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Vol 3, No 2
15 January 2001
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Roma in Slovakia 1+1=3
Roma in the Slovak educational system

Eva Sobotka

The government of the Slovak Republic is hoping for a miracle. The educational system has proven to be exclusionary and the Roma have come out worst. According to qualified estimates there are roughly 400,000 Roma children out of a total child population (age group zero to 18) of nearly 1.6 million. These children are losing out.

Jan Cangar, PhD, of the State Pedagogical Institute, commented that the Slovak educational system is oriented towards meeting the needs of an average child. To use a metaphor, the Slovak educational system is an average nickle-and-dime store where goods are reasonably priced but lack quality.

Far from average

Roma children do not come from an average family environment. In Slovakia, Roma families are poor, they often live in inadequate housing, and they do not have money to cover the expenses of kindergarten, extra-curricular activities, or specialist schools.

"Our children," as expressed by a Slovak Romani leader, "grow up in mud, in settlements that are often segregated not only from the rest of the village but also cut off from the water and electricity." Several elementary schoolteachers told CER that Roma children from the settlements have no idea how to peal a banana or an orange before eating it when they first come to school.

Since the attendance of Romani children at kindergarten is relatively low their knowledge of the Slovak language is minimal by the time they enroll at the elementary school. The mental capacity of a six-year-old Roma child, as argued by staff at the State Pedagogical Institute is equivalent to a two to three-year-old non-Roma child. This is evident from their drawings and paintings in the first grade of the elementary school.

An elementary schoolteacher told CER, that because a Romani child does not usually understand Slovak at the time of enrollment into the elementary school, they are unable to follow first grade lessons. Whilst their knowledge of the Slovak language improves over the first school year, the child can miss key topics, and usually falls further behind in the second grade.

They must be mentally ill

The trend continues into the third and fourth grades so by the time Romani children reach the fifth grade they are unable to catch up. As a result, the school arranges the transfer of the child to the special school for mentally handicapped. "This scenario has become so notoriously typical," says a teacher from a special school who does not hide his embarrassment, and follows to explain that at the age of 12 when children are entering the sixth grade, there is very little that can be improved.

A director of a special school for mentally handicapped told CER that in many cases the Roma children who are transferred for having poor schooling results are certainly not mentally handicapped.

The state that is responsible for the elementary education of all children, have been shifting Roma children, who come from bi, sometimes tri or quatro lingual families into special schools for mentally handicapped for years. In these institutions children cannot complete the elementary education necessary for pursuing studies secondary school or university.

Instead of pursuing their studies Romani children that finish special remedial schools for mentally handicapped at best find themselves a place at a special occupation training school for blue-collar workers. At worst, they see another side of social exclusion—long-term unemployment.

This is not the way forward

In recent years NGO activists, specialists on education and Roma leaders have argued that this is not the way forward. While the government of the Slovak Republic has promised for years that changes in the educational system will take place in a form of a dramatic "makeover," the Roma children are still wrongly sent to special schools, says a educational specialists who further argues: "A preparatory program for five-year olds has proven that they can make it, when attention is being paid to their development at least one year prior to the elementary school enrollment."

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Some changes, however, have taken place. There is a fee-free kindergarten offering places to children who grow up in socially and economically disadvantaged families, or preparatory classes at the elementary schools that offer a similar help to the children prior their enrollment at the elementary school.

However, the positive changes that have been proudly presented to the outside world have been administered as "experimental projects" for the past ten years. In fact, positive programs are only implemented in a few schools in Slovakia, without a systematic approach aimed at changing the whole educational system. Too bad for the Romani children—one would think—when hoping for a miracle.

Eva Sobotka, 15 January 2001

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