Digital deprivation should not become a new obstacle for Roma students


By Mustafa Jakupov, Policy and Project Coordinator at ERGO Network,

Existing obstacles for Roma students

Roma children and students are not provided, from a very early age, with the same learning opportunities as their majority peers, as the vicious circles of poverty and antigypsyism act as powerful barriers in accessing education and training. Subsequently, they have lower attendance and completion rates, which in turn lead to poor labour market integration and social participation. Lack of majority languages skills, limited access to early childhood education and care, and a state of poverty that does not allow for proper studying at home mean that Roma pupils are even sometimes placed in schooling for children with learning disabilities. Additionally, segregated educational establishments breed a sectioned view of society, which fuels inequalities and discrimination.

The lack of adequate and accessible second chance schools and opportunities to continue one’s education makes it much harder for Roma to resume their studies at a later stage in life. Additionally, Roma typically benefits much less from lifelong learning opportunities for training, finding themselves discriminated against when trying to access them. It is important that targeted lifelong learning and training measures are put in place to guarantee that Roma in general, and young Roma in particular, are prepared for the jobs of the future and can reap the full potential of the green and digital transitions.

There is a need to train and employ more Roma and other minority staff in educational establishments, including as teachers (hiring them as cleaners doesn’t count). This would make a strong statement about the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion but, most importantly, it would go a long way in better integrating minority students and responding to their unique needs. Education mediators and in-class or virtual assistants to support teachers and educators are a proven way to bridge the gap and build trust and communication between educational establishments and Roma (or other) communities. Funding and conditions must be available for such mediators to be trained, while their profession needs to be officially recognised and remunerated.

The design, implementation, and monitoring of policy or practice intervention must be carried out with the full involvement of those concerned, including children, across the board – from the grassroots level to the EU level. Efforts must be put in place (local, bottom-up participatory strategies; consultation protocols; adequate funding and capacity building) to bring together all stakeholders: Roma and non-Roma pupils, Roma and non-Roma parents, the civil society organisations representing them, school staff, local authorities etc. Unless the Roma (and other groups facing complex obstacles and multiple disadvantages) are targeted explicitly, they will be left behind by its mainstream measures. Dealing with Roma access to education exclusively under the EU Roma Strategic Framework leads to siloing of issues, rather than comprehensive solutions that tackle challenges (and their roots!) in their entirety, focusing both on prevention as well as resolution.

In order to ensure that every Roma child gets a good start in life, we must guarantee equal access to quality and inclusive education, training, and lifelong learning, including through digital and technological means. We hope that European Commission efforts to curb the digital divide and to ensure access to quality and inclusive education, including digital education, for all will explicitly include a focus on Roma learners, as some of the most disadvantaged learners in Europe.

Obstacles reinforced by the Covid-19 pandemic on the education of Roma students

During the Covid-19 pandemic and associated protection and prevention measures, many Roma students found themselves unable to access online education, due to absent infrastructure and equipment (the digital divide). Proper housing, an encouraging and supportive home environment, language assistance, internet access, possessing a laptop/PC as well as access to electricity represent the minimum conditions for all children to continue their formal education. However, most Roma children and their families (particularly those living in rural areas and in settlements) have no access to the internet, do not have computers and other electronic devices, and in some cases, even electricity is not available. Since lack of internet access and electronic devices is higher in regions where significant numbers of Roma reside, this means most Roma children cannot attend online classes, thus leading to long-term effects on their school performance and continuation.

The existing digital divide that was already there became more evident between the rest of society and the Roma communities. Vulnerable social groups, like Roma families, are especially at risk, even by Covid-19 measures that need to help them, as these families are the first finding themselves out of jobs, children following suit as early school leavers due to parents not being able to help them in providing basic support with their school assignments – effectively renewing poverty. On the one side, Roma students are left out and affected, while on the other side as our lives become more and more dependent on efficiently using ICT tools, hence the lack of access for people living in poverty to quality training and education on the ICT field is concerning. While there are plenty of trainings available for those with existing basic skills in ICT, the training portfolio is weak when we talk about digital literacy for those with non-existing knowledge in the field of ICT. Thus, we can speak about inequalities in inclusive education and access to digital tools and technologies as well.

Are Roma digital citizens?

Digital citizenship principles must help Roma communities and Roma students, as well as other disadvantaged groups, to quickly mitigate knowledge and skill gaps of utilising the online sphere, as well as to define the appropriate and responsible use of technology among the users. The Roma are left out as digital citizens and cannot benefit from the simple values of digital citizenship based on respect, education, and protection. Policymakers, stakeholders and authorities must be more aware of their responsibility to take into account the interests of the Roma.

A continuous evaluation on local/national and transnational levels constitutes an important element in this process, as we believe that a critical self-reflection of practices, successes, as well as of failures can contribute to the improvement of the work that is being done. Also, research on digital inclusion that focuses on vulnerable groups can show that social exclusion also leads to digital exclusion.

Finally, most issues relating to quality and inclusiveness or education, including discrimination, segregation, and bullying – do not disappear if schooling is moved online. If anything, in addition to the digital divide, online education had the potential to exacerbate it, in the less controlled online environment, where cyberbullying and online hate speech flourish unchecked.

Possible ways forward

  • Curb the digital divide, which is a dire reality particularly in poor, segregated Roma communities, by improving their access to a) infrastructure (internet coverage, internet subscription, electricity); b) equipment (PCs, tablets, smartphones etc) and c) knowledge (digital skills). Begin by providing basic literacy and numeracy skills where required. Develop and utilise easy language and intense visual aid to reflect the needs of families often under-educated due to their social status to enable better transition to the online sphere.
  • Render (digital) education more inclusive: Fight discrimination and particularly antigypsyism in all its forms, including institutionalised discrimination (displayed by public and private institutions) and public discourse (such as the media, but also bullying and cyberbullying in educational settings). Provide information in minority languages, as well as majority language classes. Promote higher awareness of national equality bodies and other relevant state institutions on the prevalence and impact of antigypsyist hate speech online, leading to better programmes targeting antigypsyism. Support more positive narratives promoted by young people online to counter antigypsyist hate speech.
  • Remove all financial and non-financial barriers to (online) education, particularly for key disadvantaged groups such as the Roma, and support leaners and their families in a comprehensive way, combining adequate income support schemes (including housing and utilities subsidies, educational subsidies etc) and provision of accessible, affordable, quality public services (including housing, transport, digital services etc). Support better data collection on hate crime and hate speech disaggregated by ethnicity and gender, to allow analysis of trends by Member States.