Roma boarding school proposal causes outcry

Education plan for marginalised groups could jeopardise human rights, warn critics

Colin Graham

Controversies over Travellers, Gypsies and Roma peoples have hit much of Europe at one time or another, but it is in central and eastern Europe that they most dominate political debate.

It has been estimated that 12 million Roma live in the 27 member states of the European Union, 3 to 4 million of whom reside in the small former communist nations of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Inter-racial tensions between the majority populations and this significant minority have caused problems for many governments since the fall of communism.

Often living in shanty estates cut off from the rest of the world, Roma children frequently grow up without a conventional education, something that the Slovakian government, for one, is keen to bring to a halt. Its proposal is that they be sent to boarding schools.

In a statement to TES, a spokesman for the education ministry said that the government wanted to "consider the possibility of creating boarding schools that will be available to children from marginalised communities on a voluntary basis to ease their integration into society and to offer them better access to education, work and a dignified life".

Yet this initiative is merely a diluted version of previous, more draconian, proposals. The EU and Amnesty International have warned Slovakia before, saying that its plans risked jeopardising human rights by considering Roma children to be natural fodder for separation from their families.

There are dissenting voices within Slovakia to Bratislava's position. Ctibor Kostal, director of the Slovak Governance Institute thinktank, said that there had been previous attempts to corral Roma children into boarding schools, particularly during the coalition administration of 2006-10, when the nationalist party, SNS, was part of a Social Democrat- led government and SNS member Jan Mikolaj was education minister.

"There were a number of messages coming out, saying that Roma children should go to boarding schools on a mandatory basis," Mr Kostal said. "We and other non-governmental organisations made a big effort to stop this."

Since the elections earlier this year, the Social Democrats have an overall majority, so have no need of SNS support. Yet the boarding school initiative has remained, albeit in a watered-down form, with the education ministry insisting that "it sees boarding schools as an additional educational tool to be implemented on a voluntary basis only and with the agreement of the parents or guardians of the children".

But Mr Kostal remains sceptical. "We need to know what other motivational factors will be introduced into this `voluntary' scheme," he said.

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Colin Graham

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