Viera Kičrova was angry. Reluctant to talk when approached outside her office, she bristled with frustration. The questions asked of her were redirected to the mayor, the municipality, anywhere but the school she leads. But Kičrova had little to lose. She would, in the end, try to explain. “The children are not responsible for the situation,” she said. “We are here to help them no matter the colour of their skin.”
Kičrova is the headteacher of a small elementary school in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, in eastern Slovakia, that has been at the centre of a national debate in the run-up to the east European country’s general election in late September, a judgment from the supreme court in Bratislava, and most recently an intervention from Brussels.
There will soon be a hearing at the European court of justice where nothing less than Slovakia’s moral authority will be on the line.
It is evidently a source of great anxiety for Kičrova, a dedicated teacher who finds herself linked to a national scandal over which the Slovakian state admits it has long been in denial: the segregation of Roma children in Slovakia’s education system. Her school has been found by the country’s highest court to be perpetuating the situation.
To campaigners, the current schools system in Slovakia amounts to little less than an apartheid under which Roma children have been systematically separated from the mainstream and condemned to poor educational outcomes and poverty.
The Slovakian supreme court ruled in February that the administrators of Kičrova’s school had permitted segregation of Roma children, which led to a European Commission announcement that it intended to refer Slovakia to the European court of justice over widespread breaches of equality directives.
The legal case is being prepared by officials in Brussels in what will also be a shot across the bows of the governments of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia, where such discrimination also appears rife.
It is, however, a complicated issue for which there are few easy solutions, and on 30 September Slovakia will go to the polls, with Robert Fico, a Kremlin-friendly populist who has previously called for an end to “tolerance” of the Roma community, potentially on course to return as prime minister. Slovakia, then, is at a pivotal point.
With an estimated 9% of the population identified as Roma, equivalent to about 500,000 people, the country has one of the largest such communities in Europe.
Their lives are generally characterised by discrimination and poverty from birth to early death. Roma men and women have a life expectancy that is 7.5 and 6.6 years shorter than the general Slovakian population. Fewer than one in five aged over 16 are in work, according to the most recent studies.
Campaigners say this socioeconomic isolation is fuelled by the education system. Roma children have been put in special classes for those with “mental disabilities” on the basis of supposedly diagnostic tests carried out in the Slovak rather than Romany language.
School buildings have been divided up. In some cases entire schools, often lacking the most basic of facilities, have become “Roma only”.
The evidence suggests that this systemic discrimination is only deepening, here and elsewhere in central Europe.
The latest survey from the EU’s agency for fundamental rights suggests that in Slovakia, 65% of six- to 15-year-old Roma pupils attend schools where all or most pupils are of the same ethnicity – a five percentage-point increase compared with 2016.
Kičrova’s school has recently become the face of this ugly reality at the heart of the European Union.
The River Poprad divides the 800-year-old Slovakian town of Stará Ľubovňa, a home to 16,000 people in eastern Slovakia close to the border with Poland and Hungary, into two districts.
There is the south bank, which carries the name of the town, and boasts a pretty square and a burgeoning tourist industry. Then there is the smaller northern district of Podsadek, almost a village in itself, on the other side of the water, accommodating 2,000 people, of whom 90% are ethnically Romany.
The Roma community is based in a mess-strewn settlement of half-built homes, exposed breeze blocks and near-collapsing wooden shacks that from the roadside appear to be almost built on top of each other, precariously teetering on the side of a hill.
Next door to the ramshackle homes, Kičrova’s school comprises two small buildings, one dating to 1937 and the second a modern two-storey knock-up made of red containers with windows.
Every one of the school’s 400 children, aged between six and 15, are from the settlement. The local non-Roma parents have for many years now sent their children over the other side of the water.
Podsadek’s school does not have a canteen or gym. There are “very high” levels of truancy, according to the school’s latest report to governors, and fewer than one in five passed their end of school maths and Slovak tests at the age of 15 last year. Such is the lack of classrooms, the children are either taught in a morning or afternoon shift.
The school came to the attention of the Centre for Civil and Human Rights (Poradňa), an NGO, in 2014 when a decision was taken to create more space for the burgeoning Roma population in Podsadek by constructing the school’s “container” building.
Based in the eastern Slovakian city of Košice, the NGO has successfully brought a series of cases of unlawful discrimination to Slovakia’s courts, including most recently winning €5,000 (£4,335) in compensation for Valentina Conkova, 23, who spent her school years in Hermanovce in eastern Slovakia in special classes on the basis of a rigged test that discriminated against her as a Romany child.
But the legal work in relation to schools started years before with what Stefan Ivanco, Poradňa’s programme coordinator, said was Slovakia’s “Brown v state board of education moment”, in reference to the landmark case in 1954 in which the US supreme court declared school segregation unconstitutional.
In 2012, a court in the eastern region of Prešov confirmed a landmark ruling that an elementary school in the village of Šarišské Michaľany, north of Košice, had discriminated against Roma children by teaching them in separate classrooms and on a different floor to the rest of the pupils.
Amnesty International said at the time they expected the ruling to “spur the Slovak authorities into action” and lead to the eradication of the “existing systemic discrimination and segregation within the school system in the country”.
Yet the result was not desegregation at all, said Ivanco. “A large majority of the Roma children actually lived in a second village close to Šarišské Michaľany and it didn’t have a school”, he explained. “A few years after this court decision that village decided to create a school which only led to Roma children moving from a school where they were segregated on to a ‘Roma only’ school. This actually showed just how difficult is to counter segregation.”
The start of a so-called infringement procedure by the European Commission in 2015, challenging Slovakia’s government to reform and get in line with the EU’s rules on racial equality, and a further demand in 2019, led to only lip service.
It was in this context that Poradňa directed its legal action against the state and the local municipality responsible for Kičrova’s school in Podsadek, targeting an alleged indifference to the division that its education system was continuing to reinforce.
A legal case was first submitted by Poradňa in 2014.
The argument was initially rejected by a district court on the basis there had been no intention to create a Roma-only school in Podsadek and that the growing population in the settlement simply made it inevitable.
Slovakia’s supreme court disagreed. It was not enough, they said in its final ruling in April, for the state to shrug its shoulders in the face of such injustice. Children were being born and bred in ghettoes and offered no perspective of a future outside them.
“The state, in cooperation with the municipality, must take effective measures (be it through legislative initiative, creation of stimulating conditions, as well as the creation of school districts) to prevent segregation, not just passively look on and refer to the strict, often misinterpreted diction of the law,” the court ruled.
The district court is now considering the NGO’s proposed desegregation plan.
Podsadek’s school was once mixed; the demographic changes happened long before Kičrova arrived. In the main building, a large silver-framed poster of the school’s history carries a series of old photographs, including one dated 1939-40 of a group of 40 unsmiling white children. At the time, Slovakia’s first republic was a client state of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
A second image, altogether more cheerful, is of a multi-ethnic group of boys and girls wearing T-shirts, summer dresses and awkward grins. The year is given as 1972-73. The communist regime of the time had a policy of integration, albeit executed in an often cruel way.
Stanislav Relovsky, 54, who works in social care, was a pupil in that period and still lives in the village although he is not from the Roma community. He sent his children to a well-equipped school on the other side of the river but laments the division that has emerged over his lifetime.
“My class was seven white children and 14 Gypsies,” he said, using the shortened term for Roma Gypsies that is locally prevalent. “If it worked 30 years ago, why cannot [it] work now? We didn’t have fights and I don’t have a problem now going to the Gypsy settlement. Nowadays my own children, for example, don’t know the Gypsies. It is not the fault of the parents of white children that they will not attend the school with Gypsies, but the whole system is bad.”
Relovsky said a range of factors had led to the communities dividing. The birthrate of the Roma population has been comparatively high, leading to the community dominating Podsadek’s school, while new schools were built over on the other side of the river thanks to funds that followed EU membership in 2004.
These well-equipped institutions caught the eye of the local non-Roma parents. Podsadek was abandoned.
Of the 73 children from Podsadek village starting school this September, just three are from non-Roma families. They are all going to schools over the river. Of the 70 Roma children starting school, 60 will be educated at Kičrova’s school.
At the school gates, Marcela Siváková, 37, who was picking up her sons Martin, 9, and Filip, 7, had neither heard of the segregation row nor had any interest in moving her children into a mixed school. “It’s a good school,” she said, of their existing choice. Mato Cervenàk, 33, whose three children go to the school, said there wasn’t any space for non-Roma children and that he was happy with the status quo.
Kičrova, sitting in a smart classroom on which each desk sits a dated PC, said she was doing her best for the local children. She started here as an assistant teacher in 2007. Today, she has charge of 400 pupils and 37 full-time teachers – one of whom is Roma, as is a classroom assistant and the school cleaner.
Kičrova said none of her Roma parents had agreed with the Slovakian supreme court.
“We are angry,” she said. “Each parent had an option to send their child here or into town. It is not of our making. We want to enlarge but this has been slowed down because of these segregation allegations. It is to the detriment of our children.”
Kičrova said that neither the European Commission nor the government in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, understood life in the settlement.
It was unclear, she suggested, how children on the edges of society would adapt to being educated in an integrated school. By the time the children reach her at the age of six, without any preschool learning, it is already “too late”, she said.
“I advise that some people go to this settlement to live there for a week and try to understand their way of thinking, to try to understand how this segregation happens,” she said. “Because it is not possible for Bratislava or Brussels to order local people to do it this way or another way. Only some of them wanted to go away or study in other towns.”
The argument holds little force with the head of the country’s schools inspectorate, Alžbeta Dianovská. “This ruling [by the supreme court] confirmed that this segregation is real, it’s really happening,” she said. “These principals will always say that they are doing this with the best possible intentions and that they learn better when they are among themselves. But the problem is that these children they never meet with the majority.
“One way to solve this is to work on the attitudes of these teachers and these principals and to change this idea that segregation is actually the best way to go.”
A case study in the change proposed by Dianovská could be said to be in a school run by Mariana Korbel, a whirlwind of a headteacher, in Plavecký Štvrtok, a village north of Bratislava close to the biggest Roma settlement in western Slovakia.
In just a few years, Korbel has turned a “Roma only” school, and one with a reputation for violence, into a mixed and well-run one after persuading the non-Roma parents of children at a failing local private school to put their trust in her.
Despite a gang war raging in recent years in the settlement, the school is now evenly split in its composition, and a majority of parents are happy, the staff say. But it has all been done despite the state rather than with its help.
The 1960s-era school building started to collapse two years ago and the children have been educated in containers and a small former community centre since.
Svetlana Sithova, state secretary at the department for education, the most senior civil service role, conceded that the government had for too long absented itself from the problem and that fundamental change was required.
“Very honestly, here in Slovakia for a long time, we pretended that there was no segregation and it was Europe that held the mirror in front of us,” she said.
For many Slovakians, 2018, the year journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kušnírová, both 27, were murdered, was an epiphany.
Kuciak had been investigating government corruption. The killings prompted large street protests and the collapse of a coalition government headed by Fico, the same politician who is odds on to emerge as prime minister this year.
A new political generation had emerged in 2018, Sithova said, and a desegregation plan approved in January 2022 would soon be implemented to raise the living standards of Roma people.
“The goal is to desegregate by the year 2030,” she said.
It is an agenda that David Korčkovshého, 37, the head of the community centre in Podsadek, a stone’s throw from Kičrova’s school, supports.
He was the first of the school’s Roma pupils to go on to get a university education. The school had been judged harshly, he said, as he listed off a series of factors standing in the way of integration, ranging from the lack of early education opportunities for his community to the unwillingness of some to sell houses outside of the settlement to Roma families.
“I am in favour of inclusion – there isn’t really any relationship between the two communities,” he said.
Jaroslav Kling, an official working the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, which advises the European Commission, suggested one way forward was for “Roma only” schools to have a clear purpose, with the education carried out in the Romany language and the children signed up to early years education.
There was, he added, “huge money” amounting to about €6bn due to Slovakia through the EU Covid recovery fund.
The potential, he said, is there. “Roma children who in Slovakia were put into these special schools for children but whose parents then emigrated to the UK performed greatly in mainstream [British] schools, even going to university,” Kling said.
For now, Kičrova and the Roma community in Podsadek must wait to see what the legal challenges as well as the coming election will mean for them.
Fico and his Smer party have a penchant for anti-Brussels rhetoric, and a standoff with the EU institutions might be welcomed by the next Slovakian prime minister. “Regardless of its future composition, the newly formed government after the elections has to respect final decisions of the Slovakian courts addressing school segregation,” insisted Ivanco from Poradňa.
“It has to respect its legal obligations to eliminate and prevent school segregation of Roma children in education in line with domestic and international anti-discrimination law. It has to take resolute action in this regard.”
Time will tell whether Kičrova and her efforts will be as good as it gets for central Europe’s Roma people.