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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 22:23 GMT
Roma welcome anti-segregation ruling
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Budapest

Roma rights groups across eastern Europe have warmly welcomed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which found the Czech Republic guilty of discriminating against Roma children by placing them in special schools for the mentally handicapped.

Roma youth in Bulgaria
Generations of Roma have grown up in segregated schools

In a landmark decision, the Court ruled in favour of 16 young people from the city of Ostrava in the east of the Czech Republic.

"This is the best news we've had in a long time," Alexandre Marc, director of the Budapest-based Roma Education Fund, told the BBC.

He underlined that the ruling would set an important legal precedent - that sending young Roma children to special schools for the mentally handicapped constitutes discrimination.

He forecast major implications for the education system in many east European countries, especially Slovakia, where at least 90% of Roma children attend special schools for the mentally retarded.

"Local judges throughout the region will have to study this ruling carefully," he added.

Beata Olahova, a Slovak working for the Roma Education Fund, was equally delighted.

"Civil society in Slovakia will be able to make good use of this, to lobby the government," she said.

Schools dispute

The Czech Republic, under international pressure, has already abolished special schools as a category, although what analysts call "geographical segregation" is still widespread.

Roma children in Bulgaria
Segregation has cost the Roma job opportunities

Right across eastern Europe, schools close to Roma settlements inevitably have a higher proportion of Roma children.

This often leads to non-Roma children being moved to other schools by their parents, who fear a lower level of education.

The result is an almost completely Roma school. Demographics also play an important role. Roma tend to have more children than other families.

Placement in a special school makes it unlikely that a person will ever gain useful qualifications.

In the Czech schools highlighted in the Strasbourg case, children at special schools were not expected to learn the alphabet, or be able to count to 10, until the third or fourth class - skills taught in normal schools in the first year.

In Slovakia, the certificate granted after eight years at a special primary school is only valid for vocational schools - it actually rules out acceptance at secondary school.

In Hungary, several local courts have ruled in favour of Roma children who sued the state for discrimination, for placing them in special schools.

But in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, courts have until now rejected their claims.

Model school

One aspect of the problem highlighted by human rights groups is the system of financial incentives in many countries.

Roma boys by campfire
A brighter, more egalitarian future may await the next generation

In Slovakia, special schools receive twice the sum per capita for pupils, compared to ordinary primary schools.

This has maintained and even increased the practice.

In response to international criticism, there are a growing number of "special classes" for gypsies in ordinary primary schools.

While this has the advantage of not ruling out a transfer to the mainstream, if a child does well, the Roma complain that it is still a form of discrimination.

In Hungary, pressure from Roma groups has shifted the balance to financial incentives for normal primary schools which enrol children from what are described as "disadvantaged backgrounds" - often a reference to the Roma.

That is seen as one of the main tools for ending segregation - and one that could become a model in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Experts suggest that the proportion of children from a minority background in a single class should not exceed 25%.

Controversy within Roma

There are a small number of schools in eastern Europe where Roma communities have set up their own, largely Roma schools, to prove that, with a high teaching standard, they can do as well as "white" children.

Roma woman from Romania, as an immigrant in Ireland
The Roma have faced prejudice in many parts of Europe

One example is the Gandhi Secondary School in Pecs in southern Hungary.

There is also a growing controversy within the Roma community in several countries.

The tension is between Roma rights activists who demand the full integration of Roma children into ordinary schools and others who lay the emphasis on the need for more teaching of Roma language, history and culture.

The latter group wants this teaching to take place both in ordinary schools, in order to erode the prejudice of the majority, and in schools which have a high proportion of Roma children - to increase the pupils' pride in their own identity.

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