CB: The Hungarian Roma population is considered to be one of the biggest in Europe (counting around 700 thousand people). However their integration is really difficult and people are less and less tolerant to each other. Is there something special that makes the Roma integration harder, the attitude of Hungarians towards them or vice-versa?
M.E.: It is really one of the toughest questions you can have, even experts are divided on the answer. Some say it is about a cultural difference, while others, like Zsuzsa FERGE, a well-known sociologist in Hungary claim that poverty is the source of the problem, that there is no Roma question, this is merely a poverty question. And it is true that a very big percent of the Roma is living under the poverty line in Hungary. The poverty is a result of the unemployment one of the causes of which is the low level of education. The quality of education that the Roma children receive today, defines their future and the success of their integration into the society. That's why our foundation decided to deal with this question, since this is the area where it is possible to make the most for the growing Roma society.
CB: The foundation fights against school segregation. It is well-known that the Roma usually do not bring their children into kindergarten. It seems quite problematic, that Roma children meet non-Roma communities only at the age of seven-eight, doesn’t it?
M.E.: A child's fate could be determined already in the kindergarten if he attends at all. In fact, most of the Roma families do not bring their children to nursery. The reason for this is not that they do not wish to do so, but that usually the parents are unemployed. Kindergartens in Hungary fight with lack of rooms today, and they have to reject some applicants. So if your parents are at home anyway, no matter that this is so because they are unemployed, you cannot go to kindergarten. Therefore those, who would be the most in need do not receive the necessary care. At the age of six when the school preparatory begins, Roma children already start with such a huge handicap that they are hardly able to ever work off. And a child lagging behind of the class usually gets spotted and is usually sent to a special school, though he or she is not at all deficient. Today in Hungary the proportion of children learning in such schools is three or four times higher than the EU average, and it affects mostly the Roma children. The defects of the educational system are well shown by the statistics. According to current data more than 80 % of the majority population gets a high school degree, but it reaches only 10 % within the Roma population.
CB: On the basis of what criteria gets a child into a special school preserved for disadvantaged children?
M.E.: There is a commission of experts who tries to survey the abilities of the child by the help of different tests. Unfortunately, these tests do not take account of the personal circumstances and most of the answers require a certain cultural background. Let me say an example: in one of the tasks it is required to draw a triangle. The Roma child draws three nails and the commission values so that the child did not solve the task. Of course there are some promising signs also. The educational specialists work on the improvement of these tests in order to decrease the ratio of children who gets into a special school mistakenly.
CB: What kind of role do the teachers have in the growing of the Roma children? And what could the local governments do to help, who decides about the closing of a school?
M.E.: The process aiming to establish the integrated education of children has started few years ago. The law establishing the legal backround of this process do not talk about the Roma, but says “underprivileged children”. Besides, the anti-discrimination law prohibiting school segregation is in force since 2004. Despite of the fact that we have brought several actions against segregating schools, there are still some towns and schools where the law is not applied. For instance, in Miskolc (North-Eastern part of Hungary), where we won the suit against the local government we did not succeed to make them close down the purely Roma school.
CB: If there is an existing legal background, laws and judgements, why could not be this problem solved? Is this also the question of people's attitude?
M.E.: In the majority of the cases it is school run by the local government who appoints the director, approves the pedagogy program and so on. With the help of these tools the local government can really make hard for any integrationist movements to be successful and usually manage to close the possibilities for Roma children. It also happens that the school districts are drawn illegally. Thus, local governments play an enormous role in this question.
CB: Is there anybody who controls the quality of the education?
M.E.: Before the changes the network of school inspectors existed, who checked regularly the quality of the education. Today there is no such agencies that would control the system. Nobody checks the schools. But also nobody checks how the local governments spend the money they get for the integration of the handicapped and disadvantaged. This is an enormous mistake. Among other things we lobby for this in order to be changed.
CB: How do you see the future of the children in a segregated school system?
M.E.: It would be necessary to think further than a four year election cycle. Today when the mayor strives for the votes of the majority society, he does everything to keep the Roma children segregated from the others. The parents should also see further on, since their child – who they do not allow to sit next to a Roma child in the school desk – will keep from his tax that Roma child later, who, finishing ground school, would not manage to continue his studies, to learn any vocation, or to go to higher education and find a job. Approximately one third of the schools segregates the Roma in Hungary. It could validly be argued that these segregating schools produce many unemployed Roma adults.
CB: How does the Foundation help to fight school segregation?
M.E.: This is a complex question. Of course, the foundation will not be able to provide work, flat, good school to anybody. We try to achieve something with the alteration of public education. We simply would like to have the law enforced. If every school respected the equal treatment measures that they otherwise should, then today the Hungarian school system would be much more integrated and all children would have access to quality education and the chance to obtain a marketable expertise. A good example of this is Nyíregyháza (a larger town in the East of Hungary), where the local government - following the second or third court trial – took a resolution in order to close its pure Roma school from this September. School buses will carry the children who formerly studied there to six different integrated schools. We track the fate of these children. The experiences are good; the children were fitting in into all of the six schools. Of course these children have a very big lag, because the segregated schools can only work on very low standards. So the program is successful, but the older the children the bigger are the difficulties that they have to overcome. Our foundation tries to help them to do so.