Tweet Share E-mail Print

Dear Commissioner Jourová: What does the EU intend to do about school segregation in Slovakia?


By Bernard Rorke

It’s almost three years since the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Slovakia for racial segregation of Romani children in its schools. The evidence suggests that nothing has changed for the better in the interim. What will the Commission do next?

Once an infringement procedure is launched, it becomes a confidential bilateral process – long drawn-out and entirely opaque. Whether or not the case ends up in the European Court of Justice or just gets dropped, is a matter entirely at the discretion of the Commission. This ought to be worrying for all EU citizens concerned with remedying democratic deficits and achieving social justice in 21st Century Europe.

Furthermore, in this particular case, there is an additional cause for concern. Because EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová, who is a member of the Czech right-wing ANO party led by Andrej Babiš, seems remarkably ambivalent on the issue of school segregation and disregardful of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) jurisprudence. She publicly stated last year: 

"I am not in favour of some kind of social engineering, transferring the Roma children somewhere else to school. I just want to have high quality education even in those segregated Roma schools - that is my requirement."

It might be her ‘requirement’, but it is quite distinct from the requirements of the ECtHR, of the Council of Europe, UN bodies, and a host of district and national courts across the continent. Indeed the Commission itself has been explicit in its communications since the launch of the EU Roma Framework in 2011, repeatedly calling on all member states to “end school segregation” as quickly as possible.

Back in 2015, the government response that the excessive number of Roma in "special schools" was due to a higher rate of inbreeding in their families leading to developmental disorders, sparked outrage and protests from human rights organisations who condemned this use of “the incest argument” as racist and discriminatory. 

The action taken by the Commission followed years of mounting criticism and evidence of segregation in a school system described as “one of the most unfair in Europe” and research that showed Slovakia had the highest level of segregation of Roma in mainstream education and the second highest in the special education system.

In 2014 the Slovak government dismissed UN recommendations about discrimination in schools and argued that equal treatment was already guaranteed. Amnesty reported in 2015 that despite an earlier district court ruling in Slovakia that segregation was illegal, Romani children now faced even more severe segregation by being placed in “container schools”, where they are completely cut off, not just from their peers, but from almost anybody from the non-Roma population.

Commissioner Nils Muižnieks, following his visit to Slovakia in 2015, expressed concerns that despite the gravity of the problems and the landmark district court ruling on segregation, the Slovak authorities’ attitudes remain unchanged and on several occasions they denied or justified the segregation of Roma children.

In 2016, one year after the infringement was launched 2016, Viera Kalmanová, the Director of the State School Inspectorate, admitted that there are actors in the Slovak education system deliberately and consciously streaming Romani children into special schools. She also confirmed the existence of “primitive forms of segregation in separate schools, floors and classes”, “biased diagnostic testing of mild mental disability” and anti-Roma racism including among the staff of the State School Inspectorate.

The 2017 joint research report by ERRC and Amnesty International into Romani children’s access to primary education in Slovakia presented a bleak picture which showed that piecemeal reforms and legislative changes failed to make a dent on discrimination in schools.

The reduced curriculum in special schools, combined with widespread prejudice and low expectations for Romani children among teachers has a profound impact on the children’s educational trajectories. Teachers at one special school echoed the government line on ‘inbreeding’, telling researchers that: “Another problem is that they procreate among themselves, incest happens very often.”

Similarly, in mainstream schools teaching staff had no hesitation after dismissing the impact of institutional discrimination to give full rein to their own prejudices. One teacher told researchers that she would never send her own children to her school because of the high number of Romani children: “Did you see the children from Ostrovany? How they speak? How they smell? No wonder the non-Roma don’t want to be with them… It’s a little zoo.”

Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Centre found no evidence that state authorities are making any serious attempts to facilitate the enrolment of Romani children in mixed mainstream schools, or to mitigate the impact of ‘white flight’ from schools with an increased Roma intake. In two of the sites covered by the research, plans were underway to build new schools right next to the Roma settlements. The common argument in Slovakia is that this makes education more accessible. Perhaps it is a good time to remind the Commissioner that this kind of access comes with an unacceptable cost. Separate provision isolates Romani children from their peers, keeps them apart from the wider society, and exacerbates inequalities. The reality is that separate can never be equal. It’s time for a reality check – no more shilly-shallying – if the Commission, as Guardian of the Treaties, is serious about ending racial segregation in Europe – it’s time to step up the infringement and take Slovakia to the European Court of Justice.

Back to the blog


Blog Subscription

Enter your email address:



more videos...