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PRIMER and the Issue of Desegregation

A Position Paper in Relation to Educational Desegregation

In Central and Eastern Europe in general, Roma have been educated primarily in segregated (all Roma) or ‘special’ schools/classes – ‘special’ schools/classes being aimed at children with physical and/or mental disability. This has been based upon geographical factors (a concentration of Roma in segregated settlement patterns sometimes referred to as ghettos) and on long standing anti-Roma discrimination and institutionalised racism within the provision of public services. The political and administrative reality in this situation has resulted in marked unequal resource distribution and the wilful application of inappropriate educational assessment criteria, with the result that a majority of Roma children have received inferior educational opportunities with the consequential and damaging impact on achievement with its knock-on influence of limited life chances and access to the labour market. However, this system is slowly changing and this project aims to promote the inclusion of Roma children within mainstream education by developing models of good policy and practice in implementing desegregated, inclusive and culturally sensitive education which are rooted in the key principles of race equality.

These key principles have been pre-eminent in influencing the PRIMER approach to the issue of the desegregation of ‘Roma’ schools. This approach has been unrepentant in its commitment to rid local educational provision of discriminatory segregation and ensure equality of opportunity irrespective of differences in ethnicity, cultural heritage, gender and or disability.

A key principle is that of informed parental choice. This right is enshrined within human rights legislation internationally. However, it is important that parents are presented with realistic choices and that strenuous and carefully monitored efforts are made to guarantee that parents are fully informed of the implications associated with their choice of school/college. For some communities, such advice would need to focus on issues of race equality/equal opportunities, and municipality education departments should ensure that the context of choice is not distorted or corrupted by genuine perceptions of institutional discrimination, racism and intimidation. At secondary and post secondary stages of education, the wishes of the pupils/students also need to be taken into account in relation to school/college choice, but the same parameters of informed choice also apply.  

A second key principle, and particularly so at the pre-school and primary stages of education, is that educational provision should be, as far as possible, at the centre of the local community. This not only helps with the daily practicalities of getting young children to school on time and being able to pick them up when ill, but more importantly, it allows for parents/carers and families to be realistically included within the life and work of their child’s school experience. It is also important for schools to have close links not only with their parental community, so that satisfactory liaison and relationships can be established in the interests of the welfare and educational progress of the children, but also the wider community which has a vested interest role to play and the potential for contributing resources in a number of forms including, for example, opportunities for pupils to visit local places of religious worship as part of their multi-faith studies and spiritual development.

A further principle associated with securing race equality in education is linked to inspection, monitoring and evaluation of educational provision and outcomes. Unless these different, but equally important aspects of professional activity identify and produce comparative data based on ethnic background analysis, there can be no confident guarantees that policies directed at equality of opportunity are working and that illegal discrimination is being eliminated. There are clearly far-reaching implications here for the training of staff both at school and municipal/regional levels but this should be an expected part of the on-costs of securing educational equality.

An equally important principle is that of assessment processes. Educational assessment of individual pupil needs should be firmly based within a culturally-free and unbiased assessment context. A child’s home/first language is not a relevant criterion for school/class placement and assessments aimed at establishing a child’s level of attainment and cognitive potential, and or any non-linguistic related special educational needs, should respect the requirement in certain circumstances of the assessment process being conducted in the child’s home/first language. Ethnic monitoring evidence which identifies a disproportionate number/percentage of children from one or more ethnic minority groups within any particular school(s) or class(es) must be automatically reviewed on the assumption that the results betray a corrupt and value/cultural laden assessment process. Thus, in regard to the issue of appropriate school/class placement of pupils, equality principles need to be embedded in all decision making and assessment processes to ensure that there is no institutional or school internal discriminatory segregation.

It is vital that educational planning, including policy, provision and professional practice, at local, regional and national levels, embraces the aim of eliminating racial discrimination and any form of school/pupil segregation. With the general European situation of declining populations in most countries, a unique and valuable opportunity now exists to achieve race equality through a much needed rationalisation of school-place provision and thus effectively ironing out unlawful and discriminatory patterns of educational segregation. Regional school place planning, which is now a necessity, must not only reduce the number of redundant school places created by falling pupil numbers, but also must address the issue of desegregation by ensuring that the key principles as detailed above are the essential tenets of any planned changes and reform. Any national and or regional educational development plans also need to be compatible with these principles.

Decisions in this context need to take further account of other necessary ingredients if race equality is to be achieved:

1. these include any school closures will be achieved on the basis of criteria which secure community/ethnic background equity as far as possible in distance travelled between school and home community and equity in the burden of any travel costs; assistance with home to school/college travel costs might be required on a means tested basis; as too, assistance may also be necessary in relation to the provision of school lunches if the distance travelled is too time-consuming and or dangerous to be feasible for a home visit during the school/college day  (issues surrounding clothing and school books etc. may also require support if parental income is such that it militates against regular school attendance)

2. these should also include any school closures to be based on the disposition of the best school building stock and viable capacity irrespective of local attitudes to particular districts

3. when small under-used schools in rural villages have to be closed, it is important that the receiving school/community/village/small town, views itself as the hub of a wider community which designs policy and practice in a way that is inclusive of its wider hinterland. This might mean the provision of special transport for some children to provide realistic participation opportunities in extra-curricular and sporting activities after school. Some families in these logistical circumstances may also need to be supported by the school to help with the costs of attending parents’ school events

4. these should also include in the situation of large ‘ghetto’ type Roma schools the potential for redefining the local schools’ community catchments areas so that school places in adjacent non-Roma communities are made available on the basis of choice to parents and pupils living within the Roma community. Conversely, Roma community schools need to be included in the same process of offering places to other locally adjacent communities which would have to be taken up because of a reduction and or basic shortage of school places in other local schools as a result of a local or regional rationalisation processes (or population pressure) and the importance of utilising the best school building stock, equity of travel burdens and the importance of securing schools with as wide a social and ethnic mix as possible (this may mean in the short term that some schools with predominantly Roma pupils will stay open. In these circumstances, which should be few in number, it will be vitally important that such schools receive any additional resources needed to secure best quality provision and satisfactory (average) educational standards/outcomes, and that if necessary, additional financial incentives be given to ensure the recruitment and retention of the best qualified and experienced teaching staff. The aim of policy and provision in this context will be to make the schools so outstandingly successful, that non-Roam parents and pupils will want to attend)

5. these should also include the provision at all levels of appropriate in-service training for all staff (including all teachers) involved in educational policy and practice to ensure that they are fully conversant with the key principles of race equality in education and so can make adequate and appropriate educational decisions for all children in schools with their welcome ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity

6. these should also include the implementation of a school curriculum which is strongly intercultural in orientation and inclusive of the historical, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of all the pupils on the role of the school, and indirectly of those in the broader local, regional and national contexts

7.  these should also include the necessary devotion of time and resources to advise and support the diversity of communities on the reasons for such educational reforms

The essential programme of the desegregation of Roma schools and the general establishment of highly successful community schools reflecting the wider reality of community diversity, can only be achieved if the notions of fairness, justice and equality are firmly believed by the majority populations and that hearts and minds are positively engaged and exercised in a way that promotes the appreciation that real self-interest in an increasingly global context lies in achieving together. This essential change in public attitudes needs to be led by politicians and a responsible mass media.

Arthur R Ivatts OBE
Senior Educational Consultant (UK Government’s Department for Education and Skills)

14 April 2006