Exclusion and discrimination in education: the case of Roma in the European Union

FRA Director Morten Kjaerum delivered this speech on 8 April 2013 at a conference on Roma issues at Harvard University to mark International Roma Day.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me start with a quote: "When we see that a Romani family is incapable of providing the kind of education, the kind of quality upbringing, that guarantees their child a future, then someone else has to do it." This was a recent statement made by the Slovak Prime Minister proposing what he termed "extreme measures" for improving the education of Roma children, namely that they be mandatorily educated at boarding schools. The Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for the Roma Community disagreed, and together with the Slovak Interior Ministry he is trying to reform education policies based on intensive work with Roma children starting at the age of three at nursery schools.

A few days ago, the Hungarian Minister of Human Resources recommended the immediate dismissal of a history teacher who spoke publicly in favour of corporal punishment for Roma children – and the minister did this although his decision is controversial in a political environment heavily influenced by anti-Roma rhetoric.

These are just two of the many examples that show the political upheavals generated by the intensified efforts to find ways of improving Roma inclusion, particularly in education, as EU governments gradually start implementing their national Roma inclusion strategies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The exclusion of many Roma children from quality education is a key element in the vicious circle of poverty and marginalisation that affects Roma across the EU today. This can result from discriminatory practices, but also from parental choices.

Exclusion from education takes different forms: from blunt refusal to enrol Roma children under pressure from non-Roma parents to placement in ‘special schools’ or ethnically segregated classes.

Ethnic segregation is the result of a variety of factors, ranging from residential issues to anti-Roma prejudice. Residential segregation leads to schools with a high concentration of Roma children, if there are no provisions to transport these children to other schools. Mechanisms within the educational system can also push towards ethnic segregation. For example, in countries where parents are given a choice of public school for their children they can avoid enrolling them in schools with a high share of Roma pupils. This behaviour is referred to as ‘white flight’.

On the other hand, there is some research evidence suggesting that a number of Roma parents may also prefer to place their children in predominantly Roma schools – because of fear that they might be discriminated against in mixed schools, or because the school is “less demanding”. Whatever the reasons, however, from a human rights perspective clearly any ethnic segregation is unacceptable: in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights concluded in a landmark judgment that placing Roma children in special schools for pupils with ‘mild mental disabilities’ on the basis of their ethnic origin violated the European Human Rights Convention.

Last year, the Fundamental Rights Agency published the results of the largest survey to date on Roma, which was conducted in close collaboration with UNDP and the World Bank. More than 80,000 Roma and their non-Roma neighbours were surveyed in those 11 EU countries with the largest concentration of Roma, based on randomly selected household samples. The results are telling:

  • on average, around 20% of Roma aged 16 and above could not read and write, in contrast to less than 1,5% of their non-Roma neighbours;
  • only one out of two Roma children attended pre-school or kindergarten, compared to around three out of four of their non-Roma neighbours;
  • in some countries up to 35% of Roma children aged 7-15 were not attending compulsory school;
  • and only about 15% of young Roma had completed any form of upper-secondary general or vocational education, compared to around 64% of their non-Roma neighbours;

This is the type of hard statistical evidence that can provide vital assistance to governments in designing evidence-based policies. The data confirms that much still needs to be done to ensure that Roma are equally treated.

Ladies and gentlemen,

After the accession of 10 central and eastern European countries to the EU, a number of Roma from the south-east migrated to countries such as France, Italy, the UK and Finland in search of better life chances. However, their inability to find employment, mainly due to lack of education, and their poor living conditions led to reactions from some member states.

The best known case of this was in the summer of 2010, when the European Commission raised the issue of expulsions of Romanian Roma with the French government. The widespread publicity and mounting political pressure for a European solution to the persisting marginalisation and social exclusion of Roma led the European Commission in April 2011 to present an ‘EU Framework for national Roma integration strategies up to 2020’. In fact, the EU went through a paradigm shift here, as this Framework links the issue of ‘Roma’ marginalisation and exclusion not only to the EU’s 2020 ‘growth strategy’, but situates it also firmly within a fundamental rights perspective.

In this context, the EU asked Member States to take action in the areas of employment, education, housing and health by putting in place concrete strategies that identify specific national, regional and local action plans with dedicated funding. The Fundamental Rights Agency was tasked with assisting these efforts by continuing to collect data systematically, by helping governments to establish effective monitoring mechanisms to measure progress made and by sharing promising practices.

The EU Framework on Roma Inclusion sets clear benchmarks to be reached in education as a key that can potentially unlock the vicious circle of social exclusion and marginalisation. I quote:

  • “Member States should, as a minimum, ensure primary school completion.
  • They should also widen access to quality early childhood education and care and reduce the number of early school leavers from secondary education pursuant to the Europe 2020 strategy.
  • Roma youngsters should be strongly encouraged to participate also in secondary and tertiary education.”

These are ambitious targets, not only in the context of the on-going economic crisis, but also because Roma inclusion efforts have to tackle long standing prejudice and emotionally charged tensions between Roma and non-Roma.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would now like to highlight three key areas, where our work shows how we can move forward:

Firstly – early childhood education and care must be improved.

Research shows that children who do not participate in pre-school education are disadvantaged from the beginning of their school career. Governments and local authorities should therefore make a systematic effort to engage with and convince Roma parents of the importance of early childhood education, providing them with the necessary practical support to allow their children to attend.

Secondly,– compulsory schooling in non-segregated settings is needed.

Systematic efforts should be made with local and school authorities and parents, both Roma and non-Roma, to ensure that all Roma children participate on an equal footing in compulsory education. Research from the Agency shows where Roma and non-Roma are actively engaged in finding solutions to the challenges, better results are obtained.

And then – gaining marketable skills is key.

In some EU countries, up to a quarter of the workforce entering the labour market will be Roma in a few years from now. Can we afford to ignore their potential contribution? No! It is therefore essential that educational authorities develop well-funded action plans to ensure that a rising proportion of Roma youngsters benefit from post-compulsory education and training. This must be linked to appropriate employment schemes.

In a time of economic crisis, we cannot afford NOT to promote equal treatment and social inclusion. Persisting discrimination and marginalisation can result in losing the skill and talent that could help bring us out of this crisis.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The problems faced by Roma are complex, and call for an integrated approach, in order to address low educational attainment, labour market barriers, segregation in education and in housing, and poor health outcomes simultaneously. Implementing such change is the responsibility of national, regional and, especially, local governments; but the EU also has an important role to play – improving legislation against discrimination, coordinating policy, setting common integration goals, and providing funding.

I would like to end on a positive note: today we have evidence of progress on Roma inclusion: To give just one example, from the area of education, our survey shows that the younger Roma are now far more likely to go to school than in the past. For example, in Spain only 1% of those aged 16-24 never attended school – compared with 43% for those older than 45 years.

So: We now have an EU Framework and national strategies in place; local action plans are being designed and implemented. But:  

We will need sustained political will, efficient coordinated efforts, and effective monitoring and evaluation tools if we want to make a tangible difference to Roma people’s lives.

Thank you very much.