Roma Children’s Fight for Education

By Abbey Interrante

IMG_1615August 12, 2015. When István was a young child, he aspired to become a dance instructor, just like his father. Another boy, András wanted to become a car mechanic. However, as young boys, István and András were held back from achieving these dreams by their school in Hungary—simply for being Roma.

When they were seven years old, István and András were tested for a mental disability by an expert panel at the request of school authorities. They were diagnosed with disabilities and placed in a remedial school. Their parents were never involved in their assessments and were never told that they could appeal the decision. Over the years, Istvàn and András made good grades at the remedial school, but the panel stood by their original decision and wouldn’t let them transfer out.

Educational reforms in Europe have not done much to ensure access to inclusive education for all children. Both Roma and non-Roma children with developmental and learning disabilities and Romani children misdiagnosed as such due to their ethnicity are prevented from enrolling in mainstream schooling. Later on, these students are not allowed to enroll in mainstream high schools because the special curriculum in their primary school has not sufficiently prepared them.

István and András, for instance, were forced to continue on to a vocational secondary school. István became a baker’s assistant. Neither had the opportunity to follow any path other than the one forced onto them by their first primary school. In 2005, independent experts tested István and András and found that neither had any disability.

This form of racial segregation is rampant across Europe. Even though a vast majority of Roma children enroll in school, only half finish their primary education. Roma people are held back from a young age, allowing nearly zero opportunities to progress when they become adults. In fact, 33 to 58 percent of Roma children learn in segregated classes in Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Greece.

Even those who aren’t forced into separate schools face discrimination in the classroom—many are placed in the back of classrooms and receive less attention from teachers. Since this discrimination starts at a young age, most Roma children never even begin secondary education, and less than one percent attend tertiary education in some European countries.

Roma rights are rarely talked about by the general public, despite discussions in European institutions and governments. Harvard FXB is working to promote Roma rights and has created a report titled Strategies and Tactics to Combat Segregation of Roma Children in Schools. This report contains six case studies focusing on advocacy for desegregation policies and measures, strategic litigation, community development, and intercultural learning. It provides suggestions for combating segregation in Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Greece.