Hungary: Government minister blames ‘Gypsy children’ for national decline in reading competence

04 August 2023

By Bernard Rorke

In Hungary, an alliance of Romani civil organisations and the Teachers’ Union (PSZ) reacted furiously to remarks by a government minister blaming Romani children for the country’s worst-ever results in reading comprehension competence. Gergely Gulyás, the minister in charge of the Prime Minister's Office stated that “where the number of Gypsy children is very high, these problems appear much more strongly”, and that the results of reading comprehension competence are worse because of ‘integration difficulties’.

Fidesz and its history of ‘integration difficulties’

Since 2010, it is the ruling Fidesz party that has ‘integration difficulties’. Despite the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary in January 2013, and the Court’s insistence that the state has a substantive positive obligation to “undo a history of racial segregation”, the government of Hungary has failed to properly address the issue of misdiagnosis and placement of highly disproportionate numbers of Romani children in special schools. In May 2016, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over its failure to desegregate its education system. 

In May 2019, the Hungarian Supreme Court’s upheld an earlier ruling that the Hungarian state should pay 80 million HUF in compensation to Romani children for the school segregation they suffered in the village of Gyöngyöspata. The official reaction was to scapegoat the victims rather than address systemic racism.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in a succession of provocative broadcasts to the nation through state-controlled media, declared that the court’s decision “violated the people’s sense of justice”, stigmatised the local Roma as workshy, their children as violent, unruly and un-educatable, and asserted that what went on in Gyöngyöspata was not segregation but ‘catching up’. Orbán notoriously declared that, “it’s unacceptable for a majority to feel ill at ease in their own towns, or country, and it won’t happen while I am premier. This is a country of natives, after all, this is our country.” 

On 30 March 2023, the European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgment against Hungary for the racial segregation of Romani children in the Jókai Mór Primary School in Piliscsaba. The court ordered that the state must desegregate the school and pay the plaintiff €7000 in damages.

Romani children are the victims of system failures

The signatories to a joint statement issued by 10 Romani and education civil organisations in response to the comments by Minister Gulyás stated that while all of the problems of Hungarian public education are manifest in the ‘educational failure of Roma students’, this is first and foremost a failure of the system, not the children. The responsibility lies with the government: 

"Roma students mostly live in small settlements where they do not have access to quality education in the first place. Most of the schools in these settlements have been struggling with a shortage of specialist teachers for decades, which fall far short of the expected level in terms of infrastructure and equipment. Whose responsibility is this? Roma children are also the main victims of the structural problem that the education system is unable to compensate for the disadvantages resulting from poverty, and research clearly shows that in Hungary, the school even increases social differences in a way that is almost unique in the world. After twelve years of government, who can be blamed for this?” 

The inequities of the system are compounded by racial prejudice, and children are faced with exclusionary intent from the very first day of kindergarten. According to the statement:

"As a result of this, they end up in separate classes and schools, often at the cost of being classified as disabled even though they have normal intellectual abilities. Meanwhile, church and foundation schools are multiplying like mushrooms, where the children of better-off parents can ‘flee’.” 

Teachers’ Union blames the government for so-called ‘integration difficulties’

In its response, the PSZ stated that the government is solely responsible for the ‘integration difficulties’. The union accused the ruling Fidesz regime of having done almost nothing over the past 12 years to create more equal opportunities or provide additional investment to support children from disadvantaged settlements to ‘catch up’ in a system where schools actually aggravate social differences.  

Inequality in the Hungarian educational system has become more pronounced over the past 12 years. Hungarian PISA test results expose the extent to which inequality in the performance of Hungarian pupils is more profoundly determined by their family background and socio-economic status than in other OECD countries. The scores also reveal that the poorly performing students are highly concentrated in some peripheral schools; and that the most socio-economically advantaged students are four years ahead in their scholarly abilities.

Education crisis

The failures of the education system are so profound that the Minister’s attempt to foist the blame on Romani kids’ underperformance is as risible as it is callous. Despite the haemorrhage of teachers leaving the profession, Gulyás had the front to deny there was any shortage in the classrooms. Experts have warned of the serious consequences of the rapidly shrinking pedagogic population, and currently the education system is short 16,000 teachers. Hungarian teachers are also the lowest paid of any EU member in the OECD. 

After almost two years of street protests and civil disobedience by teachers, pupils and parents demanding change, the response of the regime was to crack down on dissent, sacking teachers, teargassing teenagers, and on 4 July 2023 passing the so-called Status Law – dubbed by some as the Vengeance Law – which revokes teachers’ status as public employees, increases allowable weekly working hours and allows for educators to be transferred to other schools that are experiencing teacher shortages. This is likely to lead to further rounds of resignations of teachers in a system brought to its knees by years of government underinvestment, mismanagement, and of late, policy moves guided by pure malice, and completely unmoored from any rational concept of the public good.

Small wonder there is an unprecedented national decline in reading competence among pupils; small wonder inequality gaps are widening; and no surprise a system built on racial and social segregation is leaving Romani children behind. The minister’s attempt to pass the blame for the failures of the system on the ‘integration difficulties’ of the most vulnerable and marginalised kids, is wilfully cruel, plainly stupid, and sadly par for the course, in a country the European Parliament no longer recognises as a full democracy, but rather a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.”


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