Roma sent to school ghettos

30th April 2004 at 01:00
SLOVAKIA. Biased tests put three out of four Roma in institutions for 'mentally handicapped'. Robert Nurdern reports

Lucia, a bright 10-year-old, told the visitors to her class that she wants to be a cook when she grows up, but has no idea where she will work. It was hardly surprising: she had never been inside a cafe, let alone a restaurant.

Lucia is a Roma, or gypsy, one of 151 at Letanovce special school for "mentally handicapped" children aged six to 15 in eastern Slovakia. Like every pupil in this village school she is a victim of the Slovakian government's policy of educational segregation.

Up to 75 per cent of Roma children attend special schools for the "mentally handicapped", according to a report Denied a Future? funded by Save the Children and the United Nations Children's Fund, not because they have severe learning difficulties, but on the basis of linguistically and culturally-biased IQ tests. Roma pupils in Slovakia are 25 times more likely to be placed in a special school than a non-Roma child.

The IQ test is taken at regional "psychological-pedagogical counselling centres". Roma children find them daunting. For example, when an examiner asks a child what letter "sun" starts with, they tend to answer in their first language - Romanes - saying "k" (the Romanes for "sun" is "khamoro").

Such an answer would be regarded as wrong and evidence of IQ deficiency, and the child would be sent to a special school. Once on the tramlines of special needs, children hardly have a way off.

Schooling obtained at one of these educational ghettoes is not regarded in law as completed primary education, so they cannot proceed to regular secondary school and take the final exam. Even those Roma who do make it to a mainstream school are invariably segregated into separate classes.

Non-attendance and drop-out rates are high and rising. Only a handful of Roma are studying at university and very few become teachers.

It is no surprise that representation in public life is infinitesimal, too.

As Slovakia prepares to join the EU on May 1, its pledge at a European education ministers meeting on intercultural education in Athens last November to take action to end its system of educational apartheid looks distinctly hollow.

At Letanovce, Josef, a Slovak teacher and head of the school council, attempts to justify the divisive system. "Not only are Roma children backward mentally, they are handicapped physically because they are small and short," he said.

Their initial assessment is reliable because, in addition to the IQ tests, an educational psychologist examines every child and tests their motor skills."

At the school the children are allowed to speak Romanes only at break times; Slovak is the language of the classroom. But when, as an experiment, Romanes textbooks were introduced the children did not understand the words because they were used to speaking another dialect.

There is no political will in the Slovak education system to cater for the Roma community's bilingual children. Reforms such as preparatory classes at mainstream schools - known as the zero year - are piecemeal and unco-ordinated, while a programme to get Roma teaching assistants into schools operates only spasmodically.

Such apathy comes against a background of racially motivated violence against Slovakia's estimated 500,000 Roma - nearly 10 per cent of the population.

Roma across Europe suffer from personal and institutional racism and weak policies, says Save the Children, which has urged the Slovak government to adopt anti-discrimination legislation and end segregation in schools.

Lucia's class said goodbye to their visitors by singing a heart-rending Roma lament about being hungry.

With the adults in their bleak settlement over the hill experiencing 100 per cent unemployment, it was the reality that awaited them when the bus dropped them home. Lucia must know she has little chance of fulfilling her dream.


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