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Wayfarers: Roma and Sinti’s bumpy ride through education

Access to education for people from the lower socio-economic class has improved immensely in Europe from the 1950s onwards. Yet the Roma and Sinti were unable to reap benefits from this. PhD candidate Anita van der Hulst researched why so few Roma and Sinti went on to higher education. PhD defence on 16 February.

In her dissertation, Van der Hulst focuses on Roma and Sinti people from the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. From 1950 onwards, their shared history strongly diverged. Eastern European countries disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and entered the communist era. 'From that point onwards, you can see how a government-imposed emancipation movement causes things to go differently compared to the Netherlands,' she explains. Roma children, for example, were required to go to school for the first time, because compulsory education was strictly enforced.

Education leading to unemployment

Although the Czech Republic was stricter in terms of making children attend classes – this only started being pushed in the Netherlands from the 1990s onwards – that did not necessarily mean they had the same opportunities offered to the rest of society. A disproportionate number of Roma children were and still are sent to special education primary schools for mildly intellectually disabled children,' Van der Hulst explains. At its peak in the 1970s, as much as 70 percent of Roma children attended special education schools. Nowadays, that number has dropped to about a quarter, but it is still far above the national average of a few percent. 'Education at these schools is not necessarily bad: teachers are even specially trained for it. It is just that after the age of fifteen, you can't go on to further education, so you are basically getting an education that leads to unemployment.'

The placement of Roma children in special education primary schools was not an active policy from the government, but rather a consequence of everyday practices. The parents of Roma and Sinti children in both the Netherlands and the Czech Republic are extremely low-skilled. A significant number of parents are illiterate or have low literacy levels. 'Children from a low socioeconomic background are at an enormous disadvantage compared to children from the middle class at the time they begin their education. Their vocabulary is much smaller and they haven’t mastered all kinds of skills that you would need to be in school. Something as simple as sitting on your chair or holding a pen, for example. That has to be taught at home as well,' explains Van der Hulst. 'Teachers also think that the children simply cannot handle regular education and low-educated parents do not see the need to send their child to a regular school, which is usually further away as well.'

Vanishing effect

Nevertheless, this does not mean that no Roma or Sinti are moving on to further education. They are, however, suffering from what Van der Hulst calls the 'vanishing effect.' 'Policy makers no longer see them as Roma and Sinti because, as higher educated people, they no longer fit the stereotypical image of those groups and they may have somewhat distanced themselves from these stereotypes as well. They vanish, not only for policymakers, but also for impoverished Roma and Sinti themselves. Higher educated people were not a role model until recently,' she says.

All of this is intrinsically connected to a history Roma and Sinti in both countries share of persecution, expulsion, and two genocides: once in the first half of the eighteenth century and once in the Second World War. 'These events are an important reason behind why Roma and Sinti people are always suspicious of the motives of the rest of society. There is an impression of us-versus-them, which is why they keep a distance from the rest of society. Authorities and education also belong to this group of ‘them.’ That is why, until recently, middle-class Roma were not considered role models for the rest of the group.’

Until recently, that is, because that image appears to be changing. 'In the Czech Republic, a young group of Roma who are proud to identify as such are now forming a middle class. This change is also noticeable in the Netherlands. ‘From my interviews, it appears that Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands noticed that a clear shift in the 1990s. Education has been compulsory in the Netherlands since 1900, but it was not strongly enforced amongst Roma and Sinti people. But since the shift, if your child came home for lunch and didn't go back to school after the break, the phone would suddenly ring and the children would be picked up from home. As a result, the attitude towards education changed tremendously. A tradition of education has slowly but surely been developing in both countries. Absenteeism remains high, but the general consensus appears to be that children are supposed to at least go to school until they are twelve years old. This was certainly not the case seventy years ago.' According to Van der Hulst, this shift is a hopeful sign. 'This growing tradition of education will fortify with each generation. However, it is important to consider things in terms slow changes over several generations instead of major changes within the next ten years.'

Choosing the right education

In order to stimulate the growing tradition of education, Van der Hulst believes the education system should be critically re-examined. ‘In many European countries, such as the Czech Republic, you don't choose your educational track until you are fifteen or sixteen. In the Netherlands, advice on your educational track happens at the young age of twelve and it is very decisive for the rest of your educational career,' she says.  'Moreover, teachers tend to advise children from the lower socioeconomic classes to take a lower educational track in comparison to their capabilities. Not because teachers have bad intentions, but because they think children are already struggling enough at home and therefore would not be able to handle a higher level. The opposite could be argued if you consider that this child has been performing well regardless of their bad home situation and would probably be fully capable of handling a higher level.'

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