Roma and the right to education - Roma in the educational systems of central and eastern Europe

10 September 1998

Claude Cahn, David Chirico, Christina McDonald, Viktória Mohácsi, Tatjana Perić and Ágnes Székely

The relation between the Roma people and the non-Romani educational systems has historically been troubled. In the view of many Roma, school is the place where Romani children, stolen by the state, are "turned into gadje (non-Roma)." Early modern policies, such as those of modernising Habsburg rulers Maria Theresa and Joseph II in the eighteenth century, attempted to change Roma into "Christians", "new citizens" and "new farmers" by removing them from Romani families, placing them with non-Romani ones, and sending them to schools to have their difference educated out of them. These strategies were echoed in the countries of central and eastern Europe after World War II as governments used schools to enforce policies of assimilation - Roma were forcibly settled, expected to conform closely to rigid standards of sameness, and display a demonstrative loyalty to the ethnic majority. Romani children were to learn such norms by having their Romaniness removed in school, and their culture itself was viewed as a package made up of social disadvantage and deviance which a tide of systematic schooling would cleanse.

Following the collapse of communism, the countries of central and eastern Europe have been characterised by both economic crisis and a dramatic rise in overt racism. The impact of both has important implications for the human rights situation of Roma in schools. First of all, Roma suffer abuse in the normal school system: teachers physically, verbally or emotionally harm Roma. Other pupils or the parents of other pupils also abuse Roma and school authorities such as teachers or school directors fail to act appropriately to curb, prevent and punish them. Secondly, most of the countries of central and eastern Europe feature school systems which are practically segregated; Roma are often found in different classes or different schools. This arrangement bears no relation to the minority education called for by some Romani activists. Existing separate classes and schools are invariably worse in quality than classes where the student body is predominantly non-Romani. This effective segregation is more-or-less codified in some countries in the institution of so-called "special schools". Special schools are schools for the mentally disabled. In countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, special schools are used as a collective dustbin for children who are deemed not fit for real schooling. Roma are so fabulously over-represented in such schools that many suspect that, as before, the Romani ethnicity is viewed by schooling authorities as synonymous with social and educational disability. Finally, in some areas racist practices are so entrenched that Roma simply do not attend school at all or, if once enrolled, are forced back out.

Abuse in schools

All Roma who have ever attended a school know the range of cruelties that the non-Roma inflict on Romani children. In the first place, they face abuse from teachers. Katalin Kovács was 14 years old when the ERRC interviewed her in November 1997. At that time, she lived with her father and her brother in a Romani settlement in the Hungarian town of Dömsöd, approximately fifty kilometres south of Budapest. Katalin completed four years of elementary school but stopped attending school regularly because of the way she was treated there. She told the ERRC:

There were only three Roma in a class of over twenty kids. The teachers were mean to Roma. They treated Hungarians differently. Hungarians were always better. They talked to them nicer. My form-teacher used to say things to me like, 'Since you've been here my blood-pressure has risen. I'm sure it's at least two hundred.'

Ms Annamarie Kovács, another primary school student from Dömsöd, related similar problems to the ERRC when the ERRC interviewed her in November 1997:

One day we laughed at the maths teacher in class. The maths teacher told Ms Ciboja, our form-teacher, about it. Ms Ciboja came to punish us for laughing at the maths teacher. She told us, 'You stinking little Gypsy whores, you're not in Tókert [the name of a large Romani settlement in Dömsöd]!' Everyone heard it - she said it in front of our whole class. Ms Ciboja said all sorts of other bad things about us and she slapped Anita, the other Romani girl in our class, on the face. Then she told us to go home. I didn't go to school for about a month after that - why should I? I won't go someplace where they humiliate me like that. The headteacher didn't know about the incident though, and the school wanted us to pay a fine because I didn't go. So my mother went to school and explained why I hadn't gone. Still, nothing happened to that teacher. She wasn't reprimanded and she never apologised. I started to go to school again, but I didn't go to Ms Ciboja's classes and they failed me because of absences.

One Romani boy who had been enrolled in both German and Macedonian schools told the ERRC in an interview conducted in August 1997 that he preferred German schools because, "in Macedonian schools, teachers hit me." Three former teachers interviewed by the ERRC in the Czech Republic recalled meeting with extensive and explicit racism from teachers in the staffroom. However, in some countries, a state of denial exists with respect to the problem of racist abuse by teachers in schools; and new Czech Minister of Justice Otakar Motejl, then-President of the Supreme Court, told the ERRC, in an interview conducted in April 1997, that Czech teachers were too well-educated to be racist.

Abuse in schools comes not only from teachers. Non-Romani children also laugh at and humiliate Romani children in school and teachers do not intervene effectively. Education for tolerance is close to non-existent in Central and Eastern Europe. For example, one case reported to the ERRC involved an instance of abuse in a school in northern Czech Republic in 1997. The parents of non-Romani children requested that their children not be seated next to the only Rom in the class. The teacher complied with the request and seated the Romani boy by himself. It was only when his mother, a social worker, went to the school and suggested that the teacher should not support racism in this way, that her son was returned to his seat. The Ministry of Education's Officer for Nationalities Education in the Czech Republic Marie Rauchová came close to acknowledging this problem when she told the ERRC, "teachers in these situations are often unable to deal with racist tensions."

Abuse in the normal school system leads to segregation. This process has been documented as far back as 1926, with the opening of the first of two "Gypsy schools" established before World War II in Czechoslovakia, the Užhorod schools 13 and 14 in the Transcarpathian region of what is today Ukraine. The 1938 doctoral thesis of Marie Nováková about the schools tells of one of the reasons for their establishment: "...the families of the other children protested that 'they didn't want their children to sit on the same bench as dirty and flea-ridden Gypsies'."

Segregating Roma: special schools

The educational systems of Central and Eastern Europe are demanding, placing an emphasis on the memorisation of large quantities of facts and the regurgitation of information provided by the teacher, a figure who is often authoritarian. At the core of schooling philosophy is streaming: rather than aim at the best education for all, schools aim quickly to differentiate between weaker students and would-be achievers. A small number are prepared for university education, and by the time children reach the end of the eighth class, most of them have their future clearly delineated. Children who are successes in this system have practically chosen a career by the age of twelve. Romani children - for reasons ranging from early-age language differences to the cultural specificity of both curricula and pedagogical methods to the abuses described above - do not as a rule perform well early on in their schooling lives. They are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, streamed into classes offering substandard education. In the worst (and, in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, most common case), Romani children are transferred early in their educational lives to the so-called "special schools": schools for the mentally handicapped.

Romani children in the Czech Republic are fifteen times more likely to be found in schools for the mentally disabled than non-Roma. Pedagogues interviewed by the ERRC in the Czech Republic and Hungary agree that in most cases, placement of Romani children is made not on the basis of real mental disability, but rather because of racial discrimination. One special school teacher in the Czech Republic told the ERRC: "I have five or six Roma in my class. At least three or four could perfectly well be in elementary school."

In Hungary there are financial incentives for parents with children in special schools. In the current economic climate in Hungary, in which 60-80% of Roma are unemployed, such payments for special schooling are a mechanism for the perpetuation of separate, substandard schooling for Roma. Additionally, once in such schools, children are rarely transferred back: in the Czech Republic there exists a mechanism called "the diagnostic stay", through which children are sent from normal schools to special schools for periods of up to six months to determine whether they have learning disabilities or not. In reality, children are rarely, if ever, transferred back to normal schools following the completion of the "diagnostic stay".

The diagnostic stay is particularly insidious in that it is designed for so-called "borderline cases", children whom educational psychologists - the persons charged with recommending children for special schools - are unsure about. In reality, all Romani children are borderline, since psychologically perfectly normal Romani students are automatically seen as candidates for failure in the Czech educational system. For Roma, there is a continuum between being recommended for testing, being deemed "borderline" and therefore in need of a diagnostic stay in a special school, and completing one's education in such a school. The situation is similar in Hungary, where experts state that Roma are simply much more likely to be recommended by teachers for evaluation by psychologists, than non-Roma.

One educational psychologist at a special school in the city of Novi Sad in northern Yugoslavia explained to the ERRC why, in his opinion, Roma were over-represented among students considered to be mildly mentally handicapped at the school at which he worked, but not among those students considered severely mentally handicapped:

If both parents have not completed primary school or have been to special school themselves, are unemployed or do not speak Serbian properly, differences will appear when such children come to school.

Such children were, according to this educational psychologist, "pseudo-retarded": although not developmentally handicapped, the educational system regarded them as such.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, children who finish primary school in special schools are blocked from continuing their education in anything other than remedial technical schools offering vocational training for future low skilled labour: the so-called "schools for mops and brooms". In Hungary, legislation stopping children who had graduated from special schools from continuing in anything other than a parallel system of substandard secondary schools was changed in 1992. In practice, however, children graduating from special schools in Hungary still do not cross the line from special primary education into normal secondary education. In early 1996, the state Romani television program Patrin located and attempted to make a documentary program on a Romani man who had graduated from primary education in a special school, returned to complete normal secondary school, and gone on to enroll in university as a student of philosophy. The film was scrapped, however, when it emerged that the man concerned was severely autistic and had a talent for retaining a large number of facts for a short period of time: although really mentally challenged, he was, by the standards of the Hungarian educational system, a perfect student. Most children leaving special schools do not continue on to secondary education at all.

Even where segregation does not involve the labelling of the greater part of the ethnic group as "mentally disabled", Roma are often relegated to separate, substandard schools. For example, authorities in several towns in southern Poland took advantage of the existence of a private schooling project aimed at reducing illiteracy among Roma and transferred all local Romani children into the separate classes, literate or not. De facto segregation has existed in Hungary since the 1960s. In 1961, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, who at that time had monopoly on political life, created the category of "socially deprived" (hátrányos helyzetű). From 1962, so-called "c-classes" were established for "socially deprived" children, with the "c" meaning lowest level on a scale of a-c. In 1971, sociologists István Kemény and Gábor Havas reported that these classes were predominantly Gypsy. In 1962 there were 70 such classes, and in 1971 there were 181. According to a report by sociologist Péter Radó, in 1997 there were separate classes made up predominantly of Roma in 132 of 840 normal schools surveyed. There were a total of 3,809 "normal" schools in Hungary at the time of the survey. In 1997, a group of Romani students sued the principal of the Ferenc Pethe Primary School in the town of Tiszavasvári in northeastern Hungary because the school had organised both separate dining facilities and a separate graduation ceremony for Romani students at the school (see Roma Rights, Spring 1998). Court proceedings are still open in the case.

One step beyond: Roma pushed out of schools

Romania, with its Romani population of over two million and its extreme levels - even by regional standards - of anti-Romani sentiment, offers a glimpse of a different kind of educational failure: a large number of Roma are excluded from education entirely. Although Roma in Romania suffer from a variety of segregative practices when they enter the school system, in many instances, Roma may not even enter the education system because they are blocked by laws which demand that persons show residence permits in order to enroll in school.

In the first years following the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989, Romania was the site of approximately thirty anti-Romani pogroms featuring killings and the expulsion of whole communities from villages. These people, along with Roma who have left villages in search of work opportunities in cities, now lead extremely marginal existences on the outskirts of Romania's larger towns and cities, most notably Bucharest. Unable to procure residence permits for what is often no more than cardboard box housing, Roma are unable to enroll their children in schools. The bureaucratic requirements of the school system therefore effectively ensure that the children of persons on the fringes of society are condemned to remain there.

Racism is still the main factor in the non-schooling of Roma in Romania. Non-governmental organisations in that country, working to assist in creating conditions whereby such children could enroll in schools, report that they have met with hostility from nearly all authorities concerned. As a result, some Romani communities in Romania receive no schooling whatsoever. Understandably, many of Romania's educated Roma vigorously deny their ethnic origins; at present, such denial seems, sadly, to be the best strategy for Roma determined to pass successfully through the Romanian education system.

Even where conditions are not as extreme as in Romania, there is often pressure on Romani children to leave school. Hungary features an arrangement whereby children may become "private students" and thereby be exempt from the "normal" school program if, in the wording of the 1993 Hungarian Education Act, "it is justified by the student's abilities, disabilities or his or her special situation." This euphemistic program is, more often than not, used by teachers to get rid of Romani students. One female special school teacher in Hungary told the ERRC:

I had a Romani boy in my class who was very disruptive. First we tried transferring him to another class in which the teacher was a male and stricter than I am. But the student was still very disruptive, in a class where there had already been quite a number of students with behavioural problems. So in the end the child became a private student. Once every month he comes to school. We decided on a day when he sits down with his teachers, and the teachers explain to him what to study, and he takes exams. I know the results of his last exams and all I can say is that becoming a private student has not meant any good results for the student concerned.

According to a study by János Girán and Lajos Kardos of 85 schools in Hungary in which the fraction of Romani students was 10% or more, there were "private students" affiliated with, but not attending, more than 50% of the schools.1 Romani students in those schools had been "privatised".

Finally, Roma throughout eastern and southern Europe are also denied education due to the high costs of schooling supplies and an unwillingness among Roma to send their children to school in the shabby clothes of poverty. In Macedonia, for example, where unemployment was recently registered at over 37%, nearly all Roma with whom the ERRC met were unemployed and many were living solely on social welfare payments of 4,100 denars (approximately 140 German marks) per month for a family of four, paid irregularly. School books cost from 1,619 denars (approximately 55 German marks) for pupils in the first class, to 3,600 denars (approximately 120 German marks) for pupils in the eighth class. A family of four living on social welfare payments in Macedonia would therefore have to pay one month's salary simply for school books.

Poverty affects other aspects of the education of Roma as well: Roma in the Veliki Rit settlement in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, told the ERRC that since the majority of houses in the settlement lack electricity, their children encounter significant difficulties in doing their homework in the evening.

Minority rights: minority schooling for Roma

The rights of minorities in the states of Europe have become an issue of great concern in the years following the end of communism, especially in the light of the war in the former Yugoslavia and tensions emerging between peoples and states in the wake of 1989. The issue of minority education resides at the centre of this debate. International concern over violence between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians in the region of Transylvania in Romania (1990) spurred political demands that the Hungarian university in the city of Cluj be reopened. Concerns over the situation of ethnic Greeks in southern Albania has similarly played out in the provision of arrangements for minority schooling at the level of secondary schools for Greeks in Albania. The legal basis for such arrangements was codified at European level when the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities entered into effect on February 1, 1998.

Minority schooling, especially at the level of primary and secondary education, is of two kinds. In its minimal form, language and culture classes are provided so that members of the minority in question may learn their native language, history and customs. In its maximal form, members of the minority are taught "international" subjects such as maths and biology in the native language.

Few Romani activists have called, as yet, for minority schooling in its maximal form, although the political programmes of parties such as the Rómska Inteligencia of Slovakia, which call for a new Romani consciousness, suggest that soon Romani demands in the sphere of education will increase. At present, states have undertaken minimal programs for Romani language. From 1991, Hungarian universities have offered credit courses in Romani. Four primary schools in Skopje, Macedonia offer Romani language lessons to students. Such programmes need to be well funded and spread beyond the urban centres in which they are presently located.

Roma-specific schooling programmes at present sometimes involve provision of Romani teaching assistants in the classroom. Such programmes exist, at present, in Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Slovakia and Ukraine. They are often run and/or sponsored by non-governmental organisations, and systemisation of successful projects in this field is often called for by Roma activists.

Also, there are a number of private initiatives or non-governmental schools for Roma, such as the Ghandi School in Pécs, Hungary. The Ghandi School is a boarding high school for "Romani elites" with a distinctive philosophy involving removing Roma from localities and training them for Romani leadership. Even here, in a seemingly maximal minority school, training is primarily in Hungarian. A similar school set up and financed entirely by Roma opened its doors on September 1 this year for the central Bohemian town of Kolín in the Czech Republic. Minority schooling models developed elsewhere, such as bilingual schools educating tolerance for both members of the minority and of the majority are rarely discussed and seem not to be part of the current mainstream discourse on Roma education in central and eastern Europe. Non-Roma with whom the ERRC has spoken see the idea of schools where Romani culture and language would receive equal weight as the national culture as anathema, and do not want to consider sending their children to such - at present, purely hypothetical - schools.

Alienation and effective change

Centuries of discrimination render Roma alienated from educational systems in ways similar to their alienation from other areas of society. Discrimination in education reproduces the effects of discrimination across generations. Governments and authorities have not shown a willingness to act firmly to punish abuse in school or to desegregate schools. Most countries of the region remain without effective anti-discrimination legislation, or the will to tackle pervasive discriminatory practices. An end to or at least amelioration of the effects of the streaming system is similarly not envisioned anywhere. Thus, for the time being, Roma are still at ground zero in the struggle to achieve equal access to quality education.


  1. Girán, János and Lajos Kardos, "A cigány gyerekek iskolai sikertelenségének háttere" (What is behind Gypsy children's lack of success at school). Az Iskolakultúra, 10, 1997.


Challenge discrimination, promote equality


Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal


The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Find out how you can join or support our activities