Accounts of School Segregation in Europe
Around the world, policy measures driven by theories of eugenics and pseudo-scientific notions of ‘race’ and class, have led to children from particular groups being removed from their parents’ care and placed in state and church boarding schools and institutions. Segregation in schooling began as the separation of children with disabilities from others, children from poorer backgrounds from those from wealthier origins and children from one ethnic group from those of the ethnic majority, particularly in colonial education systems. In the case of the latter, among the groups that have suffered are the Inuit Kalaallit and Yupik peoples, and First Nation peoples of Canada, the Koori people of Australia, and the Romani and Traveller peoples.
“You must begin with children, and not meddle with the old stock, on whom no efforts will have effect...”
Efforts to ‘civilize’ and assimilate Roma, by European states’ governments, have often been translated into merely teaching Romani children some basic reading and writing skills, in hopes of ‘freeing them’ from “...the fetters of old customs and vices.” The Empress Maria Theresa (1740 to 1780) of the Hapsburg Empire, for instance, stated that “You must begin with children, and not meddle with the old stock, on whom no efforts will have effect...”.
However, throughout Europe, efforts at assimilation through education have not even sought to provide Romani children with the kind of inclusive, quality education that “...became an essential pre-requisite ... [in the later 20th century] ... for the development of a knowledge society ... From the pupils’ perspective, the development of higher quality standards passed through the expansion of language acquisition schemes and the integration of special educational needs programmes into the mainstream (or “regular”) classes.” On the contrary, policy-makers and practitioners have been adhering to an unceasing belief in Romani intellectual incapacity and white, majority superiority, through the relegation of Romani children to inferior educational provision, in the form of school segregation.
Few researchers have studied how the Roma have been treated in European schools prior to the 20th century, but some of the earlier scholars of ‘Gypsy’ lives and culture do point out instances of Romani children being separated and discriminated against in the school environment. Hoyland (1816) mentions an experiment conducted by the British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion. Two schools were established “...in the neighborhood of the metropolis...”. One of them was described as a “...focus where the most abandoned characters constantly assembled for every species of brutal and licentious disorder...”, whilst the other was “...a district inhabited by persons of the worst description...”. There is also a description of access to school being denied to Romani children, “Trinity Cooper, a daughter of this Gypsy family, who was about thirteen years of age, applied to be instructed at the school; but, in consequence of the obloquy affixed to that description of persons, she was repeatedly refused...”. Additionally, there are also illustrations in Berkovici, of Romani children being bullied or discriminated against, with the caption, “...neither teacher nor schoolmate ever forgets to put the Gypsy in his place by reminding him of the fact that he is a Pharon [i.e., Egyptian, of the people of Pharoah]...”.
Though the evidence is scarce, it is clear that in some parts of Europe, Roma children have been systematically segregated from formal, mass education, for almost a century. From 1927, the government of (then) Czechoslovakia, placed Romani children into ‘special schools’, a practice that continues into the present, in both the Czech and Slovak Republics. In an apparent ideological paradox, during the communist period in the countries of Central Europe (including Hungary and Bulgaria), the separation of Roma children in the school environment was actively promoted, despite an assimilationist approach to social class. Furthermore, regardless of the European Union’s robust legal framework of anti-discrimination measures, both transitional and well-established democracies continue to practice school segregation. Segregation of Roma children has also been documented in Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, and the Russian Federation, all members of the Council of Europe and signatories to a number of framework conventions protecting national and ethnic minorities.
In some countries (Slovakia, Czech Republic), the justification for school segregation has been considerably refined from the older, and now scientifically discredited, argument about racial inferiority. Non-Roma stakeholders, such as the professional associations of special needs educators in the Czech Republic, have continued to promote the segregationist agenda in these countries. Various school representatives and policymakers have taken up the mantra of addressing national language difficulties: in Croatia, Romani children who are not considered proficient enough in Croatian are placed into Roma-only classes. Furthermore, school administrators in Romania, Greece, and Croatia, arguing that they need to avoid “white flight” or address the pressure conveyed by non-Romani parents, have established Roma-only classes or school buildings. In other cases, intra-school segregation has been implemented by placing Roma children in classrooms on different floors of the school, and within-class segregation , where Roma children are placed at the back of the class.
In related phenomena, so-called “ghetto schools” have emerged, through illicit practices, such as persuading Romani parents to enroll their children in Roma-only schools in the city or locality, or rejecting applications from Roma children to attend mainstream schools at the time of registration. Such schools are also the outcome of residential segregation, with Roma often forcibly relocated to excluded, out-of-town settlements. Indeed, deliberate residential concentration in Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, as a result of urban redevelopment or zoning, usually results in Roma-only schools being located near Roma neighborhoods (mahalle or mahalla), or communities. Moreover, authorities often point to this situation to justify school segregation, which essentially combines with poor infrastructure, few resources for learning, low-quality education, and high teacher absenteeism.
In other countries, Romani children have continued to be regarded as inferior, through the use of culturally biased and scientifically doubtful diagnostic tools (such as WISC III, WISC IV, and Woodcock Johnson), and consequently ‘labeled’ with a mental disability or having special needs and placed in special or remedial schools. Based on an incorrect diagnosis of Romani children as having ‘light mental retardation’, in the Czech Republic, between 50% to 70% of these children have been segregated into ‘practical’ schools with an inferior curriculum and extremely poor educational outcomes, that will not give them an opportunity to advance to higher education or employment.
Frequently, Romani parents are persuaded to enroll their children in Roma-only schools and classes, or ‘special’ schools. Many have experienced discrimination, humiliation, and bullying by non-Roma teachers and peers, and fear this in mainstream environments. Those who live in segregated residential areas tend to be reluctant to send their children to schools that are farther away, for a number of reasons including fears about their children’s safety and the cost of transportation.
Segregation is rarely the outcome of neutral policies that produce indirect discrimination, as underlined in some of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Rather, it results when education ministries and administrations, school managers, special educators, teachers, and non-Roma parents and peers, reject Romani children attending the same schools and classes as other children.
According to the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) research, segregation in mainstream education affects between 33% and 58% of Romani children in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Greece. Moreover, on average one Roma child out of every ten has “...attended a special school or class that was mainly for Roma, even if only for a short period...”.
Courts at national and European levels have also confirmed this data, with decisions agreeing that various forms of segregation in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia are in place. After visiting the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania in 2003, 2007, and 2008, Professor Jack Greenberg concluded,
“[The]... segregation of Roma throughout Eastern Europe is widespread. In some places there was no segregation, but elsewhere there were all-Roma and non-Roma schools; in others there were separate rooms or parts of rooms for Roma children. Nearly everywhere, there was reluctance to act against any form of this endemic discrimination...”
With the negative impact that segregation has on a Romani child’s development, education and future prospects, the racism and the prejudice behind generate a sense of inferiority and humiliation, which remains with these children and young people through their adult lives. As the European Roma Rights Center concludes, segregation “...is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Romani communities’ most precious ... [of] assets – the intellectual capacities of future generations...”.