Separate and unequal in Hungary: “catching up” and falling behind on Roma inclusion

04 September 2015

By Bernard Rorke

Immediately prior to the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005, the ERRC reported to the European Commission that the “recent legal and policy amendments aiming to combat racial segregation in schooling in Hungary” were “among the most far-reaching and innovative policies on Roma anywhere in Europe.”

Ten years later towards the end of the Decade, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HLCU) declared that Roma continue to suffer from racist violence and face anti-Gypsyism in every aspect of life including discrimination by authorities and institutions. As for education, the verdict was damning: “Hungary’s system of education is one of the most segregated, unable to close the achievement gap due to wide differences in student’s family, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.”

So what happened in the interim? What went so profoundly wrong to dash the promise of progress, equity and inclusion in education? How did a national commitment to school desegregation come to be displaced by a cynical policy of ‘separate but equal’ style segregation, re-packaged as ‘social catching up’?

Before we all chime in with the answer “Fidesz”, it’s worth looking back in time to explore the genealogy of this notion of “catching up”, and patterns of segregation that preceded Hungary’s most recent precipitous plunge into the murky depths of “illiberal democracy.”

Back in the 1970s there was heated debate about the rights and wrongs of separate “Gypsy classes” and “Gypsy schools”, whose purpose was, according to a 1962 government decree: “to make it possible for the pupils to continue their studies successfully in normal classes after one or two years.”

Back then, this notion of “catching up” was derided by critics as nonsense, and so-called catch-up classes for Roma children revealed as a damaging and unacceptable form of segregation. Zita Réger concluded from her study that these “Gypsy classes” were a dead-end-street: “the fact that the isolation of the children is apparently a permanent state of affairs even aggravates the problems: not a single pupil originally placed in a ‘Gypsy’ class has been later directed to attend the ‘mixed’ classes over the years.”

Despite her prescient warnings in 1978 that this Hungarian version of “separate but equal” – a system designed to make Romani children’s education in segregated groups permanent – was not only ethically unacceptable, but constituted a major obstacle to their integration into society, the consensus around “catch up” remained pervasive. Indeed it was so pervasive that “catching up” survived the system change from state socialism to multi-party democracy.

As András Ujlaky described it, “catching up” had its apotheosis during liberal politician Bálint Magyar’s first stint as Minister for Education between 1994 and 1998. Schools could apply for special quotas for segregated “catching up” for every Romani child. As Ujlaky explained, this policy solved a lot of problems: mayors got re-elected; there was no need for whites to take flight from schools; catch up classes provided employment opportunities for Russian language teachers nearing retirement age; and the Roma themselves seemed by and large compliant. However, Magyar soon came to realize the error of his ways, and during his second term as education minister designed and began to implement the most ambitious school desegregation policy the region had ever witnessed.

Critics of desegregation policies maintained that segregation was largely a spontaneous phenomenon and that only in very rare instances did it result from deliberate decisions by schools and local authorities. “Spontaneous segregation” refers to the free school choice in Hungary, whereby all parents have the possibility to enroll their children in a school they deem more suitable for their needs, even if it is outside of their residential district. According to studies this happened often enough “to significantly change the ethnic composition of a school community, resulting in all-non-Roma schools or Roma-dominated schools in some places.” What seems to be emerging now is that the central government is leaving less to chance, and that spontaneity will soon be superseded by planned and legalized segregation under the cover name of ‘social catching up’.

After the 2010 elections, which gave the right-wing Fidesz party an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament, HCLU reported that efforts to integrate Romani children and introduce innovative pedagogic methods into the educational system came to a halt, and soon after the government started to question “the hegemony of an integrated system.”

The notion of social catching up surfaced courtesy of then state secretary Zoltán Balog in the Hungarian translations of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, and the subsequent Hungarian national strategy. That social catching up might mean something utterly different to what is commonly understood as social inclusion soon became apparent when the State Secretary for Education stated in a press release:

“The Hungarian Government starts with the assumption that closing the achievement gap for the disadvantaged, including the Roma, requires assessing and addressing the problems facing an individual. We therefore support every institution which enables students with disadvantaged backgrounds to close the achievement gap, even if the institution only educates Roma children.”

The government introduced the concept in the Fundamental Law with the Fourth Amendment, and then introduced a bill before the Parliament to amend the law on equal opportunity with the notion of “closing the social gap” and catching up. As HCLU stated, this created the opportunity for schools that are seen to be busily providing for social catch-up to evade the ban on segregation.

November 2014 saw Minister for Human Resources Zoltán Balog file a bill to amend Hungary’s Public Education Act of 2011, to effectively legalize school segregation. Balog was piqued at a court decision in a case filed by the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), which ordered the closure of the Greek Catholic Church’s segregated school in Nyíregyháza. The court reasoned that attending a segregated school substantially diminished the chances of children to get quality education as well as any opportunity for continuing towards a high school education.

For Balog, this ruling against a school dedicated to ‘social catching up’ under priestly guidance became intensely personal. He declared that the court decision “only boosted my battle morale […] to keep the school open as this is really in the children’s interest.” The amendment circumvented legal verdicts by exempting some schools from the requirements of the Equal Opportunities Act. Opposition MP Tímea Szabó called the modification of the law a disgrace and declared that Balog’s idea of “benevolent segregation” was contrary to both the statutes of Hungary and the European Union.

The amendment would prove unnecessary following the subsequent decision of Hungary’s Supreme Court (the Kuria) in April 2015 to overturn the earlier ruling and exempt the Greek Catholic Church from anti-discrimination provisions in law. This judgment effectively declared segregation of Roma pupils legal in religious-run schools, and was memorably described by CFCF board member Gábor Daróczi as “apartheid under the aegis of religious freedom.” 

The slippage in translation between English and Hungarian from social inclusion to ‘social catching up’ was, as Ujlaky suggests, far from innocent. Anyway in practical terms, who decides who needs to catch up with whom? At what point in her life, or by what criteria is a child judged to have caught up? And from an institutional perspective, what happens to that child at the point of catching up? It’s clearly a nonsensical concept, and catch-up classes and schools long revealed to be segregated spaces where nobody ever catches up. This linguistic sleight of hand effectively provides cover for a twenty-first century model of the long discredited system of “separate but equal.”

In the 2013 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary, the Court insisted that the state has a substantive positive obligation to  “undo a history of racial segregation”. This government, reactionary and recalcitrant in so many things, seems determined to restore and revive rather than undo the habits of racial segregation.

The European Commission called for an end to school segregation in June of this year and noted that Hungary has a higher percentage of marginalized Romani children in segregated classes (45%) than Bulgaria (29%), the Czech Republic (33%), and Romania (26%). The Commission has declared that it intends to use all means at its disposal to fight against discrimination, including infringement proceedings. It’s time for the Commission to take a close look at what takes place in Hungary today under the cover of the benign-sounding, but insidiously malign notion of “social catching up”.

donate now

Challenge discrimination, promote equality

be informed

Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal

news portal

The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Become a part of the ERRC's activist network in Europe