Roma children’s right to education: various practices, but the same discriminatory approach

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When signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a state acknowledges at the international level the right of each child to education. Concrete essence of each right evolves and becomes more detailed as international standards, practice of international organizations and bodies, development of national legislation and member states develop. Same as any other socio-economic right, the right to education is one of the “positive rights”, whose implementation requires not only its recognition, but also constant and active measures by each state. The state should do everything possible to improve the quality and accessibility of education of all levels, but firstly the primary and secondary education.

Being a signatory of international conventions, the Russian Federation guarantees the right to education in its Constitution and specialized laws. Thus, Article 43 of the Constitution and Article 2 of the federal law “On the basic guarantees of the right of the child in Russian Federation” state that state policy in the interests of the child is a priority sphere of the bodies of state authority in the Russian Federation and local municipal authorities. Constitution of the Russian Federation (Article 43, Section 2) also guarantees general accessibility of basic secondary education, which should also be free of charge.

The degree of actual accessibility of education in a particular state is of major importance in terms of its influence on the development of the child and it also defines socio-economic situation of his future “adult” life, his access to socio-economic advantages of the society he lives in.

It is no coincidence that one of the key elements of systematic discrimination of vulnerable social groups is particularly the actual lack of access of children from these groups to education. At the same time, if a correct approach and effective measures are chosen, it is through education that it becomes possible to fight against discrimination. Actual accessibility of education can become a possibility for integration for children from vulnerable groups and for overcoming unfavorable socio-economic conditions of the families they come from.

If a child belongs to a vulnerable social group, considerable efforts by the state are required in order to implement his right to education. These efforts are not “complimentary”, as the representatives of state authorities often make us believe, but they are necessary for a particular child in order for him to receive the same level of education that other children get. To put it differently, one cannot consider positive measures required to overcome discrimination in educational field as “complimentary” measures, which can only be implemented if conditions are favorable (if there are enough teachers, financial means, textbooks, motivation of the child and his parents, etc.). These measures are necessary because the state is responsible for accessibility of education to all children. And if additional efforts and means are required in order to make education accessible to children from a particular group, they should be guaranteed.

Unfortunately, in the current situation in Russia the attitude of state authorities to implementation of social and economic rights is such, that while all the required formalities are often being observed, the idea of making education accessible to everybody is abandoned altogether in some “difficult” cases. This approach is often registered in case of Roma children, especially those who live in compact Roma settlements in various parts of Russia. Local educational authorities and school administrations can usually give numerous reasons (and many of them really do exist) why Roma children do not get quality education, rather than at least admit the necessity for children from vulnerable groups to get the same level of education as other children get and the responsibility of educational authorities for that. As a result the situation with education for Roma children becomes “insurmountable” (“we do all we can, but they do not want to study themselves”), segregation of children into separate “Roma classes” becomes not only acceptable, but even desirable (“it is for their own good”) and is being considered the only and even “progressive” way to deal with the problem, while in fact it continues to be absolutely incompatible with the very idea of the right for equal access to education for all.

The problem of implementation of the right to education for Romani children exists in may European countries and because of that an established practice of the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) was worked out in cases concerning discrimination of Romani children in terms of the right to education. In the case of “D.H. vs. Czech Republic” (2007) ECtHR ruled that placement of Roma children into “special schools” was discriminatory, because they received poorer education. Discrimination was also detected in the case of “Sampanis and others vs. Greece” (2008), when Roma children were treated differently compared to non-Roma, and the local authorities’ practice of placing Roma children into special classes that were located in a separate school building was judged to be discriminatory. In the case of “Oršuš vs. Croatia” (2010) placement of children based on their ethnicity into “Roma classes”, which provided poorer education, was also judged as discrimination. Most recently, on January 29, 2013, a new ruling of ECtHR was made concerning discrimination of Roma children in the case of “Horváth and Kiss vs. Hungary”.

The claimants, Horváth and Kiss, children from a Roma settlement in Hungary, were placed into correctional schools for mentally retarded children following a test. The parents of both children didn’t agree with this decision and tried to appeal it in national courts. An independent test was carried out, which showed that Roma children were tested in accordance with methods used for other children, but the latter were based on certain cultural presuppositions and thus were applicable only to children belonging to the ethnic majority. These tests were not objective for children belonging to a minority. The experts demonstrated that the tests didn’t take into account the particular cultural peculiarities and conditions of the development of Roma children and thus resulted in incorrect recommendations for placement into correctional schools.

The parents of these children appealed to court against unequal treatment and discrimination of children based on ethnic and social background, in particular they also referred to the case of “D.H. vs. Czech Republic”, but when the possibilities of appealing this in Hungarian courts were replenished, they turned to ECtHR. In the appeal to ECtHR the claimants referred to indirect discrimination by the state, because formally objective conditions, such as tests on the level of development of children, placed Roma children in particular in unequal position vis-à-vis other children, who hardly ever were placed into correctional school following a mistake.

While judging this case, ECtHR considered among other things the statistics of the Commissioner of the Council of Europe regarding the share of Romani and non-Romani children in correctional schools, as well as positive responsibilities of the state concerning integration of Romani children into society. In this particular case ECtHR found violation of the right to education, as well as a violation of Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ban on discrimination). Discrimination and its negative consequences for Romani children were found in segregation of Romani children into special “Romani schools” or “Romani classes”, as well as in the fact of indirect discrimination in the case of “Horváth and Kiss vs. Hungary”.

If we turn to the the situation in Russia, we can find all the negative schemes of education for Roma children, which ECtHR ruled to be discriminatory. These schemes often co-exist even within a single region, such as in Chudovo district of Novgorod region. A large Roma settlement exists in Chudovo and the staff of ADC “Memorial” have been monitoring the situation of education for Roma children there for a long time now, reporting low level of both accessibility and quality of education for Roma children in this region.

One of the rare dwellers of a Roma settlement, who managed to successfully complete secondary school course, told ADC “Memorial” about the kind of schools that Roma children go to and described the problems these children face. Firstly, children attend the so called “Roma settlement school” (primary school №6). Roma children study there in grades from the first to the fifth, but the fifth grade is only nominal: the rare fifth graders study the same things that they studied in the fourth grade. About 120 children from Roma settlement go to this school, while the total number of children of school age there is greater. The “settlement school” has only one classroom, which can fit up to 40 children. Because of that the classes take place in two shifts, but for two grades simultaneously in one classroom (usually it’s first and fourth grade together in one room, then the second and the third). Obviously, there can be no talk of getting proper education in these circumstances, thus it’s hardly surprising that after the fourth grade almost all of the children stop studying. As Roma people from this settlement explain it, the main reasons are that children have to go to a different school after finishing the primary school and then many of them marry at a very early age.

In order to continue education, children from Chudovo have two main options – to go to a nearby school in Syabrenitsy or to go to a correctional boarding school in Chudovo.

Municipal secondary school “Gleb Uspensky” in Syabrenitsy village is located near the Roma settlement, but the road there passes through a cemetery, which is often given as a reason for “unpopularity” of this school among local Roma people. Roma children are accepted in this school, but after some time they usually drop out. For example, one child that was accepted to this school for the fifth grade in 2013 stopped attending classes already after two weeks. There are other schools nearby that may have accepted Roma children, but the latter don’t even try to apply there.

One can mention a difficult curriculum, lack of interest and motivation on the part of Roma children and their parents, but the fact that after completing the settlement primary school Roma children can’t properly continue education in secondary schools and stop learning at all, de facto means that they are not provided with access to education. The knowledge they get after four grades of segregated education in primary school is not enough to continue education in the fifth grade of a secondary school and the education workers do not take positive steps in order to integrate Roma children into mixed classes. As a result of that the situation when Roma children complete only four years of education became “acceptable” after many years.

In order to overcome the deficiencies of primary education for Roma children one more option was created in practice – Roma children can continue secondary education in correctional boarding school of VIIIth type. As of 2013-2014 about ten Roma children studied there. Based on what Roma people from the settlement told us, Roma children find it difficult to follow even the simplified curriculum of the correctional boarding school and in many years just a single student from the Roma settlement successfully managed to complete eight years of school. As was stated in the circular of the Russian Ministry of education dated September 4, 1997 “correctional schools of VIIIth type are established in order to educate and bring up children with mental deficiencies in order to correct deviations in their development by means of education and vocational training, as well as socio-psychological rehabilitation with the aim of further integration into society”. Thus it is stated that Roma children have mental deficiencies and they need correctional approach in order to deal with deviations in their development – and these are the few children from the Roma settlement who still continue their education after four years of school! Education in the boarding school has some positive features: good conditions, improved diet, smaller classes, where more flexible approach can be used for different children.

Same as in the above mentioned case “Horváth and Kiss vs. Hungary”, education in a correctional and not a regular secondary school is de facto defined by ethnic background and socio-economic conditions of life of these children, but not their mental capabilities, but formally all children who study in such boarding schools are considered mentally retarded. In Chudovo there is no formal ban on studies of Roma children in regular secondary school, their education in a correctional school for mentally retarded children is not caused by intentional desire to humiliate Roma children, but de facto is caused by the need to compensate for lack of quality knowledge after completion of the primary school curriculum. Unlike the mentioned case in Hungary, one cannot talk of the majority of Roma children studying in correctional schools, because most of the children after completing the fourth grade do not study anywhere at all. But what is common for both cases is the fact that Roma children are discriminated.

The state obviously failed to observe the responsibility it had accepted, that of providing basic secondary education, equal and accessible for all, in the case of Roma children. Any references to the lack of motivation on behalf of Roma parents, “Roma traditions” or the fear of passing by a cemetery could not be accepted as a reason for violation of the right to education and should be overcome through positive measures in the best interests of the children. For example, the kind of better conditions that exist in boarding schools could be established in regular secondary schools where Roma children study en masse, as a positive measure for education of children from vulnerable groups, not in connection with some medical characteristics.

Some of the teachers in Chudovo district are wholeheartedly interested in improving the situation of Roma children and their education, but separate attempts to improve some things do not lead to overall improvements for years now. Education of Roma children is considered by some people responsible for this not as an undeniable right of a child, but as some desirable, however hardly reachable result of “adapting” Roma children to the existing educational system. In order to change such perceptions ADC “Memorial” used various accessible “positive measures”: assistance to schools where Roma children study, inviting teachers from these schools to various educational seminars, approaching state bodies, including ombudsman for children’s rights, in order to attract attention to the existing problems. Another meeting devoted to education of Roma children in Chudovo region was scheduled for December 13, 2013. Novgorod regional ombudsman and ombudsman for children’s rights, the stuff of Chudovo municipal educational committee, teachers of local schools where Roma children study were invited. Among the issues to be discussed were the results of the first year of implementation of the “Complex plan of measures of socio-economic and ethno-cultural development of Roma people in the Russian Federation for 2013-2014”, which was adopted on January 31, 2013 and should also include measures aimed at improving access to education for Roma children.

Although the plan gives grounds for criticism, its points concerning socio-economic development presuppose various stimulus for integration of Roma population into society, which is obviously impossible if Roma classes are segregated in schools and Roma children de facto lack access to education.

Besides that, the topic of implementation of the right of Roma children to education should have had special importance for state officials ahead of upcoming discussion by the UN Committee on the Right of the Child of the regular report of the Russian Federation on observing international responsibilities in defending children’s rights. At the session scheduled for January 23-24, 2014, Russia was to present information concerning segregated education of Roma children and the measures adopted by the state bodies in order to provide Roma children with access to regular secondary schools and mixed classes (special question №18 was formally asked by the Committee). Situation in Chudovo district of Novgorod region clearly demonstrates that the problem of segregation and lack of access to education for Roma children clearly exists, while not enough measures are adopted to deal with this problem.

 by Anna Udyarova

 P.S. Round table in Chudovo scheduled for December 13, 2013 didn’t take place because the participants from Chudovo and Novgorod failed to come.