Roma’s struggle for fair education

For generations, millions of Roma and Sinti people – often referred to as gypsies – have been excluded from mainstream schools in Europe. But the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that this was discrimination, against the continent’s largest ethnic minority.

The BBC’s Ray Furlong examines what impact the landmark judgement has had.

There is no sense of victory in Berta Cervenakova’s small flat.

The four children, aged 13 – 18, still share the same bedroom they did eight years ago, when she first began her ultimately successful law suit against the Czech state.

The dilapidated tenement block in the northern Czech city of Ostrava is now a condemned building.

Berta Cervenakova
It doesn’t make up for the years she’s lost – the years when you learn to read, write, and count
Berta Cervenakova

Last year the European Court acknowledged that Berta’s daughter, Nikola, now 18, had suffered discrimination by being sent to a special school for mentally disabled children, even though there was nothing wrong with her.

“They took her in for a psychological test. I was told to wait outside.”

“Then they gave me something to sign, and I signed. It said she was mentally retarded – but I had no idea what that meant,” she recalls.

She has received 4,000 Euros compensation. “But that doesn’t make up for the years she’s lost – the years when you learn to read, write, and count. I can’t even send her shopping. All she can do now is manual work.”

But the verdict was seen by Roma groups as an important tool to fight a practice that is found across Europe – lawsuits have followed in Greece and Croatia, while other countries have taken steps to desegregate classes.


Despite this, real change is slow to filter through. The Czechs abolished special schools in 2006 as criticism surrounding the court case grew.

Critics say the only change was on the nameplate by the door – and a visit to one former special school in Ostrava seemed to confirm this.

I can’t say: tomorrow you have to change the philosophy you’ve been teaching with for 20 years
Ondrej Liska, Czech Education Minister

“In the first grade in a normal school, the kids can count to 20. Here, they can only count to five – although we want to teach them numbers up to 10,” says headmaster Jindrich Otzipka at the Ibsen school.

He takes me on a tour. In the eighth grade, a classroom for 14-year-olds, a brightly-coloured alphabet is on the wall.

“Normally the children would learn this at fourth grade. But these kids keep forgetting things, so you have to keep repeating them,” he says.

“I blame the parents. They don’t read to their kids. The Roma have no appreciation that you have to apply yourself to get on. They just live for the day.”

Views like this are commonplace in the Czech Republic, and were also voiced to me by other teachers. The Czech Education Minister, Ondrej Liska, says changing attitudes is his greatest challenge.

“We can’t say to those who teach like this: you have to go. That would lead to a collapse of the school system.”

“I want to see in two years that teachers in schools with a high percentage of Roma children have appropriate training and I want to see a major shift in these schools – but I can’t say: tomorrow you have to change the philosophy you’ve been teaching with for 20 years.”


Radek Bhanga
They don’t send their kids to school because they don’t want them to be white
Radek Bhanga, Roma rapper

But members of the Roma community tell me Roma parents also need to take more responsibility for how their children get on at school.

“I wasn’t at a special school because my parents were strict with me,” says Radek Bhanga, a Roma rapper who draws large, mixed-race audiences – mixing hip-hop with traditional gypsy sounds.

He has become notorious for challenging what he has called the ‘victim mentality’ of Czech Roma.

“Czech people are racist and xenophobic. But many Gypsies are worse. They don’t send their kids to school because they don’t want them to be white. It’s a big mistake. We can talk about racism. But we live in a democratic country and everyone can make choices.”


After talking to Radek, I head for Germany – where there have been similar problems getting Sinti children into mainstream schools. I want to see what effect 30 years of strident efforts at integration have had.

My visit to the special school in Straubing, Bavaria, is more upbeat than my visit to the school in Ostrava. The lessons I see seem much more demanding. But still, the Sinti are massively over-represented.

“The Sinti families see this school as their school,” says headmaster Wolfgang Steinbach.

“They send us their children, and we try to send them back to a normal school. But they like to have their kids in schools where the other Sinti are.”

Sinti teaching assistants Manuela and Nadia

Sinti teaching assistants like Manuela and Nadia support children entering mainstream education

They do special classes with Sinti teaching assistants to prepare the children to re-enter mainstream schooling.

In one class, I meet Leo – who will be transferring up to a normal school next year.

Leo is a cheeky, funny character, with podgy cheeks and jet-black hair.

He says the work in this school frustrates him and that new Sinti assistants at the new school will make him feel at home. But it took a year to persuade his parents to have him transferred.

The experience here is a warning to anyone expecting quick change in the Czech Republic after the Strasbourg ruling.

But Jim Goldston, the lawyer who represented Berta Cervenakova on behalf of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) says the judgement is still a crucial moment.

“The parents of many of the children in special or sub-standard schools are themselves the products of a discriminatory educational environment. That will affect their children’s chances.”

“So there are problems within many affected communities, but the principal burden rests on government to make clear that discrimination must end.”

~ by Ashwin on September 14, 2008.

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