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Gypsies plead for separate schools

Simon Evans reports on how age-old conflicts are affecting education policy


Hungarian schools are failing the gypsy population, according to a movement promoting specialist schools in the country but, while educationists argue against the principle of segregation, parents are voting with their feet.

A change of system in 1989 offered new opportunities for many in Hungary, but the social and economic status of the gypsies - by far the nation's largest minority - has deteriorated even further.

Under communism there was no place for wandering casual labour, so gypsies were placed in co-operative farms or state factories. With these sectors failing, gypsies are finding it tough in the new labour market - unemployment is widespread and those in work are usually in the lowest-paid sectors.

"Sadly, gypsy children are not doing well in Hungarian schools," said Jozsef Choledroczi, headteacher of Kiraly Jag, a new gypsy secondary school in Budapest. "At present, 40 per cent of gypsy children do not graduate from primary school, and less than 1 per cent make it to university."

Mr Choledroczi says gypsy children suffer from indirect discrimination, based on teachers' low expectations, but believes there are other reasons for separation.

"We learn in a different way and require teachers to teach in a different style, but we also need to develop a real knowledge of our own culture, our own language and our own history. These things are not taught in normal Hungarian schools."

The school in central Budapest has 40 students. As well as gypsy culture, they study computer skills, English and management training. The only other Hungarian school offering special education for gypsies is the Gandhi School in the provincial town of Pees.

Both receive financial aid from several sources, including the Soros Foundation. This year, George Soros initiated the Roma Education Programme, which prefers to concentrate on improving the lot of gypsy students within integrated schools.

"There are a lot of separate schools in the West, and the results are not too positive," said programme co-ordinator Ferene Arato. "It is dangerous to separate children according to language or colour. They are not separated in society, and need to learn about other cultures as well as their own."

The 20-plus organisations claiming to represent gypsy interests are divided over the issue. While some welcome such schools as Gandhi and Kiraly Jag, others see the separatism as a dead-end. Three years ago, municipal authorities in Budapest suggested creating gypsy schools within the state system. The move was rejected by many Roma groups as ghettoisation. According to Arato, the roots of the differences are in the deep political divide within the gypsy community.

"There are some gypsy groups who see gypsy civil rights in a 19th century nationalist way. They want to emphasise their language and their culture. Others see integration into society as the way forward."

The Roma programme is supporting a pilot project in the village of Nyertelek, where gypsy children are taught separately for two years before entering mixed classes.

Some conservatives believe separate schools are undermining national values. Yet in the communities, the move may be happening by default. The educational reforms enacted after 1989 allowed parents greater freedom of choice, whereas previously children simply attended the nearest school.

Schools with catchment areas including large gypsy communities now report a dramatic decline in the number of white Hungarians enrolling. "Once a school gets a reputation for being a gypsy school, the Hungarians stop sending their kids," said one teacher.

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