Including the most marginalised: Roma students’ education during the coronavirus crisis

Young girl with school book in lap sitting outside on wooden bench barefoot

By Alexandre Rutigliano

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is shaking countries’ institutional structures, including education systems, calls for measures to limit the spread of the virus multiply. There are constant reminders that it is essential to “wash your hands regularly” or, most importantly, “stay home and avoid contact with others”.

However, across Europe a significant number of Roma families live in slums or other over-crowded sites, in which they might not have running water and often share facilities with others. The European Fundamental Rights Agency in its 2016 Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that 38% of the Roma surveyed did not have a toilet, a shower or a bathtub inside the house, and that Roma children are on average twice as likely as non-Roma to be in a situation of extreme poverty. In addition, numerous Roma work in the informal sector and access to healthcare can be difficult for people living in informal and segregated settlements. In this context, Roma children and adolescents are among the groups most impacted by the crisis, and it is challenging for countries to adequately respond to their needs.

Educational challenges for the most marginalised Roma

Even before the coronavirus crisis, many Roma children in informal settlements already struggle to access education. They may have to commute long distances or miss an academic year because of registration obstacles. Despite these challenges, the school tends to be a point of reference for many families, which provides knowledge, administrative support and nutritious meals on which vulnerable children can rely.

Even before this crisis, many Roma children struggled to access education. With schools closed, students from marginalised groups risk falling further behind in their learning.

The universal response to the crisis has been the use of remote teaching and digital educational tools. Nonetheless, these measures, while benefiting a majority of students, can leave out already marginalised groups such as Roma. PISA 2018 highlights that in most European countries, 95% of students report having a computer to use for their work at home. While there is no disaggregated data to give an account on the specific situation of Roma students, the work of local associations across Europe suggests that Roma children in informal settlements are largely over-represented in the remaining 5%.

In a recent policy brief on governments’ answers to the crisis, a Romanian Roma association noted that the absence of a systematic plan to ensure educational access to all students might significantly deepen already existing educational gaps. Roma students’ academic performance and well-being remain often far behind most of the rest of the student population, including other marginalised minority groups. For example, the 2017 Race Disparity Audit in the United Kingdom found that among all groups of students, those from Roma background had the lowest attainment and progress. Since education systems are to offer universal and equitable services to all, providing an education that is accessible and responds to the needs of only certain student groups – even in times of crisis – seems contrary to non-discrimination and inclusion principles.

Initiatives for Roma students and their communities

Some governments and organisations have nonetheless started supporting Roma students and their communities. The Slovak government, with the help of staff of non-governmental organisations on the ground, is continuously communicating in Romani to Roma families, informing them on the crisis and measures to adopt. France has put a hold on evictions during the crisis, including for informal settlements.

Municipalities are at the front line in supporting Roma communities. In Italy, Portugal and Serbia, among other countries, municipalities are working with schools and associations to provide communities with running water, food and medication.

In terms of education provision, some governments and school districts, often with the help of international and civil society organisations, are broadening their initiatives to respond to vulnerable student groups. UNICEF is currently working with ministries on developing initiatives to reach marginalised Roma communities where children do not have access to quality health services or technology. At the national level, Slovenia, with the help of private donors, recently collected thousands of electronic devices to support those vulnerable children without access to a computer, while ensuring its ongoing support to improve access to education for Roma students. In Spain, the Fundación Secretariado Gitano is closely working with local authorities to limit the effect of the digital divide and ensure educational continuity for Roma children.

Thinking a step ahead: A holistic approach to foster Roma students’ inclusion

Roma organisations, which are largely supporting Roma communities across Europe during the crisis, nonetheless warn that measures will be needed to tackle broader issues heightened by the crisis, such as anti-Roma racism, that will have a lasting effect on the sense of belonging and self-worth of Roma students. A key element will thus be to work in close partnership with Roma organisations and local communities on the post-2020 EU Strategic Framework for Roma inclusion. Such an approach might help not only reduce further educational gaps between Roma and non-Roma students, but also provide access to healthcare and support the fight against anti-Gypsyism. In the long run, this is likely to foster more inclusiveness in European education systems.

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