Growing segregation of Roma children in Hungary

The problem of ethnic segregation in eastern Hungary’s schools appears to be deepening, despite past attempts on the part of some local administrations to ensure that Roma and non-Roma children studied together. For instance, as reports, twelve years ago when the town of Nagyecsed (population: 6,327), in northeastern Hungary, tried to create mixed classrooms of both Roma and non-Roma students, many non-Roma parents responded by withdrawing their children and enrolling them instead in the neighbouring village’s school. The Roma population in Nagyecsed exceeds 16%.

Most non-Roma children from Nagyecsed went to school in the village of Tiborszállás (population: 1023), located just 12 kilometres from their home. Under the Orbán government, churches began to play a more significant role in public education and as part of this trend, municipal authorities in Tiborszállás handed over the school to the Adventist Church, while in neighbouring Nagyecsed, the local school handed over part of its building to the Calvinists, who would run a separate Protestant school in that space from grades one through eight. The Calvinist school instituted specific enrollment practices that Roma children would not likely be able to meet and the end result was that the original public school in Nagyecsed became almost entirely Roma in its student population, while the area’s two Protestant schools were almost completely non-Roma.

In 2016, an estimated 14% of Hungary’s schools were segregated along ethnic (Roma and non-Roma) lines. The trend towards greater segregation has been growing.  Unfortunately, this also perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization, as schools where the student population is mostly Roma tend to be housed in poorly maintained buildings, teachers have far fewer educational resources at their disposal and the curriculum disadvantages their students.


Researchers believe that the Orbán government’s policies in the field of education are responsible for growing segregation and point to a handful of factors in particular. These include the government’s decision to no longer require students to stay in school until 18 years of age, they cancelled programs aimed at better integration of students from different backgrounds, the government took away greater choice in the use of textbooks, requiring a one-size-fits-all approach and a centralized manner of distributing textbooks and setting curriculum. As well, teachers are required to complete much more administrative work than before, leaving less time for pedagogy. Additionally, the cost that parents must pay to send their children to school has increased, due to cutbacks on school funding.

Critically, the transfer of many public schools to churches, and the preferential public funding of church schools over non-religious state schools during the past several years has also resulted in greater segregation.  The number of schools in Hungary run by churches increased by 68% since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010.

Some parochial schools have been permitted to engage in explicit segregation, under the guise that this would improve the school’s overall quality. For instance, the Green Catholic Church took over the responsibility for the administration of a school in a poor suburb of the town of Nyíregyháza (population: 118,000) called Huszártelep. Prior to 2010, the school in Huszártelep had been closed and children were bused in to town, so as to decrease ethnic segregation. Many non-Roma families complained to the municipality, citing the inability of Roma children to properly integrate and problems around co-existence in the classroom between the Roma and non-Roma. As such, in 2010, the segregated Huszártelep school was re-opened and the Greek Catholic Church launched a new school as a form of pastoral outreach to the Roma. In the end, many Roma parents supported the idea of once again sending their children to this segregated school, and one of the reasons for this was that their children had been mocked and denigrated in the non-Roma school, and also because the fees paid by parents was lower in the segregated school.

All signs indicate that in the last eight years, Hungary has moved towards greater ethnic segregation in schools. In a country with a growing Roma population and a severe shortage of skilled and educated labour in many fields, the storm clouds are gathering.


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