The Problem of Discrimination against Schoolchildren

In 2009, 20 years will have passed
since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United
Nations.  This anniversary provides us with a wonderful excuse
to turn our attention to the problem of children’s rights, including
the rights of schoolchildren-those children who are attending elementary
school, middle school, and high school.  Indeed, it is this very
Convention which guarantees the right of all children to an education,
regardless of nationality, citizenship, status, or social position.
The Convention also protects children from any and all forms of discrimination.
Unfortunately, the problem of discrimination against children in the
sphere of education is still acute, even 20 years later. 

It is important to say that, at least
formally, discrimination is almost always condemned and almost always
considered unacceptable.  Many countries, including Russia, have
ratified the European Convention, the UN Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the European Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities; each of these international
documents condemns discrimination, both direct and indirect.  But
in practice, schoolchildren often find themselves treated unequally,
some receiving instruction that is much worse than that which is received
by the majority.  The quality of education received by children
going to school from compact Roma settlements is particularly unsettling.
The schools that these children attend are frequently in no condition
to provide a quality education to children who have not had any preparation
in pre-school and who, moreover, have poor mastery over the Russian
language (speaking at home in the Roma language, the children begin
their education in Russian as if, for all intents and purposes, in a
completely foreign language).  For this to be resolved, in order
to help such children reap all of the benefits of their school programs,
additional time and effort on the part of teachers are necessary, as
are good teaching methodology and high-quality textbooks.  Unfortunately,
as a rule, none of these are provided.  These schools often lack
even the specialists that are necessary for all children in all schools,
including speech therapists, psychologists, and social workers, whose
help would be particularly valuable in the preparation of children with
a different language and culture.  No methodological support is
offered to teachers in multi-ethnic schools.  In effect, these
teachers find themselves in the difficult position of having to teach
themselves how to educate and integrate children whose language, culture,
and way of life are, even to the teachers themselves, an intimidating

As a result, teachers in such schools
often seek out ways to lighten the burden that has been placed upon
them, and in so doing often make completely inexcusable mistakes.
In one school in Vladimir Region they have tried to even refuse to educate
Roma children, and in response to our question, “don’t all children
need an education?” the teachers confidently answered, “Roma parents
educate their children according to their own system.  Their Roma
system of education is much better than ours.”  Roma parents,
of course, have never heard of any such system, and they had a hearty
laugh upon hearing what these teachers came up with.

In many schools children from Roma
settlements are put into separate classes or even separate buildings,
which the teachers and administrators explain by saying that under such
conditions the instruction of Roma children is much easier, and, furthermore,
the Roma themselves are more comfortable this way-they do not have
to wake up early, and the lessons can start later (“on the request
of the parents”).  In reality, such “favors” have a terrible
effect on the quality of education received by Roma children, and the
segregation of children into separate classes only strengthens the mutual
prejudices of both Russian and Roma children and parents, which in itself
facilitates future segregation, leading to more discrimination and more
inter-ethnic tension.  Instead of school becoming a place in which
children of various cultures can meet one another, a place where these
children can learn to understand and love one another, help one another
master a single language, become more closely acquainted with new things,
it becomes a veritable “reservation,” a place where people of different
ethnic groups are kept separate.  Instead of giving those students
who have had less preparation additional instruction, a more intense
program, they are offered easier classes and are presented with lowered
expectations.  All of this leads to Roma children, who have somehow
finished their elementary education, being much less prepared to move
on to middle school than non-Roma students of the same age group who
studied in standard classes.  Many Roma completely drop out of
school, and those who decide to continue on to the fifth grade are offered,
once again, some kind of simplified program or individual lessons.

In other words, instead of additional
efforts being made by the educators to make up for what was missed by
the Roma children, these children are stuck with an education of exceedingly
low quality.

Blaming the teachers alone would be,
of course, unfair. The responsibility for the quality of education,
for the fostering of a non-discriminatory attitude towards all children,
and for the offering of equal opportunities to all lies first and foremost
with the government.  Certainly, it is harder for teachers to work
with children who have not attended pre-school, who have been raised
using a language that the teachers themselves do not understand, in
another culture.  But because of this, these teachers need to be
offered additional help and support and payment for additional working
hours; specialists need to be attracted; better textbooks must be prepared.
All of this demands attention and funding.  And before any improvements
can be made, the existence of such a problem must be recognized; the
problem must be studied; and a unified, adequate resolution must be
developed.  But for now, those government bureaucrats who are responsible
for education often announce without giving the matter any particular
thought:  “No need to look for any discrimination here. There
is not and could never be any such thing.  We, on the contrary,
foster all of the necessary conditions, allow the teachers to work a
second shift, provide for the creation of classes offering compensatory

It is not clear when instruction by
teachers working a second shift began to be considered a privilege,
or when a weakened educational program began to be considered a solution
for those children who are in fact capable, just not properly prepared.
To the objection that a more robust system of instruction is necessary
for such children, one hears the response that “everything should
be equal; we should not offer supplementary assistance for any one group;
all are equal under the law.”

An impression inevitably arises that
all of these measures have been devised only to simplify the lives of
the teachers, to lighten the burden of responsibility for the instruction
of children, not in order to truly overcome the difficulties that arise
when educating children with another language and different background.
Moreover, it is absurd to rely on voluntary acts of good will in order
to help children for whom, because of life circumstances, studying in
school is more difficult; it should be the responsibility of
those who answer for ensuring an minimum education level in the country.
After all, “general compulsory education has not yet been abolished.”

Unfortunately, how children from Roma
settlements are treated and educated is in fact often entirely dependent
on the good (or bad) will of the teachers who have ended up in the nearby
elementary schools.  Of course, there are a number of positive
examples:  we know of teachers who sacrifice their own private
time in order to overcome the ineptness of the system and have helped
children receive an education.  A student of the pedagogical institute,
a poor young man from an uneducated Roma family who managed only with
difficulty to get into college, describes the situation:  “Roma
children have a hard time with their studies.  You get to school,
and you want to learn everything. You go up to answer and then make
a mistake or two in Russian.  And all of your motivation disappears.
Fortunately, in my school we had one very old teacher who had already
taught Roma children, and she was familiar with our problems.
I made a lot of mistakes in one essay, even wrote some words in my own
language accidentally, but she did not yell at me and instead said that
she understood how hard it is for me.”

But not all teachers are ready to understand
and help.  Many present Roma children and their parents with strict
demands, and when these demands are not met, they are punished.

In schools in the countryside, Roma
children are placed in separate classes without any kind of formal explanation
given:   there is simply one class for the Roma and one for
the non-Roma.  Moreover, it is actually a pleasant surprise when
Roma children are separated by age group and class year within these
classes; many schools exist in which all Roma are put in one class regardless
of age or number of years studied.  What kind of success could
even be expected under such circumstances?  It is clear that given
such conditions, children are merely passing time in school, not receiving
any kind of real knowledge.  More often than not, Roma children
are not expected to continue on to middle school and consequently the
school program does not take them into consideration; therefore, upon
the completion of elementary school, the children just have to return
home.  Only in a very few schools do they at least try, at the
very least at the middle school level, to integrate Roma children, allow
them to study in classes that are open to all.  It is not, however,
a rarity that fifth- or sixth- graders hoping to continue their education
after elementary school find out that “no Roma classes have been set
up for them, and the Russian ones are not open to Roma.”  Children
are told to either repeat the previous year or just leave school altogether.

In big cities there are many methodological
centers, psychologists, speech therapists, and experts.  One might
assume that in these big cities, then, better programs would have been
devised for children who are studying in their non-native language,
methods would have been suggested for the correction of phonetic and
spelling difficulties that arise among the Roma when learning the Russian
language.  But in reality, even these experts often end up being
extremely biased.  In all seriousness, a speech therapist who is
a member of an expert commission told us, “Roma children cannot learn
like normal children.  They are, after all, using two different
languages.”  It is as if this specialist educated in the language
instruction of children has no idea that a huge portion of the population
of the world today uses more than one language, and this in no way prevents
them from becoming educated people (but even helps them!).

There is a certain school that we are
familiar with in which all of the experts who were invited to observe
the conditions in the school judge all Roma children, without exception,
as needing to be instructed in compensatory classes.  All Roma
children have been “socially deprived,” educationally neglected,
are not capable of paying attention, etc.  It is incredibly unlikely
that in so many years of testing, absolutely every single Roma attending
this school has turned out to be unfit for education in regular classes,
while at the same time not a single non-Roma student-one must take
into consideration varying levels of preparation and personal factors-was
ever found to be that way!  Certainly, Roma children also differ
from one another in terms of their abilities, knowledge, and preparation.
The experts, however, never noticed such a thing.  They never proposed
testing the social adaptability or general attentiveness of non-Roma
children; they were only invited to observe Roma classes.  The
administration of the school asserts subjecting the Roma children to
such an obviously ethnically-based approach was justified:  “Roma
children cannot write dictations; how could we possibly educate them
in the standard program?”

In some instances this method for the
resolution of the problem-the segregation of students-could be considered
temporarily acceptable, if such a system allowed for the gap in the
Roma children’s knowledge of Russian to be overcome.  Unfortunately,
upon the completion of such segregated classes, the Roma children, as
before, are unable to write dictations, while some of their (non-Roma)
peers, having entered into the school with the same level of preparation
as the Roma children but being allowed to attend standard classes, are
already able to complete homework in Russian in a way that corresponds
with the educational standards of the country.  To get an accurate
understanding of the situation, it is sufficient to compare the knowledge
of those children who have attended compensatory classes with the results
achieved by Roma children in those places where Roma are allowed to
attend the same classes as everyone else.

The teachers seem to have forgotten
that the single justification for the instruction of children in a non-standard
program would be that it leads to a better end result.  Students’
progress could and should be tracked by those same experts:  studying
in a compensatory class is usually considered a temporary measure, and
in the event of success, the children should be moved into regular classes.
But this does not occur.  All Roma children are tested once a year
and continue on to the next Roma class, which is formally called “the
class for compensatory education.”

Consequently, one cannot help but feel
that it is actually the teachers and experts themselves who are socially
depriving the Roma children, putting them in separate classes, and leading
to their “educational neglect,” by deliberately providing these
schoolchildren with a worse education based on lowered standards.

All of this is called discrimination.
In these situations, we see the very same conditions that were condemned
as discrimination by the European Court for Human Rights a year ago
in relation to Czech schools, where according to test results, Roma
children were placed into separate classes for students who had fallen
behind.  However, in the case against the Czech Republic, the court
found only indirect discrimination, inasmuch as in the Czech Republic
all children are tested, and it was therefore impossible to prove that
the Roma children had been subjected to direct discrimination.
In the Russian case, in contrast, there is clear evidence of direct
discrimination and segregation of children on the basis of ethnicity.
In other words, what we see here violates not only the European Convention
or the precedent set by the Court in Strasbourg that condemns any such
activity as inadmissible in all countries in the Council of Europe,
but it also violates the UN Conventions “on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination” and “on the Rights of the Child,”
as well as the Russian law on education.

We can only hope that in the future
the rights of schoolchildren will be protected.  Everyone has a
stake in this-the students, the parents, the teachers, the experts.
Violations of the rights of children are never justified in any way,
and they are in no one’s best interest.

Stephanie Kulaeva


Эта запись так же доступна на: Russian