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Desegregating Roma and Croat schoolchildren: what has been done?

Three years after the ECHR's decision in Oršuš and Others v. Croatia found "separate but equal" education to be unconstitutional, the Roma Education Fund traveled to Međimurje County in Croatia to see how the integration of Croat and Roma schoolchildren had progressed.

Tom Bass
21 May 2013

REF monitors in a classroom in Kuršanec, Croatia. Roma Education Fund/Tom Bass. All rights reserved.

To mark the third anniversary of the Oršuš and Others v. Croatia ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, the Roma Education Fund traveled to Međimurje County in Croatia as part of its regular monitoring of preschool integration projects. REF has been in partnership with the county and the Croatian Ministry of Education since 2010 as part of Croatia’s obligation to prevent discrimination against Roma in its school system.

Joining other landmark decisions by the ECHR in cases such as D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic and this year’s Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary, Oršuš found that Romani children’s rights had been violated in the Croatian school system. This judgement also adds weight to the judgments against other states in Central Europe that persist in allowing segregated schools and classes for Roma. If and how the states choose to act is another question due to the Court's limited powers of implementation. REF has been instrumental in providing models and policy solutions to what many people, including state representatives, often presuppose to be an intractable "Roma problem".

Čakovec: The county seat

Pressed between Slovenia and Hungary is a triangle of Croatian land surrounded by flood-prone river boundaries. Međimurje County is the northernmost, smallest, yet most densely populated Croatian county. It is home to approximately 120,000 people who work primarily in agriculture and also supply western economies with migrant labour. According to a 2001 census, there are less than 3,000 Roma living in the county; although the real number of Roma is estimated to be nearly 30,000 - the highest number of Roma anywhere in Croatia.

At the county seat of Čakovec, the prefect and local school officials assure us they are doing their utmost to provide Romani children in the area with quality, inclusive education. This willingness to change is only after much persuasion by REF in the aftermath of the county’s loss of face in the Oršuš case. Their "responsibility" is to create the preconditions for integration in primary schools within the framework of a two-year REF-led project.

“We have to live together,” says the prefect, “We have to work with children, parents and the majority population.”

The plants and binders seem to nod in perfect harmony with the lofty school and county officials. Do they really believe their schools to be islands of integration between the Mura and Drava rivers that hem in this region?

Teaching assistant at a Romani class in Kuršanec. Roma Education Fund/Tom Bass. All rights reserved.

Kuršanec: the new centre

We splash down rural roads and round snowy villages until we split off the main road at Kuršanec. A half kilometre beyond the village, with its looming church spire still in sight, we arrive at our first destination, Kuršanec Family Center, a new community facility adjoining the Romani settlement.

A group of Romani parents greet us inside; their children play in two classrooms across the hall. In the presence of the eavesdropping officials, the mums and dads assure us that they are satisfied with the new family center and the preschool preparation their children receive; indeed, knowing how to read and how to speak Croatian are real achievements for the children of Romani parents, many of whom did not even complete primary school.

It leaks out that things are not quite so rosy, especially when it comes to employment. There are few opportunities for any job more sustainable than casual labour in the agricultural sector.

One father says, “For them, we aren’t Roma, we’re Gypsies.”

Apparently, that’s enough in Međimurje to guarantee discrimination in the labour market and to qualify for every other kind of injustice and lack of public service – so much so that one mother claims that a better preschool in another locality demanded payment to enroll her child when absolutely no payment is necessary.

The officials point at their watches, declare the meeting over, and hustle us into the two classrooms. Lunch already has been served from the kitchen and the children are playing inside. One room is engaged with clusters of children working with tape, scissors, yarn, paper and glue – on the walls, series of snowmen and bunnies. In the adjoining classroom they’ve set up a store with a till and groceries. The children appear well cared for and the school appears to be comfy and cozy, with all the necessary amenities. But despite the proliferation of toys and learning tools, and the cordial atmosphere, no majority children from the village are enrolled; they’ve got their own school in the village and they are not attending. The teachers and officials smile together, satisfied.

Croat and Roma children learning together in Mursko Središće. Roma Education Fun/Tom Bass. All rights reserved.

Mursko Središće: our dream in action

We zigzag across the county to Mursko Središće, a small town huddled against the Slovenian border. The school is just seconds away from the border post, from Schengen, the EU and prosperity. Built before the First World War, the Maslačak (Dandelion) kindergarten is housed in an elegant building of large rooms and high ceilings.

REF’s Country Facilitator Biserka Tomljenović issues a short brief: “This is a great example of cooperation between the local community, REF, the county and the ministry; here, all children from the Roma community have been integrated fully into the city kindergarten since 2005. The city is paying for half of the price of preschool education and the other part is paid by the ministry. REF pays for transportation.”

We’re ushered inside and the school is teeming with a mixture of Romani and non-Romani children. They’re in the halls, in the bathrooms, on the staircase and in the classrooms, which are well-furnished and brimming with the children’s creative output.

With 33 Romani and 60 non-Romani pupils, Mursko Središće’s school is what REF speaks about when it advocates for integration and equality in education. And like all cases where improvements have been made, this hinges on local initiative and will, here embodied in the school principal, Radmila Baljak, a former refugee from the Balkan Wars, who wanted to make a difference in her adopted home town.

We huddle together with more staff in the teacher’s lounge. The circle is joined by Milorad Mihanovic, an elected representative of the Roma National Council in Croatia, whose children also have attended school here. “She was the only teacher who loved us Roma,” says Mihanovic, nodding at Ms. Baljak who then explains her motivations for leading the integration of the town’s preschool: “In the first month of the first year the situation was very sensitive with the majority parents. For the first two months we kept the children apart in the same building, we must admit, but after that we put them together. Since then it’s been getting better and better each year. In the first year we started with fifteen children, although there were more of them officially on the list but their attendance was uncertain, and now this has improved as well. We’re making great progress and the parents know that.”

Vice-principal Spomenka Cilar adds, “The majority parents put a lot of pressure on us. Some parents took their children away and enrolled them in a private kindergarten. But they began to change their minds the moment when the children, who were involved in the preschool here, were enrolled in the primary school. When the non-Romani parents saw the difference, how this works better, how there were no problems like they had previously, then they started to see it as a benefit for them, too. The city mayor and the cooperation of the county school officials were also crucial.”

Pribislavec: coping with change

A few kilometres across the fields from Čakovec is the village of Pribislavec, home to a prominent Neo-Gothic castle. The tower casts a shadow over the town hall, where two representatives of the local Romani community are waiting. Here in Pribislavec, Romani children are bussed daily from the settlement to the village preschool and back.

The words of Kristijan Balog, president of the Association of Young Roma of Croatia, come as a surprise.

“I think it would be good for the preschool programs to take place in the Romani settlement. I know that the results are achieved here as well, but I think that better results would be achieved there. I think it would be more rational economically to have it in the Roma settlement and use the funds for transportation for other things like meals.”

We try to counter by arguing that if the settlement has few if any public services then, by default, educational services will also be lacklustre. We advise that integration does not equal segregation in the Romani community. REF’s entire existence is based on eliminating the geographical and physical isolation of Romani communities from mainstream schools.

Kristijan says, “The same staff from here would work there. Integration is an ideal situation which we cannot achieve overnight. This group of preschool children is getting preschool or primary education in a class where there are only Romani children anyway, so it is a Roma-only group of preschoolers in the municipality building. I see no difference here. My opinion is that the costs would be lower if the school would be in the Roma settlement. Full integration is a completely different issue.”

Biserko adds, “I agree with Kristijan that our people got used to getting things for nothing. Now you give them a bus. Tomorrow they will ask for the teacher to come to their home.”

Kristijan wants to reassure us. “It may seem that we are against our own people. This isn’t true, we just see that the path we have taken, assuming responsibility as parents, directing our efforts towards our children's education. All other parents should do this as well; this is good for Roma, this will benefit the whole community.”

According to REF’s experiences, having a local Roma school is a common and contradictory demand from many communities and REF treads a fine line when deciding how to work with a community and how to meet its needs.

Until education systems reform, Romani schools in Romani settlements are going to stay Romani schools with inferior services and curricula. Virtually no majority parents will allow their children to attend Romani schools and would rather enroll them somewhere else; nor do they understand the benefit to their children learning in a multicultural environment in mainstream schools – as we will see at the next stop.

So far, no state has genuinely implemented such a program, and even the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights cannot persuade politicians held hostage by their constituents to act. What usually follows: lip service to the language of democracy, foot dragging in the halls of power and no commitment on the ground - budgetary, educational, or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Romani children face poor attendance, lower teaching standards, missing early childhood development goals, malnutrition, segregated schools or classrooms, culturally biased entry tests for schooling, a high risk of dropping out, and general exclusion from school life.

Afternoon nutrition program at a school in Gornji Hrašćan. Roma Education Fund/Tom Bass. All rights reserved.

Gornji Hrašćan: the spark

The site of spontaneous protests by disgruntled non-Romani parents at the start of the 2012 school year, the preschool at Gornji Hrašćan is a stone’s throw from the road.

Biserka Tomljenović describes the conflict: “The preschool start was delayed for two days - two very difficult days - but finally an agreement was made with the non-Roma parents. These were organised protests and the children were not allowed to enter the school. The entire road was blocked, the police were here, and it was a really tough incident this school year, but a lot of effort was made by Sonja Tošić Grlač [county school official], the principal and the county prefect.”

The majority’s grievances have been driven by the economic crisis and the perceived inequality in the distribution of social benefits, along with objections to the “Roma lifestyle,” leading to what is now the third public incident in Međimurje County against Roma integration. 

After reaching a compromise in September, the school now works in two shifts. The morning shift for non-Romani children attending primary school and the afternoon shift of mostly Romani children in preschool program. The building, drab and featureless, looks in need of renovation. Inside cheerful children are queuing to wash their hands before their afternoon snack. In another room they’re squeezing one by one into a cardboard house or leafing through photo albums. The shelves are stacked with Duplo blocks, the walls are covered in their vivid pictures – a ghost, a devil, a clown, a troubadour. 

The pedagogue says, “This is the third year of implementation of the preschool program at our school. This year we have 52 preschool pupils, 44 Romani children and eight Croatian children. They are divided into three groups and start the afternoon at 1 PM. In the morning it is a primary school. There is only one preschool in this municipality and it is too small to receive all the children in need.”

She adds more about the background to the protest, revealing what the conflict boils down to. She says, “The municipality of Trnovec to which this settlement belongs is angered by the fact that the Roma did not pay their communal expenses to take out the garbage.”

But that’s not all: “Many young Croatian parents are not working - they've lost their jobs and are living off a few thousand kuna per month. But the state gives very high amounts to the Roma every month and they are not working at all. This is one thing that causes conflict.”

What we uncover is a complex story, a protest like any other, its main message supposedly about Romani pupils dumbing down the majority in class, but with another subliminal message in the background, a mixture of envy and entitlement, of disenfranchisement and dispossession, as majority membership is no longer a guarantee in the tough economic realities of today.

No one speaks of this, and why would they, if they can claim they are making steps to change the situation.   

The school principal Božena Dogša wants us to look on the bright side. She says, “There is no single child [from Parag] who does not attend a preschool program. Everyone aged six to seven is here. They are coming regularly by bus. The parents are very satisfied. We organize workshops with the parents in cooperation with ISSA [International Step by Step Association], so we are teaching parents how to be responsible, how to raise their child in a proactive way, and how to work with their children to achieve some skills. So when we compare the situation to ten years ago, it has improved a lot. Two groups come once a week. And four trainers from school, too. We have one group where all the parents are together, Roma and non-Roma. Despite the differences between them, they’re cooperating, they are exchanging their parenting and life experiences, even recipes.”

When asked if there is any progress, one of the school officials encapsulates the state of affairs better than anyone, “Ten years ago we had no problem because children did not go to school. Now we have them in school.”

Maybe so, but by the meeting’s close, no miracle changes the mood from defensive to cooperative; we’re shepherded down the steps and wave adieu, but not without one last word from Sonja Tošić Grlač, “We expect protests here next year. It is too soon, it takes time.”

Later, once we’ve been hustled into the school official’s favourite hunting lodge for a meal in Čakovec, one begins to get a sense of the scale of what needs to be changed for all Romani children to have access to inclusive, quality education: from the entire Romani population of Međimurje, only two Roma are university graduates, one of whom is unemployed, and only one Roma is currently attending university.

For them, it’s a choice, good will, altruism; for us, we have no other choice but to wrangle concessions in the courts and in the classroom if Romani children are to fulfill their rights to inclusive, quality education.

A longer version of this article appears at: http://www.romaeducationfund.hu/news/ref/news-and-events/what-have-they-done

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