The Crisis of Romani Education in Europe

Roma children studying in an integrated school in Kosovo — photo: J. Idrizi

Look on any travel site, and you are likely to find advice for nervous tourists seeking to avoid being scammed by the numerous con artists who congregate beneath Paris’ tourist attractions. Particular attention is paid to the roving bands of “gypsy girls,” petitions in hand, seeking signatures for the “Deaf-Mute Association,” teenage boys running shell games, or women begging in the streets. “Just so you know, they are entitled to send their children to school, but most choose not to, they “school” them on how to steal instead, note I said most, not all. I only add this so you understand that the French government is not heartless,” says one review, ignorant of last year’s scandal in which local French government authorities and mayors were accused of preventing Roma children from attending schools by slowing their applications.

Early on in the research of this article while attempting to contact a Romani school teacher in Romania, I found myself asking a Romanian friend of mine to help translate a message to him. She agreed to translate for me, but expressed doubts about if he was actually a teacher, and even greater incredulity that he had gone to university.

“Why?” I asked.

“They are very stupid,” she said. “They can’t learn.”

I was shocked, not just by the racism of the statement, but by the idea that the Romani are not just frequently uneducated, but lack the mental capabilities to learn. This absence of understanding is not uncommon, and remains strongly ingrained throughout European society; a 1959 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica stated that “The mental age of an average adult Gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of 10.”

Sadly, these stereotypes are not limited to Europeans. Among American students at the American University of Paris, the sentiment against the Roma is high, perhaps due to the fact that their daily interactions with them take place at tourist locations like the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, or the Arc de Triomphe. “My main experiences with Romani have been in the streets. Every day I walk past the Eiffel Tower to school, and every day I am greeted with the “speak English?” scam. It’s mainly young children and old women, but I’ve been intimidated by large groups of Romani men as well, trying to force my hand. Every time I walk away, but sometimes they are tricky. I even had a young and attractive Romani be used as bait to lure me in while several others come out of the bushes,” says a student at AUP who asked to remain anonymous.

The question is, are these accurate representations of the Roma population at large, or are they exaggerated stereotypes, exacerbated by a reality in which many Roma are forced to turn to begging or crime due to lack of other options? With a quarter of Roma in Europe classified as illiterate, this education crisis, combined with a history of discrimination against the group, has left many Roma unable to find work as secondary degrees are increasingly required for even low-level jobs.

The issue is a lack of education on behalf of the Roma, as well as the public at large. In the Roma’s case, due to the extreme levels of poverty, when other students are attending high school, many Roma youths have to get work. By the age of 19, it is almost impossible for Roma to continue on to university, for there is not enough time for them to work as well to support their family.

Roma enrollment rates at pre-schools remain low. Source: UNDP

While there have been cases of Romani students directly refused access to French schools, in Eastern Europe the situation is even more dire. The illiteracy rate for Roma in South Eastern Europe is 22% on average for men, and 32% for women. In most countries, barely 30% attend pre-school, only 18% attend secondary school, and less than 1% go on to university.

Tudor Lakatos, a Romani schoolteacher in Romania who is perhaps better known to the outside world as Elvis Romano, the self-described “only person in the world who dared to sing Elvis Presley in Romani,” has dedicated his life to changing these statistics.

Lakatos initially dreamed of becoming a musician, but after visiting several Romanian schools and seeing the situation of Romani students, he studied at university in Bucharest to get his teaching degree. After graduating, people told him to stay in Bucharest to teach at the schools, but he returned to teach at a Roma school in his hometown of Șomcuta Mare, where he now teaches Romani history and language, as well as runs after-school programs in English, Computer Skills, Music, and assisting students with their homework.

Tudor Lakatos — photo: Jules Bau

Lakatos was raised in poverty, as was his father, who was only able to attend school until the fourth grade. During Lakatos’ childhood, his family grew up as beggars, with his father taking a job at a mine to get enough money to feed his children and send them to school. Despite his lack of education, Lakatos’ father nevertheless saw its importance in increasing his children’s future opportunities, and made sure that they attended school.

Yet many Romani have not had the opportunity to study as Lakatos did. This lack of education, combined with the already extant stigma against them, has left many Roma at a dead end, where odd jobs or begging are their only options.

Lakatos knows a number of people who have left Romania to beg in Western Europe. “In Romania they have nothing, and if they get one coin, two coins a day, it's something, because here they get nothing. The gypsies don’t beg because they want more than what they had. They beg because they need.” Beggars will make €500 over the course of three or four months before returning home, and while it seems little by Western European standards, in Romania, and for Romani in particular, it is a fortune.

Tudor Lakatos, Romani eductor and Elvis impersonator

Lakatos has found that being Roma enables him to forge a bond with his students that his ethnic surprised his fellow teachers, and helped in their understanding of teaching Romani children. “I have colleagues, Romanians in my school, and they saw that the Roma kids, if you get closer to them, they will be warmer…and if not, then the Roma students will say ‘Okay he doesn’t want me, because I’m a gypsy, not because I am a little stupid on the reading and the learning.” This constant, and frequently

While it has been an uphill battle, Lakatos has seen positive results. “Three students of mine have finished their high school and two are on their way [to university] and one is already in his first year at medical school. And they are a good example for new students coming. For me, if I help eight children or ten children become educated, then it is worth it.”

“I try to do my best,” says Lakatos. “Education is the first mother of a child. And the child of a gypsy without education is a double criminal.” Yet the work of dedicated educators like Lukatos is not enough to ameliorate the situation of the Roma. A dedicated and conscious effort must be made by European governments, not just to educate the Roma, but to educate their citizens about the Roma, and work to reduce the barriers to education and work that they face; the question is whether such an effort would have the political will to succeed in improving life for the Roma in Europe.

Roma Decade Conference on Inclusive Education — source:

This year marks the close of one such attempt to help the Roma, the European Decade of Roma Inclusion. Described as “an unprecedented political commitment” by European governments to eliminate discrimination against Roma,” the Roma decade brought together the governments of 12 countries with substantial Roma populations, united in their dedication to “close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society.” But a lack of any clear achievements made by the plan, combined with the fact that 90% of Roma in the countries involved continue to live in poverty at the program’s end, suggest that the the Roma Decade has been of limited success in improving the Roma’s situation. But the visibility it has brought to the situation has proved of some help. “ The Decade of Roma Inclusion has had some success in bringing attention to the plight of the Roma in Europe and created many invaluable reports on the situation of the Roma in various EU nations,” says AUP graduate student Katelin Neikirk, who wrote her thesis on the subject of the Roma. “Actual change, that is much harder to measure and in my opinion, the Decade of Roma Inclusion has not done much to really change the daily lives of individual Roma.”

Neikirk has seen other gradual improvements as well. “I think they are beginning to work to make access easier for…oma individuals to organize their paperwork, apply for residency cards, employment papers and enroll their children in schools.” Beyond this, some schools have began teaching French as a second language courses to help not just Roma children but immigrants in general. But, while Neikirk thinks that “these are great steps forward, there is still work to be done.”

With last year’s brutal beating of a Roma teenager on the outskirts of Paris still fresh in the minds of many, and the anti-immigrant Front National on the rise, the question remains as to whether the situation for France’s Romani community will improve, or the levels of violence and discrimination will remain for the foreseeable future. The issues faced by the Roma will continue unless further attempts are made by the government to improve their access to education (rather than dragging their children off of school buses.) Yet at the same time, the general public must be better educated about the Roma, with the goal of reducing public prejudice against them.