Segregation of Roma in Czech and Slovak schools must end, says UK charity

Authorities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been told that the illegal placement of Romani children outside mainstream schools must stop if a devastating cycle of discrimination, prejudice and unemployment is to be broken.

The demand comes from the head of a British organisation which carried out recent research into the educational development of Czech and Slovak Romani children who were taken out of their native school systems and placed in the United Kingdom’s following a family move. The charity, Equality, found that the performance of Czech and Slovak Romani pupils compared favourably with that of the average British child attending the same schools in eight English cities.

Czech and Slovak Romani children who attend mainstream schools in the UK perform well. Photo: Equality

Romani children in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have traditionally been sent to de facto segregated “specialist,” or “practical” schools, which are primarily intended for youngsters with mental disabilities or learning difficulties. Alan Anstead, the founder and chief executive of Equality, is adamant the practice must stop if Romani children are to be afforded their legal right to equal educational opportunities. “The present system has to change,” Mr Anstead says

Equality founder Alan Anstead. Photo: professionalacademy.com

Equality’s results revealed that grades for 95 per cent of the Romani children transplanted from their own education system to the UK’s showed performance just slightly below the average for that of British kids in basic curriculum subjects. Given the inherent problems associated with integrating into new communities and learning English, the results were surprisingly encouraging. The study interviewed 61 Romani primary and secondary school students in the UK, along with teachers and parents.

Segregated education has traditionally been a controversial issue for Roma rights advocates. In its 2007 report “Advancing Education of Roma in the Czech Republic,” the Roma Education Fund (REF) highlighted some of the inherent obstacles facing Romani pupils. The report found that the Czech education system policy of segregation meant an inferior curriculum and teachers with lowered expectations.

Romani children in the Czech Republic and (above) Slovakia face major obstacles to equality in education. Photo: Romedia Foundation

REF pointed to the fact that there were virtually no Roma teachers. No attention was paid to inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity issues in the training of teachers and school managers. Also, the Czech system had no clear response to the residential segregation of Roma. “There are no desegregation strategies,” the report’s authors said. “Roma children from remote settlements are educated in substandard schools and are left with no prospect to integrate.”

Amnesty International, in its 2010 study Injustice Renamed, examined the “systematic discrimination” inherent in the Czech education system. The report accused Czech authorities of flagrantly flouting the 2007 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights which found them to be discriminating against Romani children by placing them in “special schools” for those with mental disabilities. In some places, Romani children comprised more than 80 per cent of the students in these schools.

Amnesty International has strongly criticised the education policy of Czech authorities with regard to Romani pupils. Photo: Romedia Foundation

Further focus on the segregation controversy came in 2010 from the prestigious Columbia Law Review in the United States. In a report entitled “Roma Education Today: From Slavery to Segregation and Beyond,” it recommended that the European Union “take seriously the importance of swiftly bringing an end to Roma school segregation.”  It said: “If the nations of the EU fail to act, the results will be the continuation of a slow squandering of Roma lives.”

The European Union has been warned about failing Romani children in segregated schools. Photo: Romedia Foundation

Equality’s findings echo these previous reports and studies. “The education of Czech and Slovak Romani children is considerably impaired by their being placed in so-called ‘special’ schools,” said Alan Anstead. “It means that they have less opportunity once they leave school and enter the job market. They will be treated very differently to those who were not placed in a segregated school.

“What the Romani pupils in the UK were really thriving on was the sense of opportunity they were given. They could study and were treated fairly, their abilities would not be limited by the education system. It was down to the use of each individual pupil’s skill set.”

Romani pupils appear to thrive in the integrated environment offered by UK schools. Photo: grtleeds.org

British schools were also less likely to become breeding grounds for racism and bullying. “Attitudes were very different in the UK than those that Romani pupils had experienced in the Czech Republic and Slovakia,” said Mr Anstead. “Children and parents both pointed this out and they also highlighted the opportunities that study in the UK provided.”

The research showed the numbers of Romani children attending school in the UK growing all the time. In an English city like Coventry, the total number of Roma living there has almost doubled to 6000 over the last three months. Teachers have to meet the needs of more and more Romani children and that has led to a learning experience for educators as well.

Numbers of Romani pupils in British schools continue to grow. Photo: Ciarra Leeming

So what does the future hold for the education of Romani children in the Czech Republic and Slovakia? Mr. Anstead is adamant there has to be a shift in both attitudes and policy.

“The present system has to change. It has been found to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. I hope changes will be made with the interests of Romani pupils in mind.”

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing online the Mundi Romani film “Walls of Shame” which explores Roma segregation in eastern Slovakia. Watch out for this.

The documentary film “Walls of Shame” explores the issue of segregated education for Romani children in eastern Slovakia. Photo: Romedia Foundation