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ERRC Human Rights Workshops: An Emerging Local Debate About School Desegregation of Roma

27 May 2004

Larry Olomoofe1

The ERRC's Human Rights Education Department (HRED) recently embarked upon a project that entailed implementing a series of workshops and roundtable discussions on the issue of segregation in education in four Central and East European countries - Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia. The primary aim of the project was to provide a forum where the sensitive issues related to segregated schooling could be discussed critically, openly and honestly. The hope was that by providing an open forum for discussion, potential solutions to the egregious practice could be posited and grounds for their implementation could be explored. The project was generously funded by the British government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) through the British Embassy in Hungary. The ERRC expects the various in-country follow-up initiatives agreed upon by the various participants in the workshops to represent a concerted effort to address segregated schooling in the aforementioned countries.

The ERRC views the various outcomes from these workshops to be positive "first steps" in the quest to eradicate the practice of segregating Romani children in the sphere of education in the CEE region. These initiatives must be viewed as pilot schemes where contemporary educational methodologies and pedagogies can be applied in innovative ways and hopefully, after discerning their successes, be transposed to other national educational policies in the region.

On October 10-11, 2003, the ERRC and partners held a workshop in Košice, Slovakia with a broad range of relevant stakeholders to further mainstreaming of Romani education. Participants included representatives of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of National Minorities, Plenipotentiary on Roma Affairs, local NGO partner Project Schola, local NGO partner League of Human Rights Advocates (LHRA), local lawyers, the Slovak office of the Open Society Fund, school directors and teachers, local government representatives, representatives of the Open Society Institute's Roma Education Initiative (OSI/REI), parents, activists, journalists from the NGO Roma Press Agency, Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), and the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program (OSI/RPP).

The seminar succeeded in bringing together the main protagonists in the education of Romani children from across Slovakia to constructively discuss objectives, competing agendas, and various government initiatives as well as exploring various suggestions for future collaborative projects.

The two-day session began with a brief introduction to international law, and in particular the EU anti-discrimination acquis, as well as a short historical overview of the phenomenon of segregation and the terms of reference that it generated. The presenter moved from the American context (which provided the general framework for this part of the discussion) to more localised manifestations of the problem. This allowed the participants to grapple with issues such as de facto and de jure forms of segregation as well as examining methods that were aimed at addressing the onset of these forms of segregation. The discussion subsequently moved on to issues emanating from segregation and the consequences these had on the children, primarily, and on Slovak society in general.2 Proceeding in this fashion allowed participants to explore the rationale of segregated education prevailing in Slovak society. Roughly, this rationale suggested that since segregation was a "natural" thing and already existed, educational authorities were compelled to teach children under these conditions since (they asserted) it was their duty to teach and not to initiate social change. Similarly, "ghetto schools", i.e., schools in local Romani settlements, exclusively attended by Romani children, were defended by a number of local activists, who were passionately convinced that education of the children was paramount and that there was no argument (including desegregation) that would allow for the children being deprived of their right to education. This defence of "ghetto schools" was predicated upon the assumption that these schools, albeit consequences of segregation, were the only schools where Romani children could at least attend school and receive education, no matter how poor the level of education provided at these schools. These axiomatic points provided the framework for much of the proceeding discussion, with advocates of these relative positions presenting conceptual, social, political, and moral expositions to justify their stances. Much of the first day's activities was focused on the theoretical side of the debate and included presentations from the various government officials in which they presented the government's plans to implement a policy of integrated education across Slovakia.

The following day's activities were geared towards initiating concrete action that might succeed in facilitating the desegregation of the Slovak education system. Pedagogical experts from the Open Society Institute's Roma Education Project (REI) provided useful presentations of methodology (multicultural teaching methods, anti-bias training, and Roma teaching assistants) all aimed at addressing the implicit and explicit biases of teachers working within the segregated schooling system. This was important, according to the "experts", since the teachers were inadvertently propagating practices of segregated schooling and had to be made aware of the fact3. There was much resistance to this suggestion (an implied criticism) but the understanding of the efficacy of the newer methodologies prevailed and an agreement of sorts - that the Ministry of Education should fund a broad training initiative for teachers based upon the multicultural approach - was reached.

The event was concluded with a tentative agreement to explore future follow-up initiatives aimed at desegregating Slovakia's schooling system. However, it should be mentioned that there were participants, who were wholly unhappy with the event and vowed to continue their own work in "ghetto schools". This was a rather disappointing assertion to hear, one that hinted that much work still needs to be done before Slovak Romani children can enjoy equality (access and quality) in their education.

On October 24-25, 2003, the ERRC and partners held a workshop in the southern Serbian town of Niš, including as participants representatives of the Ministry of Education, the NGO Roma Education Centre (REC), the NGO Centre for Interactive Pedagogy (CIP), the NGO Roma Information Centre (RIC), the NGO Minority Rights Centre (MRC), the University of Niš department of Romology, local school directors and teachers, parents, the Public Interest law Initiative (PILI), and others. Once again, the purpose of the event was to provide the forum for the four main parties (parents, teachers, Romani activists, and the Ministry of Education) involved in the education of Romani children to convene and explore a range of possibilities regarding the integration of Romani children into mainstream schooling.

As they did in Slovakia, the project implementers began with an historical overview of racial segregation and international law, moving on to the issue of segregation in a local context. As the discussion proceeded, it quickly became clear that the fundamental question regarding the education of Romani children in Serbia was the issue of access to education and not racial segregation per se.4 This brought about a shift in the discussion, focussing on the issue of access, and segregation was discussed in terms of how to prevent segregation occurring once Romani children had achieved access to schooling. Owing to the chronic nature of the lack of access to schooling faced by Romani in Serbia, the discussion focussed upon how to create a process through which Romani children could enjoy their right to education and not have to rely upon the current ad hoc arrangement of receiving an education in poorly funded ghetto schools where the teaching duties were largely carried out by under-qualified "teachers" and laypeople.

Representatives from the Niš-based Roma Education Centre (REC) then presented a number of their own initiatives which helped fill the void where governmental obligations to Romani children's education fell short. They presented their catch-up classes initiative (part of the OSI Step-By-Step programme), desegregation projects (funded by the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program), and a number of joint initiatives with the Belgrade-based NGO Centre for Interactive Pedagogy (CIP). Significantly, they also presented their draft national strategy for Roma inclusion which was being considered by the government as a possible basis for their own national program for inclusion. At the time, the upcoming general elections had delayed the consultation process since many people expected a change of government and were waiting to see what resulted from the general elections. The good news was that the incumbent government had recognised the need for a national programme of integration and were including locally-based NGOs in the process.

During their presentation, the REC representatives identified five forms of segregated education in Serbia. These were:

1. Special schools
2. Separate classes for Roma
3. Isolation within classes
4. Evening schools with high percentage of Roma
5. Ghetto schools

Further discussion focused upon the possible remedies for manifestations of segregated schooling practices and during the group work sessions, each of the five groups were given one of the problems to tackle and find possible solutions. This proved to be a highly successful part of the workshop, since it allowed all the participants the opportunity to grapple with these issues in a collaborative way, looking for areas of joint activity. Each group subsequently reported back at the plenary session and stressed that they had all identified areas for possible future joint initiatives. Suggested follow-up initiatives included:

  • Co-ordinate actions of NGOs, local government, etc.
  • Create different levels of Roma studies, i.e., there should be comprehensive levels of Romani scholarship across the board similar to that of non-Roma students in the education system in Serbia
  • Implement programmes of regular studying
  • Conduct regular 2 year studies aimed at monitoring Roma education in Serbia
  • Educational reforms that will allow graduates from high school (Roma or non-Roma) to acquire the title of 'Romologist'
  • Create a Department of Roma Studies at university level
  • Workshops for parents (Roma, non-Roma)
  • Various training initiatives focusing on how to work with and educate the majority population.
  • Workshop/ session/ round-table with parents, teachers, NGOs and local authorities
  • Initiatives that aim to empower / include individuals within the system of discussion, advocacy and change

The overwhelming consensus amongst all the participants was that this was a timely and relatively successful workshop. Despite the initial tension and skepticism (mainly from teachers) that marked the early discussions, there was always a palpable sense of collegiality amongst those present. It is fair to say that everyone was motivated to address the fundamental issues and explore ways and means to improve the current situation faced by Romani children in the Serbian education system. This augurs well for the future and it is hoped that the ERRC will continue to participate (in the capacity of facilitator) in any future initiative geared at addressing the schooling of Romani children in Serbia.

From January 22-25, 2004, the ERRC held a desegregation workshop in Zagreb, Croatia. Participants included the Ministry of Education, the Ministry for National Minorities, the Croatian Helsinki Committee, the Open Society Fund (Zagreb office), teachers, parents, activists, journalists, local lawyers working on Roma rights issues, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), and the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program (RPP). The seminar succeeded in bringing together the main protagonists in the education of Roma children from across the country in Zagreb to constructively discuss objectives, competing agendas, the ERRC's lawsuit against the Croatian government alleging segregation of Romani children in the field of education, as well as to explore various suggestions for future collaborative initiatives.

The main topic discussed over the two days was the ERRC's ongoing lawsuit, where the legal specificities were presented by the local lawyer Ms. Lovorka Kušan and the ERRC's legal director, Branimir Pleše.5 The rationale behind the decision to sue the Croatian government was explained, which elicited reactions from the Ministry of Education representative and her legal counsel, as well as a disavowal from the teachers. Despite the passionate posturing of some of the participants, there was a palpable sense of wanting to do something about the continued segregation of Romani children within the Croatian education system. To this effect, much attention was placed on the Government's National Strategy for Roma presented by Ms Maria Kleiner from the National Minorities Ministry. The strategy paper included a policy to integrate Romani children within the educational sector that provided a potential foundation for other initiatives aimed at addressing the chronic marginalisation of Roma in education and other spheres of Croatian society.

The strategy paper also provided the basis for concrete follow-up initiatives which allowed the respective participants to explore "what next" steps in greater detail despite the fact that nothing substantive was agreed at the completion of the two days, according to many of the participants present, this was the "most constructive" discussion between the participant son the vexed issue for a long while. It would be true to characterise the event as a fractious meeting between vested interests firmly entrenched in their relative positions. However, there was a commitment to address the issue and to follow-up with further meetings that will hopefully translate into concrete action in Croatia. Currently, however, the only concrete act on the ground remains the ERRC's lawsuit and it is hoped that a number of government initiatives will be implemented aimed at addressing the continued segregation of Romani children in Croatia's education system.

On March 3, 2004, the ERRC held a desegregation workshop in Hajdúhadház, Hungary, including the following participants: representatives of the Ministry of Education, the Mayor of Hajdúhadház and the local municipality, Local Romani Self-Government, local school directors and teachers, parents, the NGO Roma Education Centre (REC) (Serbia), the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program (RPP), and the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). Once again, the purpose of the event was to provide the forum for stakeholders involved in the education of Romani children to convene and explore a range of possibilities regarding the integration of Roma children into mainstream schooling. The day started off with a visit to a local school Szabó Gábor utca in the town by a group that comprised representatives from the ERRC, PILI, RPP, and representatives from the REC in Niš, Serbia. The tour was conducted by the school director, Mr Vass László who provided useful information regarding the total number of students attending the school, the various ages, courses being offered there and the total yearly budget. The school was attended solely by Romani pupils and was one of 3 Roma only schools in the town. The trip lasted about one hour after which, the group proceeded to the local municipal office where the general meeting was being held.

The main event was held in the main meeting hall of the local self-government building and was attended by over 60 people. The bulk of the audience comprised of various stakeholders including local Romani parents who seized the opportunity to express their concerns at the meeting. Another important group present were teachers. Initially, they felt very disappointed, since the general tone of the event seemed to be laying the blame for the current practice of segregating Romani pupils into Roma-only classes with them. They reacted defensively and refused to participate in the proceedings, preferring to keep their counsel and offering mild defence for their activities. The Hungarian Ministry of Education was represented by Ms. Viktória Mohácsi, who attended in her official capacity as Ministerial Commissioner for Integration and who had a played a prominent role in getting the event staged in Hajdúhadház. She came to provide details of the government Integration programme that provides grants aimed at assisting schools that had accepted to initiate a policy of integration of the student population. There were also a number of non-governmental actors in attendance (ostensibly local Romani activists from the local Roma self-government).

The meeting was jointly chaired Mr. Edwin Rekosh (Executive Director of PILI) and Ms. Dimitrina Petrova (Executive Director of the ERRC). After the initial introductions by these two representatives, the meeting delved into the vexed issue of desegregation of local schools focussing attention on Roma-only schools. The focus narrowed during Ms. Mohácsi's presentation onto the single issue of integration and the various forms of assistance available to schools that were willing to implement the government's integration policy. During her exposition, she castigated the local school authorities for not applying for the integration grant being offered to them by the government.

This elicited an aggressively defensive response from the teachers, who felt that were being wrongly and harshly criticised for a situation they had little control over. In fact, as it later turned out, the local education authority in Hajdúhadház had just applied for the government's integration grant. This piece of information was eventually gleaned from the director of one of the local schools after a full debate that had involved the local Romani activists and other stakeholders, Ms. Mohacsi, the representatives of the ERRC, PILI and RPP, as well as some other people present at the meeting. The teachers were the only people who had stubbornly refused to participate in the general discussion, preferring to react defensively to the often implied suggestions that they were the ones responsible for separating Romani children into Roma-only schools/classes. Once they had revealed that they were indeed seeking governmental assistance in integrating their Romani pupils, the meeting took on the air of businesslike commitment with the two main parties, i.e., government and teachers, negotiating concrete follow-up plans aimed at expediting the intention to integrate the children as quickly as possible. This represented a positive turn of events and indicated the success of the event in facilitating the dialogue between the major parties. Currently, there is an agreement for the teachers to come to Budapest and visit the Ministry of Education to discuss the next step on the road to integration.

This was a major achievement of the meeting which marked the ERRC's first fully-fledged collaboration with local partners in Hungary from the inception to the execution of the project. In the build-up to the event, ERRC representative, the Human Rights Trainer, had participated in a number of meetings with their local partners (PILI and RPP) in Budapest, the Government's Department of Education, local Roma representatives in Debrecen and Hajdúhadház, local self-government representatives (the Mayor and the Notary's office) as well as a number of other local Roma representatives in Hajduhadaz, Debrecen, and Budapest. Much work went into the preparation of the event that involved a number of contributions from a wide range of actors and the concrete, positive outcome of the event is a testimony of the efforts of all involved. It is also provides a good model of collaborative effort aimed at achieving substantive and tangible results. This augurs well for the future for the ERRC in terms of joint initiatives with local grassroots Romani activists and NGOs.

Endnotes:

  1. Larry Olomoofe is human rights trainer at the ERRC.
  2. For more information about segregated education of Roma in Slovakia, see Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Center Concerning the Slovak Republic For Consideration by the United Nations Human Rights Committee at its 78th Session, July 14–August 8, 2003, pp. 18–22, at: http://errc.org/publications/legal/index.shtml.
  3. It should be stressed that the group designated the “expert” label comprised a number of people who had requisite qualifications and experience in educational methodology as well as a number of people who had little or no specialised training or qualifications in the field of educational development/pedagogy. In some cases, the most experience these people had was the day-to-day organising of school activities for Romani children. Whilst this may qualify people like these as having experience of the schooling of Romani children in certain conditions and contexts, they would not normally be described as “educational experts”.
  4. For more information regarding the problems facing Romani children in education in Serbia and Montenegro, see „The Protection of Roma Rights in Serbia and Montenegro. Memorandum Prepared by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in association with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Field Operation in Serbia and Montenegro (UN OHCHR), April 22, 2003”, pp. 26–29, at: http://errc.org/publications/legal/index.shtml.
  5. For more information concerning the ERRC lawsuit against the segregation of Romani children in education in Croatia, see Branimir Pleše. “Racial Segregation in Croatian Primary Schools: Romani Students Take Legal Action”. In Roma Rights 3–4/2002, at: http://www.errc.org/rr_nr3-4_2002/legal_defence.shtml.

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