Education International
Education International

Roma education: slow steps to inclusion

published 19 January 2009 updated 19 January 2009

We [teachers] can begin. I hope we are clever enough to understand that somebody has to take the first step for nothing. And the second step for nothing. And maybe after 10 steps I can expect something from gypsy kids, and gypsy families. Because I like to hope that we teachers are clever! If we don’t do this, we are not clever.

– Primary teacher in Timisoara, Romania

Reducing discrimination and preventing exclusion of Roma people has been on the agenda of many European countries in recent years. Despite numerous programmes on integration of Roma, the European Union lacks the ability to influence national governments in crucial areas: the labour market, social institutions, health structures and education, where discrimination and structural exclusion continue to keep Roma in poverty. The European Roma Summit, which took place in Brussels in September, raised considerable criticism of certain member states. Despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling last year that segregation of Roma students into “special” schools for children with learning disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination, governments and school systems have been slow to undo practices of segregation of Roma children. Patterns of discrimination are still reflected in the mainstream school systems in Central and Eastern Europe, and school attendance of Roma children remains low. Segregation does not only take place at the school level. While Roma children often do attend all-Roma schools or are enrolled in special schools, segregation also exists in regular schools: between classes, and also within them. Roma children may be placed at the back of classrooms and ignored by their teachers, who may feel at a loss as to how to go about teaching Roma students. Teachers may not be aware of the needs of the children in their class because they have not been trained in intercultural perspectives. Due to a lack of representation in school textbooks or class discussions, many Roma children are unable to find themselves and their realities reflected in the school experience. Discrimination in education, or any other social sphere, cannot be solved by ‘quick fix’ programmes. Arguably any effort is better than none, but one short-term project or crash course after another is not likely to meet with enthusiasm from teachers or students. If real change is to be achieved, it must be through structural transformation of entire education systems to accommodate diversity. Teacher unions, teacher education programmes, the curriculum, local government and education ministries, and, of course, Roma communities themselves must all be involved. Obviously teachers have a key role to play as implementers of inclusive education practices and encouragers of reciprocal relationships of tolerance and respect between children in the classroom and the community. It is important that their voices be heard, and that they be given the support and intercultural training they need to meet the challenge of diversity in their classrooms. Introducing Roma school mediators can help to encourage Roma parents to send their children to school, and also help keep teachers up to date about the home situations of Roma students. However, teachers cannot end discrimination and disadvantage alone. Roma continue to face multifaceted deprivation and inequality in terms of unemployment, poor housing, lack of access to social services and minimal political influence. These problems can only be confronted through joint policies that address closely interlinked spheres: social, political, economic and cultural. By Mireille de Koning. Mireille is EI Professional Assistant for Research.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.