Commentary: Schools - tools for change or the status quo?
A general comparison of the situation of the Romani minorities in five new EU Member States is now underway in which education is of central importance, viewed as the motor of inter-generational change and a tool for turning segregation into integration. The comparison will produce both an analysis of the state of affairs and of developments, as well as an analysis of barriers to progress, at a minimum because the accent on desegregation policy which has been the backbone of EU documents and the declaratory commitments made by the governments of these five new EU Member States (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) has not produced the desired results, nor has it reversed any of the current adverse developments in this area.
Given the different situations, positions and sizes of Romani communities in these countries, we probably cannot seek to develop a uniform EU integration policy - the processes will have to be more "national". Nevertheless, the common denominator of the situation in all five of these countries has been their tendency to intensify segregation and social exclusion while simultaneously undergoing an expansion of inter-ethnic clashes, as well as strong out-migrations, in particular from Romani communities in the Balkans to Western Europe.
As far as education is concerned, the developmental tendencies in all five countries are similar, albeit of very different intensities:
1. Large numbers of children who end their primary educations early, with the concomitant results of decreasing their prospects for attaining qualifications or secondary education, as well as the newly emerging problem of a high proportion of children whose literacy is compromised, specifically in the areas of reading, writing and arithmetic, to say nothing of social or IT literacy.
2. A growing or intensifying tendency toward segregated or ethnically homogenous schools, through the objective pressure created by segregated housing and localities, as well as the segregationist pressure of the majority population when enrolling children into primary schools, and last but not least, the considerable subjective interest of Romani parents to make their children's time in primary school easier and simpler by enrolling them into their "own", known environments where Romani pupils predominate.
3. Promoting the enrollment of Romani boys and girls into technical high schools, which means that across the board, many fewer Romani pupils receive a full high school education than their non-Romani peers. Such Romani pupils are becoming more and more exceptions to the rule and are also becoming less and less successful. The transition from primary to secondary school is, in all of these countries, the greatest obstacle to increasing the proportion of Romani high school students. This is due to the objectively more demanding nature of secondary education and the lack of support provided to these students by the schools, and as a result, the actual interest on the part of Romani pupils declines, as does the necessary support for these children in Romani families. While research shows that Romani parents predominantly take a positive stance toward secondary education, reality is different.
4. With the exception of Hungary, where the last year of preschool is obligatory and paid for by the state, the number of Romani children who attend primary school after nursery and preschool preparations continues to be lower across the board than their non-Romani peers. Naturally, this state of affairs reduces the chances of Romani pupils being able to keep up with their non-Roman peers in terms of performance from the very beginning.
5. A significant difference from the conceptual approach to education and educational practice in Western European countries is the continued existence and support for "special schools" in the formerly communist countries, as well as the tendency to classify both social disadvantage and the special educational needs of a child as a reason to remove that child from instruction in the primary school curriculum. Together with these segregationist tendencies, the continued existence of "special schools" in the new Member States also sets them apart from the point of view of educational and school practices and disadvantaged pupils' opportunities for education. Instead of pressure to include such students and converge their educational careers with those of the majority society, their educational careers diverge significantly from them. Once again, here we see not only the incompetence of mainstream education systems to integrate such pupils instead of expelling them, but also the interest and willingness of Romani families to settle for these "special school" careers as acceptable, easier, and known quantities.
When reflecting on these conclusions regarding the common dominant adverse trends in the development of Romani pupils in all five new Member States, the impression cannot be avoided that there is a persistent, strong tendency of these school systems toward the creation of "Romani" classes or schools and toward separating, or rather, expelling socially disadvantaged pupils into "special schools" outside of the mainstream. Mainstream schools remain incapable of augmenting or overcoming disadvantage generated by social origin through their own motivational activities and performance. This results in pupils with incomplete educations or without qualifications, a high proportion of children with compromised literacy, and persistently low numbers of children achieving secondary or tertiary educations despite the enormous growth in the number of high school and university places available after the fall of communism. The conclusion, therefore, is evidently that in all of the post-communist countries, with respect to Romani pupils, education has not become the motor of inter-generational change, and the school systems have not become tools for motivating Romani pupils to become upwardly socially mobile, but on the contrary, these systems have become tools for the inter-generational transmission of disadvantage. This has occurred despite legislative, judicial and political pressures to desegregate and include Romani pupils.
It must once again be emphasized that these tendencies are pushing ahead at very different intensities and under different conditions. There is a broad spectrum ranging from the situation in Hungary, where inclusive school policies are the most developed, to the situation in Romania and Bulgaria, where the educational slump affects a far greater proportion of the Romani population. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of the common, persistent existence of a kind of conservative "post-socialist" school system that is unable to face up to the heterogeneity of its pupils or to augment their ethnic and social differences, their disadvantage and inequality; instead, these systems produce a high proportion of pupils who are deficient in terms of culture, education, qualifications and social skills, when they do not expel these pupils from mainstream education altogether.
Because reliable data and the systematic monitoring of these developments continues to be a problem in all five of these countries, the hypothesis cannot be avoided that this trend may deteriorate further. It is obviously also universally valid that, just as the position of Romani communities has objectively worsened and a significant portion of them have "fallen" into segregated and socially excluded communities, so has there been a further deterioration in the child-rearing and motivating performance of these families with respect to their children's education.
An enormous puzzle is thus developing here for educational policy. Where to begin? With Romani families, mothers in particular, to renew their interest in actively, systematically educating their children? With preschool attendance and motivating children to be upwardly mobile? With modernizing school systems to consciously augment, overcome, and in a certain sense to "replace" or negate the influences of family environments that do not stimulate children through their own motivational activities? With the ability to work differentially with all children across the entire range of their aspirations for upward mobility, their interests, and their performances? What about the whole "Czech question"? In my opinion the question is whether developments in the Czech Republic will tend toward taking on the educational culture and habits of Western European school systems so we can become a kind of locomotive, showing improved performances of integrated Romani pupils as compared to the other post-communist countries, or whether we will continue to decline to the level of Balkan standards and to intensify segregated, "special" and "half-literate" Romani schooling. Maybe I am mistaken, but I do not see another alternative.
In conclusion, I must emphasize that any kind of comparative, modernizing evaluations and decisions about whether our performance is improving or failing are only thinkable when everything connected with children's education and school performance is measured comparatively by experts in a systematic fashion, and that includes pupils' ethnic origins. We will only manage to overcome the existing, intensifying gulf between the educational careers and opportunities of non-Romani and Romani pupils by continually monitoring these inequalities. Without reliable information, modernizing reform policy cannot be designed. This must be realized both by the creators of the school environments and systems, and by actors in the Romani environment. I believe that at least in this particular area, where we are undoubtedly demonstrating, in comparison to other countries, that we are better-equipped and better-performing, we may finally have put resistance to collecting ethnically disaggregated data behind us.
Dr. Ivan Gabal is a sociologist working in his own firm, GAC, which seeks policies for and solutions to complex societal problems. GAC produced the first map of excluded localities and the first comparison of the educational careers of non-Romani and Romani pupils in the Czech Republic. Dr Gabal lives and works in Prague and is married to Jana Hybášková, who is currently the European Union Ambassador to Iraq. Dr Gabal ran for the Czech Senate this year as an independent candidate on the ticket of the Green Party and Christian Democratic Party in Prague.
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