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Member of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
Roma deserve a better education and an end to segregation
2014 European Roma Summit
Brussels, 4 April 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
Less than one month ago, I visited a number of education projects in the Roma communities of Bucharest. I was there with Mr Soros, and it is good to have him with us today.
As we travelled around the city, from one project to the next, I experienced different emotions. It was hard to avoid a sense of marginalisation, as many of these communities sit apart from the rest of the city. It was impossible not to see the poverty and the lack of opportunity that afflicts many families. But it was also impossible to avoid a sense of hope – a hope that, with the proper resources, the right leadership and the political will, things can improve, and sometimes dramatically.
As we reach the end of today's discussions, we can see that Roma citizens across Europe will not enjoy the benefits of social integration unless education opens up the various opportunities that all people have the right to expect. Providing quality education for all is not only a question of human rights. It is the only way out of poverty and exclusion for millions of Roma.
This is why we are working so hard together with the Member States, Roma organisations and stakeholders to implement the education dimension of the Roma EU framework.
And I am happy to say that the national reports show clear progress. For instance, the importance of early childhood education and care is now clearly acknowledged. Several Member States are introducing compulsory years of pre-school education and taking real steps to reach out to Roma families, which is a very promising development.
One thing is clear: the earlier we invest in the education of Roma children, the greater their opportunity to break out of the vicious circle of poverty and exclusion in which so many of their parents find themselves trapped.
But we must also be patient to see the results. Education is a long-term investment. Its benefits to society may not come immediately, but when they do, they more than make up for the wait. And this means we should take the time to prepare these reforms, and do it properly.
First, we need to look more systematically at what works and what doesn't, and then try to expand those initiatives that are clearly successful. For this, we need the commitment and active involvement of the local level, including municipalities, school leaders, social services and Roma NGOs.
The ROMED programme, funded by the Commission and the Council of Europe, has already trained about 1,300 mediators, and now is the time to use their full potential. Mediators can make a real difference to people's lives if they are fully mobilised by local authorities. Therefore, we need to see strong alliances on the ground, and make full use of all the resources we have.
Second, we need to keep in mind that real progress can only be achieved if mainstream education systems become more inclusive and respond better to the needs of disadvantaged learners, including, but not only, the Roma.
For instance, large-scale programmes for reducing early school leaving will also benefit Roma children. We need inclusive pedagogical approaches and well-qualified teachers who are able to manage diversity in the classroom.
This is why we need to work together under the Europe 2020 strategy to equip all young European citizens with the right mix of skills that will prepare them for the world of work.
But more importantly, we need to intensify efforts to prevent and combat segregation. I find it unacceptable, and also bad educational practice, that in some countries around half of all Roma pupils – 58 per cent in Slovakia and 45 per cent in Hungary – attend segregated classes. In the Czech Republic, 23 per cent of Roma pupils are in special schools.
These practices make it very unlikely that Roma children will go on to secondary education and obtain the skills and qualifications which will give them access to the labour market. Therefore, we have to join forces to fight segregation in schools, including by looking at the way in which schools are funded, set up and operated. In the end, desegregation is the necessary condition for all other integration policies.
But I believe that, most of all, we need to educate ourselves and our children to let go of all forms of prejudice. We must help our children to become true Europeans citizens, who value tolerance and diversity. We must break down the walls in our minds – as well as the physical walls that some have built in their cities. Today's Europe has no place for walls like these.
I know how complicated it is to desegregate some of our schools. It takes time and effort. But I am sure that if we move ahead, step by step, with determination, then we will make progress. For this to happen, we need a much stronger commitment both at national and local level. This is what we concluded from our analysis of the national reports.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The European Commission has a good track record of helping to improve the attainment level of Roma students, and fighting segregation and discrimination through our funding programmes for education and training.
Starting this year, our new Erasmus+ and Creative Europe programmes offer new opportunities to fund projects and partnerships with a systemic impact. I would invite all Roma organisations to explore the new programmes.
And let me say I was very pleased to hear Mr Soros' report on progress towards his new European Roma Institute. I welcome this initiative, and wish it every success. The Institute will promote Roma culture and identity, and help to dismantle the stereotypes that stand in the way of progress.
Before I leave the floor to my fellow Commissioner, Mr Borg, I would simply underline one simple message.
It is my conviction that education is not only the key to a fulfilling life and a place in society, but also the best antidote we have against racism and prejudice. When we work together with the Roma community to improve people's lives, we are showing Europe at its best. A Europe that is open to its many communities and neighbours. A Europe that is at ease with its complex layers of identity. A Europe that is united in diversity.