Unequal education for Roma pupils

A SPECIAL class for children coming from a Roma community or even a separate school building that only has classrooms for Roma students: these are two very specific examples of what international human rights organisations call segregated education in Slovakia, a problem that they charge faces Roma children seeking a public education in many parts of the country.

A SPECIAL class for children coming from a Roma community or even a separate school building that only has classrooms for Roma students: these are two very specific examples of what international human rights organisations call segregated education in Slovakia, a problem that they charge faces Roma children seeking a public education in many parts of the country.

Two recent reports state that Roma students in some primary and secondary schools in Slovakia face segregation. One report was based on joint research conducted by the European Union and an agency of the United Nations, and the other was prepared by Amnesty International, an NGO. Slovakia’s Education Ministry, however, rejected the substance of both reports, denied there was segregation of Roma in the country’s schools and said that the ministry seeks to prevent conduct of the kind described.

Slovakia ranked among the worst of 11 European Union countries in educating young Roma according to a report on the status of Roma published jointly by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The report states that less than 20 percent of Roma under the age of 24 living in Slovakia have graduated from secondary school compared to almost 90 percent of their non-Roma peers.

The report also found that the status of Roma citizens in the areas of employment, education, housing and health, on average, is worse than non-Roma living in close proximity, based on surveys of Roma and non-Roma living in the same area and sharing similar community infrastructure and labour market conditions.

The surveys involved 22,203 Roma and non-Roma living in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain who provided information on a total of 84,287 household members.

“Roma continue to experience discrimination and are not sufficiently aware of their rights guaranteed by EU law,” the report states.

Michail Beis, a FRA expert on Roma issues, said that education is in particularly urgent need of improvement.

“Otherwise we’re excluding another generation of Roma youth who are stuck in a vicious circle of poverty, exclusion, and discrimination,” Beis stated in the report.

Education as a right

Amnesty International (AI) criticised the poor access of Roma students in Slovakia to an equal education in its 2012 Annual Report on the state of human rights across the world.

“Roma continued to experience discrimination in access to education, health care and housing,” states the section of the report devoted to Slovakia.

The AI report also addressed lawsuits that were initiated by Roma women in Slovakia because of forced sterilisations as well as the rights of Roma living in segregated settlements but devoted special attention to the right to education. The report noted that several international organisations, particularly the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Commission, and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights have called for the Slovak government to adopt a strategy to assure that Roma children are not segregated in separate schools or classes.

Amnesty International wrote about a situation in September 2011 when Roma parents learned that the headmaster at a primary school in the town of Levoča in eastern Slovakia decided to have separate classes for Roma children in the first grade, reportedly at the request of parents of non-Roma children who had “submitted a petition calling for a restriction on the number of children coming from ‘anti-social’ communities”.

“The school’s director stated that the classes were intended to create a suitable educational environment for the Romani children,” the AI report stated.

The mayor of Levoča, Miroslav Vilkovský, disagreed with the substance of the report and said Amnesty International “should stick with facts and be more objective rather than appealing to emotion, pseudo-arguments and demagogy”, the SITA newswire reported, with the mayor adding that a one-sided picture of Roma children as innocent victims of discrimination and segregation only spreads prejudice and hatred.

The Roma children in the classes that AI labelled as segregated came from a socially-disadvantaged environment and according to Slovakia’s law on schools these children have special educational needs, the mayor said, as reported by SITA, adding that because these children had not received pre-school education the school had designed an individual educational programme for them that also included the services of a teacher’s assistant. The mayor told SITA that developing such a programme does not contravene any Slovak or international human rights standards.

Ministry sees no segregation

The Education Ministry also expressed objections to the Amnesty International report, stating it was “spreading generalising conclusions that the government’s policy and the school system in Slovakia segregate Roma children in elementary schools”, Michal Kaliňák, the ministry’s spokesperson, told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the country’s Schools Act specifically forbids all forms of discrimination and particularly segregation.

“No measures in the Schools Act lead to the exclusion of Roma children from the standard school system or their placement in special upbringing and educational facilities and thus to segregation. Students fulfil compulsory school attendance at the elementary school in the school district of their permanent residence unless their legal representatives elect to send their children to a different elementary school,” stated the ministry in its document released in March 2012 titled Conditions for the Upbringing and Education of Children and Students from Socially-Disadvantaged Environments in the Slovak Republic.

While the law does not require specialised classes for children from socially-disadvantaged environments, Kaliňák told The Slovak Spectator that it is the duty of headmasters to create individual conditions for children from these environments.

The spokesman said that the ministry “systematically and intensively deals with reported claims of segregated schools or classes” and acts to prevent them as well.

An often-cited issue regarding Roma children’s right to adequate and equal education is their placement into special schools for mentally-disabled children even if it has not been shown that they actually suffer a mental disorder. Martina Mazúrová, the head of the Amnesty International office in Slovakia, said that 65 percent of all students enrolled in special education schools are Roma children while the overall proportion of Roma in Slovakia is only about 10 percent of the population, SITA reported.

Even though Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič said he supports fully-integrated primary schools, he reportedly supported placing Roma children in boarding schools when he held the post of deputy prime minister for minorities from 2006 to 2010, an idea that provoked much criticism from several non-governmental organisations and human rights activists.

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