EU faces challenge of closing Roma education divide

High drop–out rates, absenteeism and segregation have long been the hallmark of education access for Roma children in Europe. [EPA/KOBI GIDEON]

This article is part of our special report Discrimination in Europe’s schools.

Increasing the number of Roma children in early childhood education by at least 50%, is at the heart of a 10-year plan on Roma equality, inclusion and participation across the EU, announced by the European Commission in March.

The EU executive also set a target of cutting the proportion of Roma children who attend segregated primary schools by at least half in member states with a significant Roma population by the end of this decade, as part of a recommendation on Roma equality, inclusion and participation which was endorsed by member states.

“It is now up to member states to demonstrate a real commitment to tackling antigypsyism – as specific form of racism against Roma people – with a focus on non-discrimination, civil society participation and fighting poverty and social exclusion of Roma,” said Gabriela Hrabanova, Director of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network (ERGO Network).

High drop–out rates, absenteeism and segregation have long been the hallmark of education access for Roma children in Europe.

Absenteeism and early-school-leaving rates among Romani pupils are significantly higher than for other ethnic groups, despite the fact that early school-leaving among Roma children have fallen by 19%.

Despite EU laws against discrimination, the segregation of Roma children in special schools and classes continues in a number of countries across the bloc.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has expressed concerns about the segregation of Roma in education in its most recent reports on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

Under the EU’s Racial Equality Directive, children from all racial or ethnic backgrounds must have equal access to education. In reality, however, exclusion and discrimination against Roma children starts at a young age.

Only 1 in 2 Romani children attend pre-school or kindergarten, and 50% of Romani people between the ages of 6 and 24 are not in education.

According to the Roma Integration Strategies report 2019, 68% of Roma children left school early, and only 18% of Roma children go on to higher education.

Only 21% of Romani women and 25% of Romani men aged 16–24 have completed secondary education or higher.

That, in turn, drives a low rate of only 43% of Roma being in a form of paid employment.

In a resolution drafted in September 2020 by Romeo Franz, a Green MEP of Romani origin, the European Parliament called on the EU executive to table legislation on the Equality, Inclusion, Participation of Romani people and Combating Antigypsyism.

Franz contends that the EU’s previous strategies on increasing Roma integration have under-delivered because the responsibility for implementing them lies solely in the hands of national governments.

Pandemic divide

Meanwhile, the measures to continue education provision amid the COVID-19 pandemic has opened an already yawning divide in education access for Roma children.

Lessons shifting from the classroom to online has excluded many Roma children from school due to lack of internet and or computer access, the loss of social aid which was conditional on the participation of children in home schooling in some countries has exacerbated the situation, ECRI notes.

“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and deepened underlying structural inequalities in almost all policy areas, including access to education, employment, housing and healthcare,” said Maria Daniella Marouda, chair of the Council of Europe’s anti-racism commission.

Franz has called for new funding of digital devices in order to avoid a growing digital divide between children as part of the EU’s Digital Education Action Plan.

“They Roma children also face educational consequences, as they rarely have access to distant or remote learning or home schooling at all,” said Franz, adding that “this ultimately leads to educational gaps or total education breakdown in times of a pandemic like COVID-19.”

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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