What’s it going to take to end school segregation in Slovakia? New report exposes the depths of discrimination faced by Romani children

01 March 2017

By Bernard Rorke and Marek Szilvasi

A new report by the ERRC and Amnesty International exposes the shocking extent of school segregation and deeply embedded institutional racism in Slovakia. This discriminatory system continues to deny Romani children the opportunity of quality inclusive education and traps them in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and exclusion.

The low quality of education in segregated schools ensures that most Romani children do not continue school beyond the age of 16. If they do, it is usually in vocational schools with no prospect of going on to university later. When asked about her future plans, one Romani girl told the researchers: “I will go to the vocational school and learn to be a seamstress. Like everyone here.”

Some measure of official attitudes can be garnered from the government response to the news that the European Commission had launched infringement proceedings against Slovakia in 2015. The government suggestion 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.

This joint report presents a bleak picture: case studies of schools in four locations in eastern Slovakia show that piecemeal reforms and legislative changes have failed to make a dent on discrimination in schools.

In response to the launch of the EU infringement, the government introduced the 2015 amendment of the School Act. This stated that children whose special educational needs stem exclusively from the fact that they come from a “socially disadvantaged environment (SDE children)” cannot be placed in special schools and must be educated in mainstream settings. The amendment also changed the rules on per capita subsidies. Henceforth, subsidies for “SDE children” cannot be allocated to special schools.

All well and good on paper, but the research revealed that a lack of coordination and clarity, combined with poor information flow from the Ministry of Education means that “precise requirements and actual implementation is riddled with confusion” and little by way of positive impact. The amendment did not come with the requisite financial and human resources to make it actually work; it has not addressed the plight of children already placed in such settings, and failed to introduce concrete measures to tackle segregation in mainstream primary schools. 

A full decade after the European Court of Human Rights first ruled on the discriminatory placement of Romani children in special schools, this research reveals disturbing patters of misdiagnosis by a private diagnostic centre and its channelling of Romani children into a local private special school in the town of Rokycany. Following an investigation by the State School Inspectorate, a Regional Office of the Ministry of Education closed the diagnostic centre in early 2016 and ordered the school to close by August 2017. Despite this decision, the school has been renovated to comply with sanitation requirements it had breached, has received additional state funding for teaching assistants, and continues to educate approximately 80 Romani children.

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 the special school in Krompachy 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 at the Šarišské Michaľany school told researchers that she would never send her own children there 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. 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.

With the passing of every year, new groups of Romani children are enrolled into systems structured to fail them; systems structured to deny them equal opportunities in a manner that will blight their life chances forever. Every day a child spends wrongly placed in a special school, or consigned to a run-down shabby segregated school, is a day lost forever. Every day a child is denied the care and attention that should come with the fundamental right to quality education, is a day of squandered potential.

De facto segregation is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Romani communities’ most precious assets - the intellectual capacities of future generations. Substandard segregated education leaves young people unable to progress beyond elementary levels of schooling and unable to compete in the labour market.

There is no cause for cheer in this report, which concludes that segregation in Slovakia, “fuelled by unacknowledged prejudice, remains widespread in mainstream education.” Until inclusive education becomes a policy priority and this democratic deficit is tackled as a matter of urgency, the prospects for progress remain bleak, and Slovak authorities stand accused of failing in their obligations towards Romani children under European, national and international law. As long as Slovakia continues to fail its youngest and most vulnerable citizens, it fails as a democracy.

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