HUMAN rights watchdogs in Slovakia have long highlighted cases of segregation involving Roma children attending primary schools. They argue that being separated from their non-Roma peers disadvantages Roma children when it comes to reaching higher levels of education. However, some Slovak teachers have responded by arguing that the practice of special classes for Roma children is justified in order to maintain educational standards. Now, a ruling by the Prešov District Court, which recently found that a school applying the practice was in violation of the principle of equal treatment, could result in a breakthrough in the stand-off on the issue.
The court ruled at the beginning of January that the primary school in the small town of Šarišské Michaľany discriminated against its Roma children by creating special classes to educate them based on their ethnicity.
While human rights activists and in particular the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Košice, which sued the school over what it called the violation of the principle of equal treatment established by the anti-discrimination law, welcomed the ruling, teachers in Šarišské Michaľany said they would consider appealing.
Human rights activists stressed that this was the first-ever court ruling in Slovakia regarding segregation in education.
“I consider the ruling to be an important precedent in the area of establishing zero tolerance in discrimination at schools,” Ingrid Kosová of the non-governmental organisation Quo Vadis told The Slovak Spectator.
The school in question made its Roma pupils attend special classes located on a separate floor of the school beginning in the 2008/09 school year, according to the centre. The court’s verdict, which is still to become valid, orders the school to mix pupils from Roma and non-Roma classes within 30 days, i.e. by the beginning of February.
Mária Cvancigerová, the headmistress of the primary school in Šarišské Michaľany, argued that bringing back integrated classes would reduce the quality of education. She explained that the main reason for separate classes was to adjust education to the needs and abilities of pupils from a deprived environment, the Sme daily wrote.
Moreover, Cvancigerová warned that mixing would result in non-Roma children being withdrawn from the school.
“Parents of children from Šarišské Michaľany signed a petition against creating mixed classes before I was appointed to this position,” she said, as quoted by Sme, adding that some of them would prefer to enrol their children at schools in nearby Medzany, Sabinov or Prešov.
Commenting on the verdict, Martina Mazurová from Amnesty International Slovakia said that the government should adopt desegregation plans for schools and impose a duty to carry them out. She also said the state should encourage local governments to create action plans aimed at desegregation. Mazurová praised the fact that the verdict included a definition of segregation, something which could in fact help in efforts to monitor it.
“Despite the fact that the Education Act bans discrimination and segregation in education, it does not define what segregation is,” Mazurová told The Slovak Spectator.
Kosová agreed that the education system in Slovakia should include tools to prevent schools from segregating children. Properly chosen methods of education focused on individual ways of learning and respecting the individual tempo of pupils is one way to improve the education of Roma children in mixed classes and prevent segregation, she said.
The Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities (ÚSVRK) also described the practice applied by the primary school in Šarišské Michaľany as inappropriate. The office explained that there is a difference between natural segregation, which occurs in places where only Roma children are born, and artificial segregation, where teachers separate children mainly because of their social and ethnic status.
“Though the primary school in Šarišské Michaľany opened classes for children from a socially vulnerable environment, which should balance the deficits in the education level of children, pupils in such classes did not even start to attend normal classes,” the ÚSVRK stated in its official comment on the ruling, adding that the school even sent Roma children from normal classes to the segregated ones.
Inclusive education on the way?
Several NGOs united in the coalition For Equality in Education said that the court’s ruling had confirmed the existence of segregation in education in Slovakia.
The NGOs stressed that inclusive education can be a basis for teaching children the principles of tolerance and understanding and can, in fact, maximise children’s potential. They said they believe that the government should focus most on quality pre-school education, as they said that a lack of this type of schooling could be one of the main reasons for later segregation.
Kosová pointed out that there are also other factors which prevent some pupils from being treated like the others.
“Our educational system is prepared neither for the poor, nor for the talented pupil, nor for the child with dysfunctions,” she told The Slovak Spectator.
She also referred to a survey conducted by the British NGO Equality which found that up to 85 percent of Roma children who attended specialised schools in Slovakia or the Czech Republic had no problem with learning in normal classrooms in Great Britain. Except for the fact that the results can be considered further proof of discrimination against Roma children in Slovakia, Kosová said she believes that they can also spark discussion about whether the system of diagnosing children takes into account social or linguistic handicaps, and whether children are prepared to enter the school environment.
“In a time of increasing criticism of the traditional education system based on the excess of information, memorisation and uniformity in education, we should ask these questions in regard to all children in Slovakia and not only for Roma children,” she added.
Štefan Ivanco from the Centre for Civil and Human Rights in Košice said that inclusive education inevitably puts unprecedented demands on specialisation, as well as on personnel and equipment. He added that all responsible state institutions and other bodies must each create the best conditions so that primary schools can consistently develop inclusive education.
“In any case, it is necessary to increase awareness in the long run about the importance and benefits of inclusive education among the wider public, so that it is more widely accepted in our society,” Ivanco said.
Edita Kovářová from the Methodological-Pedagogical Centre expressed a similar opinion. She told The Slovak Spectator that building an educational system that is inclusive, that respects differences, and that works with handicapped and marginalised groups, is a long-term process.
“Obviously, we are not building it well, because even after 20 years we didn’t get where we wanted to be,” Kovářová said. She added that she knows of infant and primary classes attended only by Roma children because all non-Roma children attending the same school were put on the other side of the building.
“It is also usual in these schools that children have separate sets of cutlery, the Roma ones made of aluminium only,” Kovářová claimed. She added that Roma children get their meals only after the other children have already eaten, or that the canteen is for Roma children only.
However, educational centres established by the Foundation for Roma Children are already bearing fruit. The biggest benefit Kovářová sees in these mixed schools is that the Roma children immediately start to “imitate” the other kids, for example by speaking in Slovak more often.
In Kovářová’s opinion it is essential to understand that it is not about children being put together at all costs, but rather that desegregation and inclusive classrooms are an important tool in providing quality education for Roma children.
“The main problem of Slovak society is the transfer of responsibility for this society-wide issue, like the solving of poverty in Roma communities, to only Roma themselves,” Kosová said. She stated that past experience shows that these people do not actually have a real opportunity to change their situation unless they receive outside help. She also added that this is not an exclusive problem of Roma, but a problem common to any group of people that is lives in extreme poverty.
“The [Slovak] public should in the first place accept responsibility for solving the poverty problem without ethnic prejudice,” Kosová said. She added that if this did not happen, Slovakia could not expect any government to be willing to adopt effective tools to change the situation.
Kosová explained that “no politician would expose themselves to criticism by the public. That would be ‘political suicide’.”
23. Jan 2012 at 0:00 | Peter Bagin & Radka Minarechová