Czech public school is free, the food is good and they pride themselves on their education system. What a shock though! Here are some things I which we had known from the start.
When we made the decision to move to the Czech Republic, one of the deciding factors were free public school, and a good school system. We were not prepared for the shock though (and I did research, speak to people, was aware of cultures being different so we knew we would have to adapt). After two full years of Czech public school there are things I wish someone had told me.
You don’t get to choose a school
Many countries have this system of going to the public school according to the area you live in. We knew this, and even knew what school we would have to go to, before we came. Checked out the website (using Chrome Translate), and it looked great. The problem is just that you don’t get to choose, and once we were settled we realised that we would have liked a less rigid school structure. It would be best to first find the school you like, then try to find a place to live in the school’s area.
In some cases, if you make a good argument and the director is amiable, they might let your child in even if you are not in the area. As long as there aren’t any other kids on the waiting list above yours.
There is a specific time to enroll.
If your child is going to the first grade, you need to enroll her/him during the “zápis” or registration days. As long as you have proof of residence in the correct area and your child is the right age for first grade, they have no legal reason not to accept them into the school. Some schools are a little iffy about your child’s Czech level though, but legally they cannot deny them based on language (and honestly, if they do, you might want to rethink your choice of school).
If your children are in later grades and you live in the right area, it is still the school’s prerogative to accept them, as it is all about the numbers. However, if the grade is full, it’s full. You will have to apply to the next closest school to your home.
English is not commonly spoken
This is probably the worst part. The director of the school we enrolled at is very friendly, but can speak zero English. Office staff speak zero English. Liam’s first grade teacher … you guessed it … spoke zero English. His second grade teacher can communicate a little, and understands well enough, but I still have to take a Czech friend with me to every meeting.
Needless to say, Liam’s integration into school was rough. He had no clue what was happening, no way to tell his teacher anything and acted out a lot, out of frustration. Even though the dear teacher was very understanding, it was a difficult year. Also, making friends was hard and he was labelled from the beginning as the “naughty foreigner”, which broke my heart. In two years he has received one birthday party invitation from a class of 20 children that he has been with for the whole two years.
Inside and outside shoes
We were so confused with all the different shoes that were needed. Outside shoes – normal wear when they go out. Inside shoes – school shoes for wearing inside the school, these are like slippers and are bought in a specific category of shoes in the store. Inside gym shoes – usually with light coloured soles, for physical training classes inside.
Start of school year supplies
You will get a long list of supplies to buy for your child, as well as for classroom use. If you’re lucky this will be in English. It probably won’t be though. Google Translate helps a lot, but doesn’t understand culture, so you will need some help. Try Googling anything you don’t know, in Czech, even just in images. Big help! We were stumped by having to buy “Herkules”, which ended up being a brand of glue they use here. It made sense in the end, since we grew up talking about “Pritt” and not “glue stick”. Buy a stack of plastic covers (I know … eek!) in A4 and A3 sizes. This might not be on the list, but the teachers prefer the books to be protected.
School books and curriculum
Coming from South Africa, I was blown away by the quality of the school books. They are all printed in colour, and beautiful. I enjoy their approach to Mathematics. No “parrot work” like when I was in school. I believe it really gave Liam (who loves Math) an understanding of numbers that goes beyond what I was taught. But, it is still a lot of writing, and little manipulating or playing with 3D materials.
I am disappointed by the approach to writing though, which might also just be because we were taught differently. They were taught the whole Czech alphabet in upper and lower case, with very little writing practise, before the end of the first semester, then started cursive writing a few months after that! I am disappointed that Joanné still writes only in upper case “beginner” writing, at the end of the first grade, and I feel there should have been more focus on quality instead of quantity. Slow down! The Czech alphabet is luckily phonetic, so it is pretty straightforward, learning to sound out words – a good idea for you as a parent as well … learn to read Czech.
After school care – Družina
Letting your child stay a little after school is an easy way for them to informally learn the language, while playing with other children. Joanné found this great, being an extrovert and social butterfly. Liam didn’t enjoy it much, because … more time with children who didn’t want to play with him. Granted, it wasn’t all bad, and I believe it played a large role in him learning Czech. (They are both quite fluent now, Joanné apparently sounds like a native speaker. I am happy they learnt another language!)
During družina there are also many extracurricular activities you can enroll your child in. Each school has their own activities, and it is another brilliant way for them to integrate and learn the language. But, you have to be very quick that first week of school, because the spots are filled up in a snap. Our twins enjoyed a ceramics class, and there were different sport classes, chess, cooking and others. The teacher responsible for the lesson usually collects the children from the after school area, and brings them back once they’re done. Ask the družina teachers the first day, or look for some paper pin ups that others are writing names on. These are paid activities, so keep that in mind.
Bilingual public schools in Prague
By Christmas of Liam’s first year, we were asked to consider moving him to a bilingual public school “for his own good”. The nearest one, however, is 35 minutes by public transport. Nevertheless, I did more research into these schools.
Let me clarify something first. A lot of schools have English as part of their curriculum, from as early as the first grade. Ours only start in the third grade. It varies from school to school, and it is good to look into this as well. However, it will most likely be a very basic form of English. These are not bilingual schools, or even a bilingual program.
Bilingual schools have 40 to 50 percent of their lessons in English. Not just English lessons, but other subjects are taught in English by an English-speaking teacher. This is not the traditional Czech curriculum, and these schools are a little more “enlightened” and easy to integrate into. They have a more accepting culture toward foreigners in general.
We tried getting into one of these schools, after the “friendly recommendation” from our school, but they were full. Also we don’t live in the areas of these schools, but all the directors where sympathetic and one asked me to check back with them at the end of June, when they would know whether there will be a spot opening up for the next school year.
Here are the 3 bilingual Czech public schools that I managed to find (there might be others, though even my Czech friends couldn’t find any – you will have to really dig):
META – Helping your child integrate
One of the best tips I can give you as you consider putting your child in a Czech public school, is to connect with META. This is a non-profit organisation run by the European Union, to help children integrate into school and society. They offer free Czech tutoring for school children, paid lessons for adults and are very clued up with the legal aspects of being a foreigner in the Czech Republic.
After visiting META I was advised to take the twins to a Pedagogical-Psychologist, paid by the state, who would assess their language and learning abilities, and make recommendations to their teachers as to how best to help them integrate. This includes getting extra help from the school, which they can get funding for, and an in-class assistant teacher if needed.
The psychologist was incredible! Her recommendation has eased the pressure on our children so much, just by making the school and teachers understand that they aren’t, and won’t be, on the same language level as the Czech children for some time (yes, you might say “common sense”, but still good to be officially told this by a professional). On top of that, Liam is now getting three extra Czech lessons per week (about 30 minutes each) from his own teacher, which has made a wonderful difference.
Definitely take the time to speak to someone at META, it will make the whole process of integrating easier for you and your children. There are some hoops to jump through, and it can feel lengthy, but it is worth it. Absolutely!
Is Czech public school right for your child?
I can’t tell anybody yes or no. It isn’t a bad system and I believe they really want to give their kids a good education. It is strict and unyielding though, and personalities who don’t conform easily, struggle with that (as they would in any other restrictive setup). Children who are easy-going and social may have a much easier time adapting.
There is a big expectation of parent participation during the first 2 years. You are expected to be very active in your child’s education, which is tough when you don’t speak the language (think about the homework you will have to do with them, using Google Translate). The teacher plays a huge role in how your child integrates, and this is something you can’t predict. If no one at the school is able to communicate with you, chances are that they are also not very understanding of your child’s plight (possibly … this is our experience). You can get help, and are entitled to it! Do what you have to, fight for your rights.
It is possible for a foreigner child, who speaks little or no Czech, to go to Czech public school and do well. It is hard on everyone involved, including the teacher, but it is absolutely possible. Our twins are not completely Czech yet (nor do I want them to be – they are South African!), but they have come such a long way in learning the language and adapting to a very foreign environment.
There are many variables that can make or break it for your child, but your attitude and understanding about their situation will be the most important. Stay positive, don’t back down and good luck.