The Commissioner's Human Rights Comments

Back States must take resolute measures to end school segregation of Roma

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 08/11/2012
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States must take resolute measures to end school segregation of Roma

Roma children are experiencing segregated and substandard education in the school systems in the majority of the 47 Council of Europe member states. The consequences are devastating. It makes it very hard for these children to escape poverty and marginalisation later on in life. Non-integration also generates large – and unnecessary – costs for society at large.

Segregation takes several forms: Roma children are overrepresented in special remedial schools for children with intellectual and other disabilities – based on biased tests. Roma children are sent to Roma-only schools, schools with a majority of Roma pupils, or they are put in separate Roma-only classes. They are often also segregated outside classrooms, being prevented from using common playgrounds or dining halls. In Hungary, Roma children can even be physically excluded from schools through systems of “private” schooling at home. Also, teachers in segregated education reportedly have lower expectations for Roma pupils and set accordingly lower goals for them to achieve.

Schools or classes with a majority of Roma pupils can be found throughout Europe, from Portugal to Russia, but the problem is especially acute in Central and Eastern European countries, particularly in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

Putting the blame on the Roma themselves

Most “explanations” imply that Roma parents do not value education. However, pressure from non-Roma parents to not enroll Roma pupils in mainstream classes plays a substantial role in segregation. In September, for example, 40 adults reportedly stopped more than 50 Roma children from entering their new preschool facility in Gornji Hrascan in Croatia. Local police were present, but did not intervene.

UNICEF argues that inclusive education is a strategy of addressing all forms of exclusion and discrimination. A report prepared by an NGO in the UK shows the positive results of inclusive teaching. It reviews the situation of Roma pupils whose families have emigrated to the UK. Most of them had previously been enrolled in special education in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The main conclusion is that their educational achievements are the same as those of the other pupils in the average and that they rapidly catch up, even though they face linguistic barriers at the start of their education in the UK. These positive results are achieved with specific support in the classroom and always within the framework of mainstream education.

Discrimination is expensive

The correlation between segregated education and high levels of unemployment has been clearly established. In a report from the World Bank, for example, annual productivity losses because of segregated education are estimated at 231 million euros in Serbia, 367 million euros in the Czech Republic, 526 million euros in Bulgaria, and 887 million euros in Romania.

The report also shows that annual fiscal gains from bridging the employment gap are much higher than the total cost of investing in public education for all Roma children, since special education is significantly more expensive per pupil than education in mainstream classes.

States’ positive action is needed

There are many actions authorities should take – here is a selection of urgent measures:

  1. Combat anti-Gypsyism, especially at school. General Policy Recommendation No 13 from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance provides useful guidance on this.
  2. Clear and unequivocal commitment by policy-makers and high level officials towards desegregation as part of social inclusion.
  3. Adopt legislation that clearly prohibits segregation in education – and in all settings.
  4. Support comprehensive plans for desegregation, transportation to school, specific support for the Roma children, specialised training for the teachers and educational staff and integration activities at the local level.
  5. Provide universal access to inclusive pre-school education and, in general, promote inclusive educational policies.
  6. Undertake a critical review of the school entry testing and other forms of testing that have a discriminatory impact on Roma children.
  7. Improve information to the Roma parents on the choices that are available and the consequences of placement in remedial education.

Separate is not equal

On 13 November 2007 the European Court of Human Rights found that 18 Roma children from the city of Ostrava, Czech Republic had been the victims of discrimination. Statistics showed that they were 27 times more likely than non-Roma children to be educated in special schools designed for persons with intellectual disabilities. Five years have now elapsed and whilst the Czech authorities have taken some measures, major progress remains to be done.

Segregation is one of the worst forms of discrimination and a serious violation of the rights of the children concerned. This situation perpetuates the marginalisation of the Roma in Europe. Separate is not equal – in the case of the Roma it means lower quality education and fertile ground for anti-Roma prejudice.

States have a positive obligation to end school segregation of Roma. Getting – and keeping – Roma children in mainstream schools is a key to Roma advancement. This will benefit all of society.

Nils Muižnieks