New study sheds light on discrimination in the German education system

The new RomnoKher study shows that poorer educational outcomes for Sinti and Roma in Germany. [EPA-EFE | Sascha Steinbach]

Sinti and Roma continue to face inequality in the German education system, a new study shows. Politicians and associations are now calling for support measures to be scrutinised more closely. EURACTIV Germany reports.

A decade after the first survey into the education experience of Germany’s Sinti and Roma populations, the association RomnoKher released new data in a report presented on Wednesday (24 February).

Based on 614 interviews with Sinti and Roma people across Germany, it shows that these groups are still at a disadvantage in the country’s education system, although some progress was made compared to the 2011 study.

The main area of progress relates to primary school attendance: school was universally attended among the younger respondents to the 2021 survey, compared with 13% who did not attend school in 2011.

Still, “a large proportion of Roma and Sinti leave the education system empty-handed,” said Karin Cudak from the European University in Flensburg, one of the study’s authors.

According to the survey, a third of respondents left secondary school without receiving a leaving certificate, and another 30% have a degree from a Hauptschule, the lowest track in the German education system. This latter group “in fact, has very little chance of completing a qualified vocational training program,” the sociologist Albert Scherr said at the presentation of the study’s results. 

For the younger generation (respondents from 18-25), there are some positive trends, with only 15% leaving without a degree and 17% attaining an Abitur, the leaving certificate necessary to go to university.

However, there is still a wide discrepancy between Sinti and Roma students compared to their German peers. The national average for those leaving school without a degree in this age group is 7%, and 40% completed an Abitur, although this latter statistic varies significantly from one state to another. 

MEP Romeo Franz (Greens/EFA), the first German Sinto elected to the European Parliament, described the results as “appalling.” The statistics are “a visualisation of how people still suffer so many years after the Holocaust,” he told EURACTIV, referring to the political legacy of discrimination inherited from the Nazi era.

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Discrimination in school

In addition to inequitable outcomes, Sinti and Roma students frequently face discrimination in school. A majority across all age groups (an average of 62%) said they were bullied for their ethnic background, and over 50% said they experienced violence. 

A quarter of respondents even reported that they were discriminated against by teachers and other school staff. 

Scherr noted that this does not just include direct antiziganist insults, but also more indirect forms of discrimination. “We know very clearly from the relevant research that teachers’ expectations have very strong effects on the actual achievement of schoolchildren. That is, there is no need to make directly insulting remarks as a teacher to produce discriminatory effects,” he explained.

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Explicit, but not exclusive measures

The study’s findings show the necessity of “explicit, but not exclusive” measures targeting Sinti and Roma communities, argues Daniel Strauß, the lead author of the study.

This is language from the EU’s own strategies. Starting in 2011, the European Commission began advocating for measures to specifically address the unique needs of these communities. 

The latest EU Roma strategic framework, published in October 2020, calls for “explicit but not exclusive targeting, ensuring that mainstream services are inclusive and providing additional targeted support to promote effective equal access for Roma to rights and services.”

Both in 2011 and now, the German government has refused to implement these measures, saying it goes against the principle of equal treatment. As recently as January 2021, the government held to this line of argument.

“In the states, all measures of individual learning support are available to the children of all Sinti and Roma, which are also available to all other pupils and especially children and young people,” the government said in response to an inquiry from the liberal FDP party.  

Franz disagrees: “Politicians who say that this violates equal treatment should actually think about how equal treatment has been violated over the last 60, 70 years with exclusion and discrimination. I cannot understand this argument,” he told EURACTIV. 

Helge Lindh, Member of the Bundestag and rapporteur for the SPD parliamentary group on antiziganism, sees discrimination as the core problem. “Sinti and Roma people experience a very special form of discrimination at all levels of society and these practices must be relentlessly eliminated. In this regard, I support the so-called ‘explicit but not exclusive targeting’,” he told EURACTIV. This method, he added, does not consist of disparate individual measures, but of a systematic plan to combat antiziganism.

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The study leader comes to a similar assessment. “The general support measures that German policymakers keep referring to have proven insufficient here after all,” Strauß said at the presentation of the study’s findings on Wednesday (24 February). 

In particular, the report found that Sinti and Roma people who receive support from organisations within the community has a large impact on their educational outcomes. 82% of those who received support graduated with a degree compared to 55% for those who did not receive any help. 

Christoph Leucht, project manager at the Hildegard Lagrenne Foundation, added that this also ignores key points such as discrimination within these progammes. Furthermore, he argued the government would rather play on antiziganist stereotypes and put blame on the Sinti and Roma communities for not using them, instead of reexamining what is not working in the initiatives.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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