How can education systems promote the inclusion of Roma students?

Diverse students in classroom raising their hands. Teacher standing in front of a blackboard

By Alexandre Rutigliano

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Roma communities represent approximately 10-12 million people, the majority of whom live in Europe. In spite of forming the continent’s largest ethnic minority, they are also among the most excluded groups, facing significant societal challenges and suffering from widespread anti-Gypsyism. The international commitment to foster the inclusion of Roma communities from 2005 onwards has sparked numerous projects and funds, many of which target education.

While adopting the view that inclusive education enhances educational outcomes and promotes cohesive societies, a newly published OECD Working Paper maps policy initiatives that promote the inclusion of Roma students in education systems.

Collecting consistent data on ethnicity

Countries have different ways of categorising ethnic groups and collecting diversity data. After the Second World War, most of continental Europe sought to discard the notion of race and forbade the use of any category differentiating people based on their ethnic origin. These countries are referred to as colour-blind societies and prefer the category of “migrant status” limited to nationality, which results in a lack of data on other diverse groups. Conversely, most English-speaking countries and some Central and Eastern European ones use race/ethnic categories. Though these countries might collect diversity data, they face criticisms related to higher risks of stigmatisation and generalisation. These political divergences lead to ongoing debates on how to collect data on Roma communities and whether to implement targeted or mainstream policies for Roma inclusion.

Besides legal barriers, methodologically insufficient censuses and Roma’s lack of trust towards public institutions greatly affect the collection of consistent data necessary for the implementation of effective policies. Potential measures to solve these issues are the use self-identification, questionnaires with multiple options and the involvement of communities in data collection processes. Mostly thanks to national and international agencies and associations, it is possible to have an overview of the situation of these communities in Europe.

Despite encouraging progress, significant inclusion challenges remain

Substantial achievements have been reached, mainly in terms of access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) and primary education for Roma students. According to the Fundamental Rights Agency, in Spain and Hungary in 2016 the share of Roma enrolled in ECEC reached 95% and 91% respectively, close to the European education and training target. In various European countries, enrolment rates of Roma students in compulsory education now exceed 90%.

Roma students often lag behind. Beyond primary level, early dropouts remain an issue and Roma educational attainment is low

Yet, Roma students often lag behind. Beyond primary level, early dropouts remain an issue and Roma educational attainment is low. A European Commission report using 2016 data estimated that 38% of Roma students complete lower secondary education; 18% upper secondary, vocational and post-secondary education; with only 2% completing post-secondary and tertiary education. This reduced participation might be due to several issues, including a lack of knowledge on Roma communities, non-diversity-conscious curricula, teachers’ negative perceptions of Roma students and widespread segregation in education.

An ongoing effort to promote Roma students’ inclusion

There have been promising initiatives aimed at tackling these challenges in order to promote the inclusion of Roma students at different levels of education. Many countries have invested in ECEC as a key area to enhance future educational outcomes. For example, Slovenia intends to develop new models of preschool education in Roma settlements and to place more Roma assistants in kindergartens. At the tertiary level, various Central and Eastern European universities have designed fellowships, scholarships and established Romani studies departments to enhance access, participation and sense of belonging of young Roma. In Portugal, with the support of the Portuguese High Commissioner for Migration, associations designed a pedagogical kit to support primary and secondary educators in teaching knowledge about Roma culture(s), language(s) and history to all students.

Community-based projects encouraging genuine participation are most effective

Inclusion requires a holistic approach – an approach that considers not only students’ achievement, but also their well-being, self-worth and sense of belonging, and promotes co-operation between stakeholders as well as participation. For Roma students, most effective initiatives build on the participation of communities in both the design and implementation of projects, and consider education as a part of broader social inclusion. For example, a locally-based project co-funded by the European Commission implemented in Albacete, Spain (2006-2011) that linked research, participation and egalitarian intercultural dialogue led to an increase in both educational outcomes for Roma students and social outcomes in the whole neighbourhood.

Prioritising approaches that are based on intercultural dialogue, considering the diversity between and within ethnic groups and promoting their genuine participation could be an efficient way to enhance the inclusion of such groups across OECD countries.

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