BRATISLAVA, Jan 16 (IPS) - A school in Slovakia has defended its decision to segregate Roma children from other students after a court ruled the practice breached equal rights laws.
The headmistress of the primary school in Sarisske Michalany, Maria Cvancigerova, said Roma children had been put into classes on their own to ensure they got special attention, and that they had benefitted as a result.
But critics say that other schools have had success with mixed classes including Roma children and that segregation will do nothing to help resolve problems with the education and social inclusion of Roma.
Stefan Ivanco of the Advisory for Civil and Human Rights NGO which brought the legal action against the school, told IPS: "This ruling is an important precedent in stopping the widespread and illegal practice of segregation at schools.
"Inclusive education is the only approach schools can take. Inclusive education in a diverse collective of students shows a child not just how to learn but how to be friendly, tolerant, considerate and responsible within a society which is, fundamentally, diverse."
Of the 430 children attending the school, more than half are Roma and of the 22 classes at the school, 12 are exclusively for Roma children.
Teachers at the school claim the segregation has been a success.
Margita Dorkova, a teacher at the school who has spent 20 years teaching Roma children, told local media: "This has been shown to be the right decision. It allows us to give the children individual attention and adjust the rate at which we cover subjects to suit their abilities. Attendance rates are up, there are less children dropping out of school and they learn much more.
"Children from (Roma) settlements often can’t speak Slovak, don’t even follow basic hygiene practices, and their parents pay little attention to them. In a mixed class they would be condemned to failure."
Most Roma children come from poor backgrounds and socially excluded communities with chronic unemployment and low education levels. In Slovakia, large numbers of Roma live in settlements which are little more than shanty towns and slums where levels of crime and violence are high.
Cvancigerova says that both Roma and non-Roma parents are against mixed classes and that having mixed classes could have an adverse effect on teaching of non-Roma children.
Directors at the school also claim that the behaviour of some Roma children would lead to teachers acting as "bodyguards" protecting children instead of educating them.
The school plans to appeal against the court’s decision.
But other schools have rejected the claims that mixed classes could negatively affect the schooling of non- Roma children, and point to their success in helping Roma children reach their full educational potential and in integrating into society.
Gertruda Schurgerova, deputy headmistress at a primary school in Medzev in Eastern Slovakia which has mixed classes, told local media that Roma children have proved to be among their best students.
She added: "For children that have known only poverty, filth and hunger and come to us dirty and ridden with lice it is a bit of a shock. But they adapt quickly and enjoy coming to school. They can see that there are other ways to live."
Both government and opposition politicians have criticised the segregation at the school in Sarisske Michalany. But they admit that there is no easy solution to problems connected to educating Roma children from deprived backgrounds.
Some politicians have suggested the school should form smaller mixed classes where Roma children can get extra attention, but not to the detriment of the education of non-Roma children.
Others have said that the state should give whatever support is necessary to the school to help with the desegregation of classes and implementing inclusive education.
The court ruling also comes after years of campaigning by international rights organisations against discrimination of Roma children in schools across Central Europe.
Reports by Amnesty International and other groups have highlighted widespread systematic segregation at schools in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
They also claimed that many Roma children were wrongly being put into schools for the mentally and physically handicapped. One study by the Open Society Foundation claimed Roma children in Slovakia and the Czech Republic were 28 and 27 times more likely, respectively, to be put in special schools than non- Roma pupils.
In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found the Czech Republic guilty of racism and discrimination against the Roma because of the practice of putting Roma in special schools.
It was hoped the law would stamp out the practice and put an end to segregation at schools. But a recent report by the UK-based Equality charity, which campaigns for ethnic minority rights in Britain and Europe, showed that the situation had not changed.
Between March and September 2011, Equality spoke to Roma of Czech and Slovak nationality who had migrated with their families to the UK. The group found that 85 percent of pupils interviewed had, in their home countries, been placed in a segregated school, a special school, or predominantly Roma kindergarten.
The majority said they had experienced racist bullying and verbal abuse by non-Roma peers, as well as discriminatory treatment by teachers.
Meanwhile, all Roma parents interviewed valued the absence of discrimination and racism in the British type school system and said their children had better chances of success in later life after attending mainstream schools.
The study also showed the average attainment of Roma pupils in mainstream education in numeracy, literacy and science was average or just below average and that the more the Roma pupils were integrated within classes and schools, the fewer community cohesion problems existed both in and out of school.
Alan Anstead, chief executive of Equality, told IPS: "There is no justification for segregation and no basis for claims that it will help Roma students. It only deepens social exclusion.
"This school should have mixed classes. If there are concerns over education of Roma children in mixed classes, teachers should try to work with parents to resolve this. The state, parents, teachers and local community could come together, share experiences and try to work together on this issue."
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