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Plight of Roma pupils highlighted

ROMA children in Slovakia are dramatically overrepresented in ‘special’ classes and schools for children with special needs, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said in a report published on April 17, 2013. Stanislav Daniel, studies officer of the Roma Education Fund (REF), agrees, saying special schools are among the most visible instances of the segregation of Roma, since children are placed in such schools on the basis of what he says are biased tests, which in practice only serve to label children as having disabilities but do not address their needs. Education of Roma children was among the most widely discussed topics on International Roma Day on April 8.

ROMA children in Slovakia are dramatically overrepresented in ‘special’ classes and schools for children with special needs, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said in a report published on April 17, 2013. Stanislav Daniel, studies officer of the Roma Education Fund (REF), agrees, saying special schools are among the most visible instances of the segregation of Roma, since children are placed in such schools on the basis of what he says are biased tests, which in practice only serve to label children as having disabilities but do not address their needs. Education of Roma children was among the most widely discussed topics on International Roma Day on April 8.

To mark the day, the US Ambassador to Slovakia, Theodore Sedgwick, invited three Roma students, two of whom were beneficiaries of a scholarship provided by the REF, to join him for a day of his work.

Sedgwick also awarded lawyer Vanda Durbáková, involved in the case of the forcible sterilisation of Roma women, with the Woman of Courage award at the US Embassy, the SITA newswire reported.

“We thought the International Day of Roma would be a good day to highlight successful Roma students and possible role models,” Daniel said, adding that education means more opportunities on the labour market and thus also increases the ability of Roma to support their own families. “Education is good for all; it is therefore also good for Roma.”

'Too many Roma' in special schools

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 20.1 percent of all Roma children in Slovakia aged seven to 15 were enrolled in special education classes run within regular primary schools or in special schools.

Slovakia’s legislation on elementary schools makes the segregation of Roma children possible on the basis that they come from a socially dis-advantaged environment, the REF claims in its 2012 publication Obstacles and Prejudices.

The law does not define the guidelines for a diagnostic assessment of whether a child is able to pass the first grade, nor does it establish conditions for repeated assessment or the subsequent possibility of transferring a child from a special class to a regular class, according to the REF study.

Slovak legislation does not allow pupils to enrol in special classes or schools unless they have a health disability, Education Ministry spokesperson Michal Kaliňák told The Slovak Spectator. Kaliňák said that schools accept pupils only after a diagnostic examination and with approval of their parent or legal guardian, and that special schools and classes are not intended for children from disadvantaged social environments.

Yet the ministry agrees with CERD’s view that the number of Roma children in special schools should be dropping, Kaliňák added.

In addition to special schools and special classes there are other forms of segregation, like Roma-only classes, in which students receive the same formal education, but whose teachers do not hide the fact that they dumb down the curriculum, arguing that Roma pupils are generally slower than their non-Roma peers. A less visible form of segregation also exists in integrated classrooms, wherein Roma children sit at the back of the room and are often ignored by the teacher, according to Daniel.

“We [REF] believe all children should be educated at mainstream schools where their possible special needs would be addressed on the basis of an individual approach,” Daniel said. “This is not only a good ideology; there is enough evidence on the economic benefits of Roma inclusion.”
In some instances, claims that Roma children were being segregated into “Roma Schools” occurred as a result of residential segregation in some regions, which was exacerbated by the high birth rate of certain groups of people, Kaliňák pointed out.

“Given the composition of a village by the Roma population, in this case we cannot talk about segregation,” Kaliňák said, adding that this issue is nothing new and has a rather long tradition.

The decision in December 2011 by the Regional Court in Prešov to order – for the first time in Slovak history – an elementary school in Šarišské Michaľany in eastern Slovakia to cancel its special classes and integrate all children into mixed classes was a signal to the Education Ministry that elementary schools in Slovakia need more help, Kaliňák said.

The Education Ministry has initiated a development project to support integrated classrooms, with €60,500 allocated for 23 projects in 2012, and €52,500 for a project in 2013 supporting education for people from socially disadvantaged environments, according to Kaliňák.

Pre-school education

Approximately one third of Roma children attend kindergarten before starting their compulsory primary education. Extension of compulsory education (to cover both pre-school education and high school) may be a good step toward a positive impact on the academic achievements of Roma children and youth, Daniel said in response to the proposal of the government’s proxy for Roma communities, Peter Pollák, to establish compulsory pre-school attendance from three years of age for children from at-risk families.

The REF came to the conclusion that facilitating access and raising awareness among parents increases preschool attendance significantly. The low attendance is in most cases based on economic barriers or lack of knowledge, Daniel said. However, CERD’s report criticised Pollák’s proposal, claiming it may lead to further discrimination as well as segregation. The report did not provide any further explanation.

Despite CERD’s report, Pollák stood behind his words and expressed surprise over the critics’ claims, adding that when he was defending the reform in front of CERD representatives at the beginning of the year, “no one told me that face to face”, as quoted by SITA.

Even compulsory pre-school education may bring positive results, especially for children from socially and economically disadvantaged environments, but this education should not be a privilege for those children only, Kaliňák said.

“Adoption of the proposed solution [to establish] three year long compulsory pre-school attendance only for children from high-risk families would discriminate against children from the majority society,” Kaliňák said.

He added that the Ministry proposes instead to require municipalities to create the necessary capacities to allow all parents to enrol their children in kindergarten, while pre-school education should last only one year and involve the participation of children’s parents.

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