Schools open to all? Slovakia uses EU funds to include Roma children

Roma children at school in the village of Plavecký Štvrtok [Michal Svítok]

This article is part of our special report EU in my region.

Systemic segregation of Roma children in Slovakia’s pre-schools and primary education has been around – and barely addressed – for many years. The lack of efforts on their inclusion has been highlighted by both human rights NGOs and the European Commission.

But the Slovak education ministry has kicked off a new €30 million project, with the help of European funds, to change things and give hope to all disadvantaged children.

Struggling with segregation

An estimated 400,000 Roma live in Slovakia, around 8% of the country’s population. A large part of them live in extremely poor conditions in so-called marginalised Roma communities, with very limited access to the standard education system.

A report carried out by Amnesty International last year concluded that Slovakia continues to fail to integrate pupils from marginalised communities, in particular the Roma, into the mainstream education process.

The report stated that “the discrimination and segregation of Roma in primary education remains widespread and the Slovak authorities are fundamentally failing to address them”.

The European Commission came to a similar conclusion. In 2015, the EU executive initiated infringement proceedings against Slovakia for breaching the prohibition of discrimination in education set out in the EU Race Equality Directive.

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The biggest obstacle preventing Romani children from quality education, according to Kamila Gunisova, the head of Amnesty’s local office, is the inaction of competent national authorities.

“Other factors such as insensitive diagnosis, attitudes of non-Roma parents and teaching staff, school attendance, could be easily resolved, if there had been any political will,” Gunisova told EURACTIV.

Beyond formal schooling

In 2016, the education ministry launched a project named “Schools Open to All” (SOA), using money from European funds, which should help solve the exclusion of Romani children from education opportunities.

For a period of four years, nearly 30€ million will be dedicated to the project. The vast majority – 85% – of the financing comes from the European funds, particularly the European social fund and the European Regional Development Fund.

An essential part of the national programme focuses on implementing measures for pre-school programmes, where all the troubles with segregation arise.

According to Vladimír Horváth from the Slovak government’s Office for the Roma communities, only 30% of Romani children in Slovakia are enrolled in kindergartens, in stark contrast to 90% of non-Roma children.

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The main objective of the SOA project is to ensure that the largest possible number of Romani children have access to compulsory pre-school education. To help achieve this, the programme aims to create more than 500 new teaching assistant positions and professional staff.

In addition, the programme is primarily based on non-formal learning methods which should improve readiness for school among children from the socially disadvantaged environment. What often happens in practice is that Roma children are erroneously placed in special schools and classes for children with “mild mental disabilities”.

As a result, they receive lower-quality education and, consequently, it is even more difficult to break the vicious circle of poverty and marginalisation.

To date, a total of 50 kindergartens and 130 primary schools have been involved in the national project. Furthermore, 416 kids and 426 members of their families have participated in non-formal learning.

“Children go about their activities in an engaging and enjoyable way that develops their personality: they adopt better hygiene behaviour or learn to use the Slovak language properly,” said Edita Kovářová, a member of COA office responsible for non-formal education.

Lack of qualified teachers

An essential part of non-formal learning is to ensure the involvement of parents in the education process. This is particularly important for families from marginalised Roma communities, as these are often not concerned about how their children perform at school. But if they do, it may have an impact on the entire community.

“In almost all locations, this activity has been welcomed with great enthusiasm from the children’s parents. They adopted a new educational approach in order to motivate their entire community to look for appropriate training and education from a very early age,” Edita Kovářová added.

Schools that have joined the national programme also confirm that non-formal educational activities and new teaching assistants are very helpful.

“The greatest benefit of SOA is the fact that we could hire three teaching assistants, one social pedagogue and one educational psychologist who enhance and facilitate our work. An additional benefit is the all-day educational system,” Zuzana Lacková, the headmaster of the school in the village of Borša, told EURACTIV.

However, it is not an easy task to find enough qualified personnel in Slovakia.

“There is a shortage of special teachers and educational psychologists in the labour market. This is why some schools can count solely on social workers,” explained Peter Dolíhal, the SOA’s project manager.

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