< Viewpoints < 2008

“The key to the promotion of Roma rights: early and inclusive education”

[31/03/08] In many European countries the Roma population are still denied basic human rights. They remain far behind the majority populations in education, employment, housing and health standards and have virtually no political representation. Many Roma live in abject poverty and have little prospect of improving their lives or integrating within wider society. Their exclusion feeds isolationism which in turn encourages Antiziganism among the xenophobes. It is absolutely crucial that more efforts be made to break this vicious cycle.

Europe has a shameful history of repression and violent atrocities against the Roma. This has of course left scars in the Roma communities. There have been little in the way of official recognition of these cruelties, only meagre reparation and minimal apologies. The recent decision to establish a memorial in Berlin in respect of the Roma victims during the Nazi era is a welcome exception to the norm.

This tragic history in combination with continued daily discrimination – including hate speech and sometimes physical attacks by racist extremists – have not helped the Roma people feel welcome within the broader community. This lack of trust must be understood by the responsible politicians.

Because of Antiziganism, many Roma have been afraid to display their Roma identity openly. This is one reason why the number of Roma in national censuses is usually much lower than the real figure. The stereotypes which reduce the voice and identity of the Roma people must be exposed. We must move to recognise the contributions Roma have already made to European societies and cultures. This is one aim of the ongoing Council of Europe campaign Dosta! (Enough! in Romani).

Fortunately, it is no longer true that the social marginalisation of Roma is ignored. The problem has been placed on the political agenda throughout Europe and a number of international organizations have developed programmes for the Roma. The Council of Europe promotes a special forum for Roma and Sinti while the OSCE office in Warsaw for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is assisting member countries in implementing concrete development programmes.

Among the non-governmental organizations, the Open Society Institute has been particularly constructive through its program for Equal Access to Quality Education for Roma which supports the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015. The European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest provides an outstanding contribution through its critical monitoring reports.

Evaluations of the results so far have been disappointing. Some of the aid programmes have not been well designed and, for instance, fail to pay sufficient attention to the crucial need for partnership with the Roma themselves. However, it is also clear that these problems run deep and cannot be resolved in a few years.

There is not one simple, single solution. While Antiziganism is a threat to all efforts to ensure the Roma of their rights, several existing and acute social problems are interlinked. If you cannot get a job you cannot improve your housing. Poor housing conditions in turn affect one’s health and also the education of one’s children. If Roma children do not receive sufficient schooling they will be disadvantaged in the job market. And so on.

In other words, a comprehensive programme is needed to tackle all these problems simultaneously. However, there is one aspect which must not be excluded if the vicious cycle is to be broken: quality education.

Many Roma children remain outside national education systems altogether. There is a high drop-out rate among those who enrol and the achievements in general among Roma pupils are low. One explanation is of course the high levels of illiteracy among parents.

This is the core of the problem and requires more analysis based on relevant data, a clearer policy, and stronger action. It is important to recognise the value of preschool education, in order to lower the entry threshold for children coming from a background where studying has no tradition.

Unfortunately not all pre-school education is free of charge. Furthermore, such schools may not exist in the Roma neighbourhood raising the problem of transport which can be expensive and cumbersome for the families. Governments should make concerted efforts to remove such barriers.

By way of one example, the National Programme on Roma in Latvia 2007-2009 stresses the importance of outreach to the parents and advocates the importance of preschool attendance:

“Though Latvian regulations have required attendance at preschools for children aged 5 and 6 since 2003, many Roma parents are still not informed of this requirement. Compared to other children, Roma children are thus disadvantaged from the very outset of the education process, having not received sufficient preparation for the beginning of primary school.’’

Another major problem is the improper placement of Roma children in special schools or classes for pupils with intellectual disabilities. In my work as Commissioner I pay a special attention to this issue. I visited schools in several countries where Roma children were placed almost automatically in special classes for pupils with learning problems even when it was recognized that the child was obviously capable despite having had little study encouragement from home. This discrimination is unacceptable. My reports recommend adequate measures to the concerned Governments to revert the situation, and my Office is engaged in a constant monitoring of the developments.

The Roma segregation in education has been also addressed by the European Court of Human Rights which on 14 November 2007 delivered a landmark ruling in the case D.H. and others v. the Czech Republic. This brought new focus to the over-representation of Roma in such settings.

In the D.H. case, the European Roma Rights Centre demonstrated to the Court that Roma students in the Czech Republic were 27 times more likely than similarly situated non-Roma to be placed in special schools. The Court found that this pattern of racial segregation violated the European Convention (Article 14 on non-discrimination and Article 2 of Protocol 1 on the right to education).

Interestingly, the Court also noted that the Czech Republic was not alone in this practice and that discriminatory barriers to education of Roma children were present in a number of other European countries. This remains true.

Quality education for Roma pupils requires material in the children’s mother tongue. Although this is not easy considering the different variations and dialects of the Romani language, it is still a right for the Roma children and efforts should be undertaken to meet this need.

Teachers in the ordinary schools may need special training to handle diverse classrooms. Today there are not many Roma teachers and it is certainly critical that their numbers increase. More could be done to ensure that other staffs in schools are recruited with a Roma background. Experiments with Roma class assistants in some schools have produced positive results.

It cannot be overstated how important it is that the schools establish contact with Roma parents. This has not worked well in most cases, greater efforts are necessary. The adult generation must be welcomed and also offered, belatedly, a chance to basic education themselves – if they so wish.

Thomas Hammarberg


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