Updated: Thursday, 30 January 2014 15:19 | By Agence France-Presse

Hungary Roma condemned to special needs schools

As Hungary struggles to integrate its large Roma minority, a relic from the communist-era education system continues to place disproportionate numbers of Roma children in schools for pupils with learning disabilities.


Hungary Roma condemned to special needs schools

Image taken on December 9, 2013 shows pupils attend a class at the Petofi Sandor special school for disabled children in Gyongyos, northern Hungary - by Attila Kisbenedek

At the state-run Petofi school in Gyongyos, 80 kilometres (50 miles) east of Budapest, most of the children aged from five to 18 appear to be Roma.

They can be seen happily singing songs and drawing pictures, and few have any visible disability.

The school's director Eva Katalin Darudit refuses to be drawn on how many of them are Roma, telling AFP it is against the law to "categorise the children by ethnicity".

But she says that 60 to 70 percent come from "disadvantaged backgrounds" -- a term often synonymous for the Roma minority who make up an estimated eight percent of Hungary's population of 10 million.

Darudit says many classes within the school are so-called “catching-up” groups, where children with learning disabilities are helped to reintegrate into the mainstream school system.

But for Erzsebet Mohacsi, head of the A Chance for Disadvantaged Children foundation, schools like Petofi are used as dumping grounds for children who are unwanted by the rest of society.

"Overall around 90 percent of the children in these schools are Roma and very few have any actual disabilities," Mohacsi, herself of Roma ethnicity, told AFP.

Systemic failure

Official statistics are unavailable, but Mohacsi believes only a third of Roma children attend normal mixed schools.

“Another third are in schools with predominantly or exclusively Roma kids, in other words segregated schools, while the remainder are in schools for the handicapped,” she says.

In January 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of two young Hungarian Roma men who argued that their placement in a school for children with learning disabilities was discriminatory.

The court concluded that Roma are over-represented at such schools and blamed a "systemic" failure hanging over from Hungary's communist era in how children were diagnosed with disabilities.

Mohacsi says local committees -- made up of teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists -- charged with sending kids to the schools often rush decisions on a child's fate, sometimes without proper testing, or even without the child or the parents present.

Compulsory kindergarten

The Hungarian authorities insist their goal is mixed education, as stated in its "Roma Integration Strategy" document for 2007 to 2015.

"Our aim is to educate Roma children and non-Roma children together," Rozsa Hoffmann, state secretary for public education, told AFP.

She points to a new provision obliging all children from next September to attend kindergarten from the age of three. 

But the goal of integration appears a long way off.

Many Roma children currently miss out on kindergarten altogether for economic or logistical reasons and do not enter the school system until they are six years old.

According to a study commissioned by the EU's Roma Decade of Integration initiative, the number of Roma completing secondary school rose to just six percent by 2012 from five percent in 2007. 

The number gaining a university degree was around one percent in 2012, virtually unchanged from 2007.

One ray of hope may be the rise in numbers enrolled in secondary education -- which begins at the age of 14 -- up to 19 percent in 2012 from 10 percent five years earlier.

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