The Quality of Education in Romanian Schools with High Percentages of Romani Pupils

07 November 2002

Mihai Surdu1

This paper aims to show that segregated schools for Roma in Romania offer an inferior level of education and are a major obstacle to an equal and unbiased education for children enrolled there. The main source of quantitative data used in this article is a database compiled in 1998 by the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research (MER), the Institute of Educational Science (IES) and the Bucharest-based Research Institute for Quality of Life (RIQL). The database contains information from 5,560 schools from rural areas in Romania. The number of Romani children in these schools ranges between 1 percent and 100 percent. This database was created by selecting cases from a larger database of 19,427 schools, or about 95 percent of schools in rural regions of Romania. Cases in the debate were chosen using a variable percentage of Romani pupils in school. The principal of each school estimated the percentage of Romani students.3

Although the database was gathered in 1998, it remains useful today in illustrating the distribution of Romani pupils, school facilities and teacher qualifications in schools with high percentages of Romani students. Some of the analyses presented in this article were published recently4 in Romania, while some of the material is made public for the first time in this article.

Defining Segregation

The term "segregated schools" in this article refers to schools with a student body more than 50 percent Roma. According to official Romanian educational standards they are considered "regular schools" – meaning they use a standard curriculum. Although segregation has never been legally sanctioned in Romania, de facto segregated schools are an undeniable reality.

Defining Segregation

The term "segregated schools" in this article refers to schools with a student body more than 50 percent Roma. According to official Romanian educational standards they are considered "regular schools" – meaning they use a standard curriculum. Although segregation has never been legally sanctioned in Romania, de facto segregated schools are an undeniable reality.5 Notwithstanding Romania's obligations to eradicate segregation and discrimination in education, mandated by domestic and international law,6 to date there have been no effective legal or practical efforts by the state to remedy the current situation.

Segregated schools are usually situated near Romani communities. Most of these communities have a high level of poverty. Such schools are not only physically separated from mainstream schools, but are also much poorer when compared to other schools.7 Officially, there are no barriers8 to enrolling or transferring Romani pupils to non-segregated schools, although Romani parents who want to enrol their children in mainstream schools encounter a series of economic and bureaucratic obstacles as well as obstruction by officials due to racial prejudice.9

Romani Schools – Physical or Social Separation?

Historically, segregated schools appeared primarily as a consequence of the residential segregation of Roma.As of 1998, according to the RIQL, more than one quarter of the Roma in Romania lived in segregated communities (see Graph 1 on p. 10).10 Many Roma were slaves from the moment of their first arrival in Romania. The abolition of slavery in Romania took nearly 25 years and was only finally completed in the second half of the 19th Century. Forcing previously itinerant segments of the Romani population to settle was a permanent effort of authorities during slavery and thereafter, including under Communism.11 The process of forced settlement of Roma resulted in the appearance of isolated and homogenous Romani communities. These communities are usually situated on the margins of villages or cities. The communist regime tried, under its town-planning policy, to demolish Romani districts and disperse the Romani population among the non-Roma by moving Roma from houses to blocks of flats. This town-planning policy was largely unsuccessful, and, today, many Roma live in Romani districts or ghettos. There are also cases in which Romani settlements are not administratively registered because local Roma do not have property documents, although several generations may have resided in the locality at issue.

However, to explain educational segregation only through residential segregation is not to tell the whole story. Let's take, for example, the Tigveni primary school in Arges County, southern Romania. This school, which hosts grades one to four, is 100 percent Romani, although it is situated just two kilometres from another school, with grades one to eight, where the overwhelming number of pupils are from the non-Romani population. In this case, educational segregation cannot be explained only by residential segregation.

Research data indicates that, as of 1998, more than half the schools with at least a 50 percent Romani student body were located less than three kilometres from neighbouring schools of the same level with predominantly non-Romani children.12 Almost three quarters of the schools where 50 percent or more of the students were Romani were less than five kilometres from schools with another ethnic enrolment.13

Because the physical distance between Romani and non-Romani communities is relatively small (and therefore majority Romani schools and majority non-Romani schools are close in proximity), an explanation for continuing educational segregation can be found in the social distance between the Romani minority and the non-Romani majority. Established as a consequence of residential separation, segregated schools for Roma have become overwhelmingly an expression of negative sentiments toward Roma. Recent data reveal intense negative perceptions of Roma on the part of the non-Romani population (see Graph 2 on p. 12).

The social distance between the Romani minority and the non-Romani population is further enhanced by socio-economic discrepancies. Statistics show much higher poverty levels among Roma, as compared to non-Roma. For example, as of 1998, some 62.9 percent of Roma in Romania lived under the minimum level of subsistence,14 as compared to 16 percent among the general population.15 Poverty is usually associated with a lower social status and is therefore a cause of negative public perception of the poor.

Dimensions of Educational Segregation

Rural schools, according to the percentage of Romani children enrolled in them, are the subject of the present analysis and fall into the categories listed below:

  • Mixed schools – 1 percent to 50 percent Romani students;
  • Schools with a Romani majority – 50.1 percent to 70 percent Romani students;
  • Schools in which Romani pupils predominate – 70.1 percent to 100 percent Romani students.

In 1998, an estimated 87 percent of the rural schools analysed were mixed schools, 6.4 percent had a Romani majority and in 5.8 percent of the schools, Roma predominated. The number of Romani children who attended schools where the student body was more than 50 percent Roma was 38,334 or 12.2 percent of the total number of Romani children in the 5,560 schools analysed.

According to the database, segregation tendencies were most prevalent in compulsory education.16 More than half the schools with 50 percent Roma were primary schools.17 Almost one-third were secondary schools. A likely explanation of the higher levels of segregation in compulsory education is the fact that a high number of Romani children drop out of school after the eighth grade. A study by the RIQL in 1998 showed that at least 11.6 percent18 of Romani children between the ages of seven and 16 left school during compulsory education.

Evaluating the Quality of Education in Schools with High Percentages of Romani Pupils

Factors determining the quality of education can be categorised as follows:

1. Educational inputs (curricula, textbooks, school buildings, etc.);
2. Educational processes (teaching, classroom organisation, and timetabling, etc.);
3. Educational outcomes or learning achievements.

This section presents an assessment of some of the factors listed above, illustrating disparities between schools with high percentages of Romani pupils and mixed schools.

Learning Achievements in Schools with a Majority of Romani Students

The ratio of pupils who obtain a "diploma de capacitate"19 is an indicator of a school's ability to prepare pupils for future college or vocational school studies. Such an indicator was examined for the school year 1998-1999. Although the entire educational system in 1998 boasted a student ratio of 68 percent who passed the exam and obtained the diploma, this figure was only 44.6 percent in schools where Romani students were more than 70 percent of the entire student body.The data indicates that more than half of the Romani pupils in schools with more than 70 percent Romani students failed to obtain the "diploma de capacitate".

The ratio of pupils who repeat one or more school years due to poor school results was calculated for the period 1995-1998 and analysed for primary and secondary levels. The more Romani pupils in a school, the higher the ratio of poor school marks. In schools with more than 70 percent Roma, the number of students who repeated the school year was 11.3 percent, almost three times higher than the average for the educational system as a whole (3.9 percent).A student with three successive failures is expelled from the school system.

Data from the RIQL study in 1998 regarding the functional literacy of Romani students showed that some Romani pupils enrolled in compulsory education did not have basic reading and writing skills, although they still passed to higher grade levels. These students could practically be considered functionally illiterate. High levels of functional illiteracy illustrate once again the failure of the educational system. Although available data does not state the percentage of functionally illiterate Romani students from schools with high percentages of Roma, it is likely that because these schools have a lower quality of education, many of the functionally illiterate come from here. As of 1998, the ratio of functional illiteracy was 17.6 percent for Romani pupils enrolled in the fourth grade. This ratio increased to 35.7 percent in the case of Romani pupils who dropped out in the fourth grade.

Increased functional illiteracy can also help explain instances of school abandonment. It is surprising that Romani pupils pass classes without having minimal reading and writing skills. One third of Romani students who dropped out of school in sixth grade could not read and write properly. This situation can be partially explained by low teacher expectations of Romani pupils – some teachers regard literacy as a performance indicator rather than a minimal requirement.

School Facilities in Educational Units with a Majority of Romani Pupils

As demonstrated in Graph 3 above, overcrowded classes21 are more common in schools with high percentages of Romani students than in other schools where Roma do not constitute the majority of the students.

With the exception of kindergarten, where Romani participation was substantially lower (approximately four times lower than average), overcrowded classes in primary and secondary education appear to be the norm in schools with high concentrations of Roma. The occurrence of overcrowded classes appears to correspond to the percentage of Romani pupils in a school. In other words, the more Roma in school, the higher the number of overcrowded classrooms. The likelihood of overcrowded classes in primary schools where Romani students predominate was more than three times higher than for all rural schools. For secondary schools in which the same holds true, the rate was nine times higher than for the whole system. In segregated schools for Roma, insufficient space negatively affects the quality of education. In overcrowded classrooms it is probable that teachers focus more on discipline than on teaching generally or on individual student needs.

An important facility in the quality of a student's education is the school library. Moreover, for Romani pupils the school library is an essential resource because many come from poor families and have no ready access to many books. The higher the number of Romani pupils in a school, the more likely it is that the school has no library. Data indicates that in schools with a majority of Romani pupils, a library was missing in almost two thirds of cases. In schools where Romani pupils predominate, the library was absent in nearly three quarters of the cases.

Teacher Qualification in Schools with a Majority of Romani Pupils

The ratio of schools with a shortage of qualified teachers is an important indicator. In schools in which Romani pupils were the majority, the shortage of qualified teachers was nearly two times higher (83.5 percent)than that of all rural schools (43.5 percent). In practically every school with a majority of Roma, there was a shortage of qualified teachers. The number of kindergartens with a majority of Romani children that listed a lack of qualified educators was almost 10 percent higher than the whole system. In the case of kindergartens in which Romani children predominated, this percentage was over 25 percent.

The ratio of unqualified teachers in compulsory education (primary and secondary school) is another indicator with relevance to the quality of education. It can be assumed that in schools with a high ratio of unqualified teachers the quality of education is poor. Discrepancies between segregated schools for Roma and the education system regarding its lack of qualified teachers is illustrated in Graph 4 above.

In 1998, unqualified teachers were present in every school that had a student body of more than 50 percent Roma. There is an obvious correlation between the percentage of Romani pupils in a school and the ratio of unqualified teachers.

In the category "50-75 percent", the rate of unqualified teachers:

  • in schools with a majority of Romani pupils was approximately three times higher than in the rural system as a whole;
  • in schools where Roma make up nearly the entire population was roughly five times higher than in the total rural school system.

In the category "over 75 percent", the rate of unqualified teachers:

  • in schools where the majority were Romani pupils was about four times higher than the system as a whole;
  • in schools where Roma predominate in the student body was ten times higher than for the rural school system as a whole.

In schools with a predominating number of Romani students, the ratio of unqualified teachers was almost three times higher than for the whole educational system and the ratio of unqualified schoolmasters was almost two and a half times higher. In kindergartens where Romani children predominate, the number of unqualified instructors was almost 25 percent higher than in the educational system as a whole.

As illustrated by the data presented in this article, schools with high percentages of Romani pupils are "second hand" institutions that offer poor facilities and high numbers of unqualified teachers. This fact has a harmful impact on the quality of education Romani children receive, as well as on the child's motivation to attend school. High drop-out rates among Roma are, in part, the result of the negative experience they have at school. Most of the "beneficiaries" of this type of education, Romani parents and children alike, are clearly aware they do not receive equal education in schools with high percentages of Romani children.

Quality of Education Evaluation by Beneficiaries' Expectations

Many Romani parents are dissatisfied with the level of knowledge and skills achieved by their children in schools where Roma dominate the student body. Parents frequently complain about a lack of motivation among teachers who work with Romani pupils. Due to the fact that some teachers from these schools have low expectations of Romani students, they tend to set lower standards of educational achievement than for the other pupils. According to one teacher, "There are differences between the Romanian children and the Rudari [Roma] children. They [the Romani children] are asked only to stay at their desks in the last row and they are left alone, and told only to be quiet."22

Some teachers believe Romani pupils have no opportunities for higher levels of education and act accordingly. These teachers have a low level of commitment and they underestimate the potential of Romani students and fail to treat them as individuals. For many educators, the main objective regarding the education of Romani children is the achievement of basic literacy skills. Moreover, some teachers consider reading and writing a performance indicator and not a basic ability to be accomplished in the first two years of school. Fixing literacy as a final objective of primary school (sometimes even of secondary school), teachers' expectations are often very low. Some Romani students who pass classes for years sometimes go on to gymnasium without knowing how to properly read and write.

The majority of Romani parents are aware of the discrepancies in quality education between schools with high percentages of Romani pupils and schools with another ethnic majority.23 For this reason some well-to-do Romani parents prefer to enrol or transfer their children into schools with a Romanian or Hungarian ethnic majority.Romanian parents act the same way when they have to choose between a nearby school with high numbers of Roma and a school located further away but with few or no Roma.

Most Romani parents consider it desirable for their children to learn in ethnically mixed schools and not in schools with a majority of Romani children. Schools with a non-Romani majority are perceived as better, with superior school facilities, personnel and financial resources. Parents in favour of mixed schools bring the following arguments:

  • Mixed schools tend to have a higher quality of education because teachers have better qualifications and there are generally better facilities;
  • Romani pupils are taught to strive for better results in mixed schools;
  • Bringing Romani and non-Romani children together could have positive effects on both cultures (facilitating communication, cultural exchanges, avoiding social exclusion and inter-ethnic tolerance);
  • Mixed schools are seen as bringing rewards such as higher education and, ultimately, employment opportunities.

In my interviews with Romani parents, it became evident that cases of abusive treatment of Romani pupils at mixed schools have made many Romani parents reluctant to have their children educated alongside non-Romani children. Cases include sitting Romani children in the last row of desks; failure of teachers to encourage Romani pupils to be active in class; exclusion of Roma from extracurricular activities; tensions between Romani and non-Romani pupils and sometimes between Roma and their teachers. Some Romani parents are afraid that mixing Romani and non-Romani students could strengthen tendencies towards segregation. Romani children might find themselves isolated in mixed schools because of majority prejudices and stereotypes on the part of non-Roma and because of status differences.

Romani children are more fearful than their parents to study in the same class or school with non-Romani children. During my research, many Romani children told me they were scared of being isolated, treated badly or beaten up. These fears are more pronounced in cases where pupils learn at all-Romani schools.

Conclusions and Policy Options: Improving Quality of Education in the Segregated Schools vs. Desegregating the Educational System

There are two main ways to address existing discrepancies with regards to educational quality in segregated and mainstream schools. The first would be to improve the quality of education in segregated schools. Since 1989, almost all relevant actors, including the Romanian Ministry of Education and non-governmental organisations, have acted with this aim in mind. Almost all projects and programmes developed by non-governmental organisations aim, in one way or another, to improve the quality of education in segregated schools. Measures such as teacher training, school development, improvement of school facilities and teaching materials, involvement of parents and communities and participation of Roma in extra-curricular activities fall within the rubric of improving the quality of education. The assumed philosophy of this intervention is that if quality is improved, Romani pupils will attain higher levels of education and, consequently, be more competitive in the labour market. In turn, a better mix of candidates in the labour market will lead, in time, to better social and economic status for Roma.

This still leaves the problem of segregation to be addressed. The assumption that social distance between the Romani minority and the non-Romani population cannot be overcome is implicitly accepted. The second way to address existing discrepancies in educational quality lies with the desegregation of the educational system. While the option of improving the quality of education does not address segregation, a desegregation policy would go a step further, challenging both the quality of education and the state of physical separation of Romani children from the mainstream. While the currently applied strategy for improving the quality of education means preserving segregated schools, desegregation calls for the elimination of this kind of school from the system. Separating schools means making a judgement about Romani culture as one of a lower rank than the majority culture. Educational segregation of Romani pupils is unacceptable, regardless of the fact that it is not a result of governmental policy. Even if segregated Romani schools were to be brought to the level of other schools in terms of quality, segregation is inappropriate for both Romani and Romanian society as a whole. Beyond its function of transmitting knowledge and developing abilities, school is also a means for disseminating values. Tolerance, ethnic dialogue, and the exercise of democratic freedoms cannot exist if a minority is isolated and excluded from mainstream society.

Romani class in the Morii Street Romani settlement, central-
eastern Romania, October 2002.
Photo: ERRC

Educational segregation is not only a cause of inferior education but also of the social exclusion of Roma from Romanian society. Eliminating segregation, by including Romani pupils in mainstream education, will increase school achievement of Romani pupils and will start a movement calling for equal status of Roma in all social fields. The success of the desegregation programme initiated in Bulgaria shows that school desegregation can be considered a viable policy option in the case of Romani education. Existing programmes and projects targeting Romani schools must go beyond simply improving education to actual school desegregation. Information is needed in order to adapt to the local context and to choose appropriate desegregation techniques in each case. Anti-bias training for teachers is needed to create a suitable environment for Romani pupils in their new host schools. Romani families must also be supported by providing, where necessary, their children with clothes, shoes, writing materials, free meals, etc. However, in order to choose this option, a broad public debate must be initiated. In my view, a good solution should take into account all relevant stakeholders. It is important that the voices of Romani parents be heard before planning an educational policy targeting their children.


  1. This article is based on the policy paper, Quality of Education in Schools with a High Percentage of Roma Pupils in Romania, written by Mihai Surdu for the International Policy Fellowship Program of the Open Society Institute, Budapest.
  2. Mihai Surdu is  PhD student of sociology at the University of Bucharest and researcher at the Research Institute for Quality of Life of the Romanian Academy of Science. Since 1995 he has focused on the issues of Romani education and has written articles, research reports, and co-authored books in this field.
  3. The MER, IES, RIQL database contains data on schools in the rural area of Romania exclusively. When I use the "entire system" or "the system", I refer to the rural school system. This article does not purport to evaluate the extent of segregation in the entire educational system.
  4. See Ministerul Educatiei si Cercetarii, Institutul de Stiinte ale Educatiei, Institutul de Cercetare a Calitatii Vietii, UNICEF, Participarea la educatie a copiilor romi - probleme, solutii, actor, Editura MarLink, Bucuresti, 2002.
  5. In American literature, de facto segregation is described as follows: "Racial segregation resulting from the actions of private individuals or unknown forces, not from governmental action or law. De facto segregation is to be distinguished from de jure segregation - segregation resulting from governmental action or law. De facto segregation is generally the result of housing patterns, population movements, and economic conditions often reinforced by governmental policies not aimed at segregation but having that effect." See Raffel, Jeffrey A., Historical Dictionary of School Segregation and Desegregation, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1998, p. 232.
  6. Article 32(1) of the Constitution of Romania stipulates: "The right to education is provided for by the compulsory general education, by education in high schools and vocational schools, by higher education, as well as other forms of instruction and post-graduate refresher courses" (official translation). The Romanian Law on Education recognises "Equal rights of access to all forms and levels of education for all Romanian citizens." See Article 5(1) of the Romanian Law on Education, adopted as the Law on Education 84/1995, amended by Ordinance 36/1997 and by Law 151/1999. (Official translation by the Public Information Department of the Government of Romania). Moreover, Romania is a party to several international treaties which prohibit segregation and discrimination in education, for example the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Articles 3 and 5(e)(v)) and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (Article 3).
  7. For example, during my field research in Coltau, Baia Mare County, in 1998, I asked where I could find the local school. I was guided to a school in the center of the village, where Hungarian and Romani children attended separate classes. Later I found that in Coltau there was another school, an all-Romani school. The fact that the villagers did not spontaneously mention this other school, speaks about the marginal position attributed to it. Visiting this school, I saw that the villagers were right not to qualify it as a school. The building was rented from a private person. It had two rooms, 20 square metres each, which served to accommodate 104 Romani children from kindergarten to the fourth grade. When school attendance was 100%, three to four children had to share a single desk. The school building had no inscription or any official symbol to indicate that the building was a public school.
  8. Recent regulations of the Ministry of Education and Research of Romania (MER) allow a pupil to enrol in any school in the system, regardless of residence.
  9. During my research in Romania in 1998 and 2000 I held interviews with several dozens of Roma who alleged that they had tried and failed to enrol their children at schools where the majority of students were ethnic Romanians or Hungarians.
  10. See "Research Institute for Quality of Life" database, 1998.
  11. Achim Viorel, Tiganii in istoria Romaniei, Bucuresti: Editura Enciclopedica, 1998, p.155.
  12. See Ministry of Education and Research of Romania (MER), the Institute of Educational Science (IES), and the Research Institute for Quality of Life (RIQL) database 1998.
  13. In some Romanian counties the ethnic majority population is comprised of ethnic Hungarians. Ethnic Hungarians, the largest minority group in Romania, live predominantly in Transylvania and, according to the 1992 census, constituted 8.9 percent of the total population of Romania.
  14. The minimum level of subsistence has been defined in Romania as "[e]xpenses on basic goods and services; clothes and shoes expenses for adults were not included, considering that these goods already exist in the household. The level of subsistence ensures the living expenses during a relatively short-term life sequence. To continue living under this level may lead to malnutrition and health depreciation." (See C. Zamfir, E. Zamfir, Dimensiuni ale saraciei, Bucharest, Expert Publishing House, 1995, p.128.)
  15. Ibid, p. 128.
  16. Compulsory basic education (învatamânt obligatoriu) includes the first four grades of primary school (primar) and four years of lower secondary school (gimnaziu), grades 5 to 8. Upper secondary education includes four and five-year academic high schools (liceu), four-year technical high schools, and two and three-year vocational schools (scoala profesionala).
  17. The number of Romani children who studied in schools with over 50 percent Romani children in primary education was 21,014; in secondary education this number was 10,640; and in kindergarten it was 6,680.
  18. According to the same research, 8.7 percent of the cases were in the category of non-answers. In the author's opinion, most of the "non-answer cases" were in fact "drop out cases". Because of the social undesirability of the phenomenon, many respondents are likely to have refrained from declaring that they dropped out of school.
  19. Secondary school students in Romania pass a compulsory national examination (capacitate), necessary for entering upper secondary education, in mathematics, mother tongue, history or geography.
  20. Functional illiteracy was estimated on a national sample of 1,765 Romani ouseholds, representative of the Romani population from rural and urban areas.
  21. The category "overcrowded classes" is defined in accordance with the Romanian school construction standards. These standards require 1.8-2.1 square metres per pupil within the classroom and 2.7-3 square metres per child in kindergarten (MER, IES, Invatamantul rural in Romania: Conditii, probleme si strategii de dezvoltare, Bucharest, 2000, p. 71).
  22. Author's interview with a Romanian teacher, Rudarie, Gorj county, 1998.
  23. Interviews with Romani parents made by the author during field research in Romania in 1998 and 2000. 



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