Addressing segregation of Romany children: cost-cutting measures may succeed where good intentions failed

Ever since the fall of communism governments have struggled to deal with the segregation of Romany children, a vast number of whom end up in special schools which severely limits them in their future development. Now the incoming administration is looking at the problem in terms of money and it seems that, paradoxically, cost cutting measures may succeed where good intentions have failed.

“Special schools” is a term used for schools catering to children with learning disabilities. Classes are smaller and teachers are specially qualified to help overcome and minimize such disadvantages. However for years these schools have served a different purpose – taking in vast numbers of Romany children who are not welcome in regular schools. Many Romany first graders run up against a different cultural background, a language barrier and are unable to sit still and follow the class. As a result they are labeled backward and difficult –and many schools simply get rid of them by getting their parents to sign a paper stating that they agree to have their child put in a special school, where they are likely to progress better. At present 30 percent of all Romany school goers attend special schools, compared to a mere two percent of children from the white majority. Past efforts to change this have all failed miserably –and a comprehensive long-term plan launched by the former human rights minister Michael Kocáb has not yet shown any tangible results. But the incoming centre-right government is determined to put the planned changes into higher gear.

Running these special schools is costing the state 16 billion crowns annually- an expense that’s poorly justified in view of the small number of pupils that really belong there. With that aim in mind, the emerging government has agreed on a series of measures aimed at getting Romany children back into regular classrooms where they belong. Schools that take the trouble to help Romanies integrate will get financial benefits for working with socially challenged children, each school will employ the services of a child psychologist to assist the integration process, kindergarten attendance will become compulsory and Romany parents will be alerted of the disadvantages of signing their children into a special school. The papers they now sign will be presented to them in the Romany language and parents who do not send their children to school regularly will be stripped of social benefits. Some of this was attempted in the past but with money for motivation this time the measures could go a long way.