions and it is hard to get among them, because most of the future elites are directly copied from the current generation to the next generation.” In addition, elite schools do not have the same continuity as, for example, in the Anglo-Saxon world. “I don’t mean this as criticism – I only regret that so many people think it will suffice to put 500 million into it and you get an elite school immediately. The concept and philosophy of such a school take decades to develop, if not centuries,” says Jiří Růžička, principal of the Johannes Kepler Grammar School in Prague, which is a public school with no school fees but enjoying remarkable respect thanks to its remarkable achievements.

Mr. Růžička’s regret is not disapproval. It would certainly be incorrect to believe that Open Gate, PORG and other such schools are snobby. Mr. Šteffl claims that elite schools are detrimental to society because they divide society and only bring benefits to their students, but this is perhaps just a witty remark because society can subsequently benefit from these students (most of whom are successful), unless they remain abroad.

“Elite schools are beneficial because they extend the range of what the educational system has to offer, although only for a small part of the population,” believes Ivo Možný, a prominent sociologist. “Even the fact alone that elite education is available to at least a few deserves to be appreciated.”

The world according to two Dominikas
Dominika Trčková and Dominika Kouřilová almost embarrassed the interviewer. He was just about to start asking his questions about life in Open Gate, where they both are to graduate next year, but they got up from their chairs, smoothed their school uniform skirts down in a well-mannered way and extended him their hands. “Allow us first to introduce ourselves…”

The girls answer in full and complex sentences and formulate their views and future plans very precisely for their age. One has the feeling of being in a better, more perfect world, but on the other hand this raises a suspicion that these girls are a cat’s paw, acting on the instructions of the school’s PR people. “Of course not. And we could not send our best student to meet with you because you wouldn’t believe your ears. She is really a skillful speaker,” smiles deputy principal Petr Chára.

Dominika Kouřilová, a 17-year-old brunette from Luka nad Jihlavou, admits: “At home my mom sometimes warns me jokingly, ‘Stop debating, you’re not at school!’ And when I am among my peers outside the school I sometimes feel like a Martian. We talk, we are at good terms with one another but we see the differences between us.”
Yes, these children are obviously different. And their plans are also different, higher. An example? There are three to five students attending the chemistry classes. Mr. Chára characterizes them with a great but fitting exaggeration: “All of them want to be Nobel Prize winners for chemistry.”

Working with just a handful of students is a luxury that teachers in traditional schools can only dream of, but on the other hand, working with ‘future Nobel Prize winners’ is a great challenge for the teachers. Such students are certainly not drowsy during instruction. They are, on the contrary, active, taking initiative and provoking debates.
Jiří Růžička, principal of the Johannes Kepler Grammar School, notes with indignation that the government’s policy in education is deplorable. “In this financially and morally burglarized country, the government is trampling down the last remnant of its wealth – education. It is fine to require teachers to be super humans, but the government pays them ridiculous salaries. The only reason why our school still has outstanding teachers is that they are maniacs, work enthusiasts, willing to work for pathetic salaries.”

Although many private schools also need subsidies from the government, the troubles described by Mr. Růžička are of little concern for them. And a school such as Open Gate does not feel them at all.
The outcomes can already be seen. The hallways of the school built by billionaire Petr Kellner are decorated with portraits of former students with information about where each of them currently studies. It is a parade of universities virtually from all over the world, which is a good motivation for current students. “I want to study veterinary medicine, preferably in Scotland or England,” says Dominika Kouřilová. “I would like to go to England to study law there,” says the other Dominika, whose surname is Trčková.

Martin Mudra, teacher from the Nebušice school, observed: “The difference between the students of public schools and elite schools is in motivation: the motivation of students in the former is average to high, while the motivation of those in the latter is extremely high.”

Talent buying
Ivo Možný warns: “We must be on guard against elite schools where the school fees are the only elite aspect.” Although he is a sociologist he is unable to estimate the number of schools to which his warning applies. The amounts of school fees vary. At the Czech-English School in České Budějovice the fees are 30,000 Czech crowns per year while at Open Gate they are 470,000, covering also accommodation (it is a boarding school with students from 11 to 18 years of age) and also potential optional stays.

The system of scholarships is of key importance for private schools. Payment of study expenses from sources other than the student’s family is not just a form of charity; the school itself must be deeply interested in it. “It is a natural law that if a school is based only on the money from students, its quality is compromised,” says Mr. Šteffl. Mr. Možný says the same in other words: “Schools must have a scholarship program because of their self-preservation instinct. If an elite school used the parents’ wealth as the only admission criterion, it would cease to be an elite school soon. There is no elite school without elite students.”

‘Picking’ young talents from different strata of society is practiced by many schools. “Thanks to The Kellner Family Foundation, such students account for about 70 percent of the total number,” discloses Petr Chára for Open Gate. The entire amount of the expenses is automatically paid for talents from children’s homes; otherwise the amount paid by the family depends on the parents’ financial circumstances. The two Dominicas use the Foundation’s support. Both do the schoolwork in English: at this eight-year grammar school, most of the study in the second half of the eight-year program is in the English language.

How much a dream costs
PORG’s current problems, personified in the controversy between its former principal Václav Klaus Jr. and sponsor Martin Roman, can be viewed in different ways. PORG’s founder Ondřej Šteffl is on Mr. Roman’s side: he believes that Klaus Jr. has, to put it simply, missed recent advances in teaching. On the other hand, Johannes Kepler Grammar School principal Růžička claims that, when the dispute is viewed from the outside, Mr. Klaus has built the school’s strong brand image, which is now at risk.

Regardless of the above, PORG is one of the seven schools in the Czech Republic that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB), the most prestigious secondary education certificate recognized all over the world, which can, under certain circumstances, qualify students for admission to a university instead of admission tests. IB exams include tests in six subjects, but in addition the students must meet other criteria: gain credits in community work, have a good grasp of general philosophy, and write an essay, which in essence is a bachelor-degree thesis.

The IB certificate opens the door to universities, though, understandably, this is not always true. Petr Cibulka, a businessman, has paid 12 million Czech crowns for his three children’s education at the English College in Prague and today he notes bitterly: “One of my sons has an IB diploma but he was not admitted to the university, and I decided that it would be better to transfer my 13-year-old daughter to a public grammar school. I would like to tell the parents who consider enrolling their children in an ‘elite school’ that in many cases, the schools primarily focus on the business side of their job.”

However, even this dissatisfied father admits: “The behavior and culture the children learned at the English school go beyond the Czech environment.” In addition, traditional schools and the parents of their students do not normally have to deal with the issue that a child is learning too much. According to Mr. Chára, such extremes have already occurred at Open Gate, especially among girls – their efforts sometimes need to be curbed: “Stop learning for a while, go for a jog, a swim,” says the Babice School’s deputy principal.

“Our school does not force us to memorize things. It teaches how to think,” notes Dominika Trčková.
“We are trying to make children’s dreams a reality,” adds Mr. Chára.
In short, a dream that comes true is simply priceless.

(Author | FILIP SAIVER)

Source: MF Dnes, the Weekend supplement

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