Inclusive education and tailored approaches can help combat poor educational outcomes for Roma

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Young Roma are almost seven times more likely to leave school early than their non-Roma peers, EESC hearing reveals

Despite a slight improvement in the share of early school leavers amongst the Roma, as many as 68% of Roma youth still complete only lower secondary school education at best, which greatly reduces their chances on the labour market and perpetuates the cycle of poverty experienced by most members of this ethnic group.

Persistent segregation and discrimination against the Roma, economic factors and a lack of adequate policies are amongst the plethora of reasons why they leave education early, it was revealed at a hearing held this week by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The hearing, “Addressing early school leaving amongst the Roma”, brought together EESC Members, representatives from the Commission, the Council, the UN, EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and other organisations such as the Roma Education Fund, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and Cedefop.

The aim was to discuss the current situation and possible solutions as well as to pinpoint the causes as to why the share of early school leavers among young Roma was almost seven times higher than amongst their peers in the general population.

The figure emerged from a recent survey conducted by EUMIDIS II, which defined early school leavers as those aged 18 to 24 with at most lower secondary education and not in further education and training. In the non-Roma population, the average drop-out rate in the EU stood at 10.7% in 2016.

The headline target of the Europe 2020 Strategy sought to reduce this rate to less than 10%. This was not likely to be achieved among the Roma, especially in the light of some further negative figures showing that 50% of Roma between the ages of 6 and 24 did not even attend school. The figures for girls and young women were even lower.

Schools are social units, they are part of the bigger context. Inclusive education is only possible in an inclusive society, said Ákos Topolánszky, member of the EESC.

Yet the residential and school segregation of the Roma, which was among main culprits for their poor educational outcomes, seemed to be continuing or even worsening in some Member States, participants in the hearing said.

The European Roma mostly lived in segregated Roma neighbourhoods, in extremely poor housing conditions, with some 80% of them living below their country's at-risk-of-poverty threshold. Many Roma families could not afford to cover school transportation costs or the cost of books and clothing and young family members were often forced to quit school and find jobs, which were poorly paid.

The motivation and self-confidence of Roma students are lower due to their social and economic exclusion, which is further hindering their success in education, said Roland Ferkovics of the Roma Education Fund.

Furthermore, many of them experienced bullying and harassment, including by their teachers.

In 2016, some 14% of Roma aged 16 and above felt discriminated against when in contact with schools due to their ethnic origin, whether as students or parents, Jaroslav Kling of FRA said. One-third of Roma schoolchildren living in non-Roma neighbourhoods were verbally harassed by their peers and teachers.

For them, the school is seen a place of conflict, and not as a place of development and joyMr Ferkovics said.

Segregation could also occur when Roma children were funnelled into special schools or special classes with poor quality teaching or lower curricula demands, as happened in the now famous case in Ostrawa, in the Czech Republic, where Roma pupils had been automatically sent to schools for children with developmental disabilities. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that they had been subject to discrimination.

However, according to Szilvia Pallaghy from OSF, the exclusion of Roma children from mainstream schools was still frequent.

A new method of segregating Roma children is through exemption from school attendance, when children are only obliged to take exams at the end of terms, she said, adding that young Roma students were also often pushed into low-quality, short-term vocational schools which were seen as the last resort for socially and academically excluded young people.

Ms Pallaghy put a strong emphasis on early care services as a preventive measure against early school leaving and also stressed the importance of quality and engaged parenthood which should be encouraged amongst Roma parents.

Petra Goran of the Commission said the focus should be on inclusive education approaches, individual needs and extra-curricular and out-of-school activities, as the latter were important for Roma to feel part of a community. There should be a whole school approach to early school leaving, involving teachers, school heads, but also parents and local services, placing the student at the centre of attention, she added.

Some examples showed that progress could be made and that even small projects could make a big difference. Mr Ferkovics described how more than 50 000 Roma in six Member States participated in early school leaving programmes, with a graduation rate of 80% among beneficiaries.

Camille Gangloff of the Council of Europe presented the INSCHOOL project, the aim of which was to enhance social inclusion of Roma by promoting inclusive education and teacher training in selected schools in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the UK.

The idea was to equip teachers, through peer exchanges between selected pilot schools and support schools that were already experienced in providing inclusive education, with new skills to enable them to manage their class despite the diverse learning needs and styles.

However, although inclusive education and the fight against early school leaving were currently among EU priorities and despite available funds and a number of reforms in many EU countries, the impact in practice remained limited, especially for Roma. 

Member States should adopt concrete measures to tackle early school leaving amongst the Roma. In particular, they should accommodate Roma students' diversity and set challenging expectations based on the principle that quality education should fit the learner rather than requiring them to fit into an existing systemMr Kling said.

A holistic, systemic approach is needed. Anything else will at best produce local results but this problem cannot be solved at the local level. What we need is the right political and social attitudeMr Topolánszky concluded.