ANTI-RACISM: The right to education: quality, integration and respect

These days, rare are those who doubt that the right to education is one of the most important of adult and children’s rights.  There is no doubt that education is valuable in itself: knowledge not only allows a person to live and work, but also brings much satisfaction.  At the same time, it is also a means of realising all other rights and freedoms.  A person without education does not know his rights, and this means he cannot achieve their fulfilment.

However, while recognizing the importance of children’s education, people often have various conceptions of what it means.  Since ancient times, teachers have been revered and entrusted with not only the teaching, but also the upbringing of children, and the shaping of their personalities.  A teacher has been defined in parents’ eyes not only as a scholar and pedagogue, but as a master, a leader of the children, with the right to punish or motivate.

At the same time, different peoples and cultures have understood in various ways the question of how and by whom children should be educated.  For some, the foundation should be a religious education, for others, a technical education.  Some strive to develop children’s artistic abilities, and others consider physical education of paramount importance.

The General Declaration of Human Rights also proposes us its own understanding of a correct education, according to which school education should be orientated towards the development of character and respect for human rights and basic freedoms.

Article 29 of the Convention on Children’s Rights also guarantees all children the right to school education, and the first commentaries to this article define exactly what school education should be, underlining five fundamental aspects obligatory to all countries which have ratified the Convention: the all-round development of the child, the teaching of human rights and national cultures (paying special attention to the languages and cultures of representatives of minorities and small nations), the development in children of tolerance and respect for one another, and a conscious attitude towards the environment.

This convention was ratified by almost all the governments presently existing on Earth, which means that it is subject to fulfilment under the control of the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, members of which, every five years, receive corresponding accounts on the fulfilment of the Convention from both governments and non-governmental organisations which specialise in children’s rights.

For many years, government structures which are responsible for public education have concentrated much attention on the problems of children who do not receive a school education, those who drop out of school, and those who do not even get access to school.  In the modern world, there are still more than a billion people who remain illiterate, and one hundred and twenty million children do not go to school at all.

It is obvious that, in the face of a problem of such scale as illiteracy, the question of the quality of education has remained on the sidelines.  However, as time has gone on, members of the Committee of Children’s Rights have acknowledged the paramount importance of this very question.  ‘Perhaps children are dropping out of school education not purely by chance.  Could it be that school is not giving children what they need?’  Luther Clapman, a member of the UN Committee for Children’s Rights, admits that such questions have started to worry him and his colleague more and more.  A path of purely formal learning, even of required and correct subjects, may be insufficient to answer the questions which life presents the children, which  seem the most important to them.  This especially concerns children whose lives have proved complicated, who have no-one to help them at home, who have to contend with many things apart from study at school: overcoming difficulties in the family or on the street, the battle with poverty, racism and social exclusion…

Clive Hedges, a British specialist in children’s rights, remarked in connection with this, ‘Cognitive development is impossible to separate from social development.  Effective learning demands understanding, and not simply recital of the subject.’

In order to create conditions for socialising, development and receiving knowledge which are optimal for each student, schools need not only talented tutors, (this is undoubtedly desirable, yet it is simply impossible to demand talent and intuition from everyone), but also special methods which are created to take into account the particular ways in which children perceive information, and are based on thorough investigation and analysis of the special qualities of various children.

Children themselves can participate in the development and analysis of teaching methods; their evaluations of one teaching method or another prove to be very useful criticism for the teachers.  Clive Hedges even claims that ‘A school without the participation of children in the process of teaching is not a school!’  The quality of education and knowledge which children receive at times depends on the distribution of children according to particular categories, according to which some of  the children will intentionally be placed in the worst conditions.  Unfortunately, when dividing children into ‘more worthy’ and ‘less worthy’, into ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’, tutors and psychologists are often guided by very subjective criteria, and at times, even their own prejudices.

When children from one village are divided into different schools (as in the Tambovsky region), Russian children travel by bus to the central town of the region, where they study, as it should be; and Romani-Kotlar and Kurd-Ezid children end up in a rural school, where two or three tutors teach all the subjects (let us say, one teacher teaches Russian, literature, history, social science, geography; another teaches mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology), the principle of non-discrimination of children in schools is broken – that is, Article 2 of the Convention of Children’s Rights, Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the Law of The Russian Federation on Education, The Constitution of the Russian Federation and other standards.

Alas, another violation was, until now, often practiced in many countries, even in such a relatively successful region as the European Union.

Human rights workers sounded the alarm: according to the observations of the European Centre for Roma Rights, in several countries of the European Union Romani children were being systematically divided into separate classes, and subjected to discrimination and segregation.

We have already written (see Bulletin no. 15) of how in 2000 a complaint was made to the European Human Rights Court by the families of eighteen children in schools in the town of Ostrav in the Czech Republic.  There, the majority of Romani children were sent to classes ‘for those falling behind’ on the basis of psychological tests.  All parties understood the conflict: a court decision on this complaint could become a major precedent.  In the event of the Czech schools’ practice being acknowledged as discriminatory, not only these schools, but many others in Europe would be obligated to put an end to such practices of dividing children into ‘Romani’ and ‘non-Romani’ classes, and to provide access for all to a quality education.  The fate of this complaint was difficult and exceptional: it was examined for years, and the first decision of the Court – in favour of the Czech Republic – was appealed against by human rights organisations who disagreed with the Court’s refusal to recognise discrimination.  And then – finally! – with the decision of the Higher Chamber of the European Human Rights Court, the practice of separating Romani and non-Romani children into different classes on the basis of ethnicity – because the quality of education in the schools and classes for Roma was revealed as deliberately lower than the norm – was acknowledged as discrimination!

For all member countries of the European Court, this means one thing: a prohibition of discrimination against children in schools by means of separating them into special classes for ethnic minorities, which are even classes for ‘those lagging behind’, or any other classes with a low level of education.

As the authors of the complaint against the Czech Republic emphasize, ‘We must recognize the most common ways of segregating Romani children on priniciples of ethnicity: the separation of Romani children into so-called ‘special schools’ for children with arrested development, the segregation of Romani children into schools situated in ghettoes (that is, in Romani settlements), segregation into ‘purely Romani classes’, the refusal to accept Romani children in ordinary schools and so on.  Whatever the forms of separation of Romani children from the rest, practised in every concrete case, the quality of education given to the Roma was incomparably worse than the standards of education accepted in each of the named countries.’

The question of what exactly these standards should be also demands discussion, involving the children themselves.  However, it has already been proved that access to education which meets at least the accepted standards should be equal for everyone, regardless of their origin.  What remains now is to deliver this!

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