Valentina Milenkova
Institute of Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Maxim Molhov
Institute of Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences




This paper purports to illustrate segregated schools for Roma in Bulgarian society. Built in the Gypsy regions of towns in socialist times they provide inferior quality of education and are major obstacle to enjoyment of equal  educational opportunities by the children who attend them. In the first part of the paper different kind of schools with Gypsy population are presented – segregated schools in Gypsy ghettoes, mixed schools, Remedial schools. The rate of the drop outs from those schools is very high and thus Gypsy chidren are doomed to isolation and social exclusion. Next, opinions of Gypsies – parents and children are briefly presented, provided in focus groups discussions, carried out by qualitative survey in two segregated neighbourhoods in Sofia region. A list of characteristics of perceptions of education of Gypsy (parents and children) on micro, meso, and macro levels is highlighted there. In the last part policy options are summarized in order to raise educational desegregation of Gypsy children and their integration in society.

Gypsies are sustainably featuring a group of the lowest educational level compared with the other ethnic communities in Bulgaria. Thus according to a recent World Bank study, the rate of Gypsies aged 15 or above without any education is 13,3%; 76,4% have only primary education; 10% have secondary education, and 0,2% - post secondary education. For comparison the respective figures for ethnic Bulgarians of the same age group are: 6, 4% (without education), 28, 1% (only primary education), 45, and 4 %( with secondary education), and 20, 1% (university education) (Stigmata, 2004:10).
A large number of children of Gypsy origin have either not been included in the school network at all or, after starting school, soon leaves it, due to different reasons. According to the Ministry of Education and Science1 in the school year 2002-2003 Gypsy pupils at the state schools were 106 200 or 10,5% of the overall number of schoolchildren in Bulgaria; in 2004 about 15 000 children have left school and almost all of them were Gypsies. Bulgarian educational system is not consistent with the specific features of Gypsy culture, as well as with the fact that their children are bilingual. From the other side, for the most of Gypsy families education does not take a leading place in their value system. The reasons are different: their nomadic way of life in the past, lack of written culture in their language, traditionally early marriages, lack of prospects for a realisation in work.

The aim of this article is to outline the pattern of “segregated schools for Gypsies” as predetermined and prepared during the years of socialism, when a number of variants of “Roma teaching institutions” were created, stimulating ethnical divisions in education. Roma schools exist until nowadays, maintaining and capsulating the education of this ethnic minority in the years of transition. In addition, our analysis is aimed at explicating the very Roma education as a synthesis of traditional education in the family and institutionalized training in the school.

The analysis of the current situation of the Roma schools, children expectations with regard to the education, their disposition for schooling was provided by a qualitative study conducted in 2004 and 2005. It included two focus group discussions with parents and two with schoolchildren of the age of mandatory education (up to 16 years) in two neighbourhoods of Sofia2: "Filipovtsi" and «Fakulteta", inhabited by a compact Gypsy population. We shall be also referring to a study of Roma schools in Bulgaria, conducted with the support of the Open Society Foundation (Denkov, 2001, 2005), as well as to the results of a comparative survey of Roma schools in Central and Eastern Europe, carried out by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Stigmata, 2004).

Roma schools and education provided there

The most widespread kind of schools created for Gypsies in socialist times, where most of these children were included, were the so-called “Roma schools”, situated in regions with a large Gypsy population, and overpopulated neighbourhoods with a standard of living below that of the rest of the country. In Bulgaria, these Gypsy schools developed with the formation of Gypsy ghettoes in 1950’s: the purpose of this measure was to concentrate children within the limits of a “neighbourhood”, and the main aim of the education provided there was teaching basic literacy and the training of working habits and skills. Some of these schools emphasized on vocational training. The Roma schools, a result of state planned and implemented educational policy, became close, segregated places in which all the negative features of an ethnic “underclass” were reproduced. In the next two decades these schools were also engaged in educating the adult Gypsy population through literacy courses.  
In what kind of education institutions did Roma children study in the years of transition (after 1990)?

In the first place these are the so-called "Romaschools (mentioned above): in Bulgaria there are 106 schools and pre-school facilities in which the student body is 100% Gypsy. According to expert assessments, about 70% of the Gypsy children of school age study in these Roma ghetto schools (Nunev, 2001:117).

Another kind of Roma schools are those in the villages; unlike the urban ghetto schools, they were not specially created for the Gypsies, but became such as a result of outward migration of ethnic Bulgarians, together with their children, to the cities.

Material conditions in Roma schools are considerably worse than in other education institutions in Bulgaria (Tanaka, 2001: 131), despite the support of various NGOs. Although they follow the standard curriculum and are formally classified as regular schools, the quality of education in them is lower than in the schools attended by non-Gypsy children, so that graduates of these schools cannot compete with their coevals. We may look for the cause in the following two circumstances: 
- Teaching in Roma schools is not a particularly attractive job for teachers, so the latter prefer to quit them at the first opportunity; in some cases the teachers themselves are not qualified. Moreover the teachers have no preliminary training for work with minorities, which hampers good communication, creates a distance between teacher and students and leads to lack of interest on both sides.   
- The low quality of education is due to the lack of motivation among the children, which in turn is rooted in their socialization in the family. But the logical consequence of this is that many Bulgarian families are not willing to send their children to neighbourhood Roma schools. Thus a sustained trend emerges of growing separation by ethnos and of increasing stigmatization, completing the process of social exclusion and eliminating the chances of the young Roma generation.

Another kind of Roma schools is the mixed schools. According to the findings of a survey conducted in 2001, there are more than 330 schools in Bulgaria in which the proportion of Gypsy children is between 50 and 100% (Denkov, 2001). In the mixed schools, what are called “Bulgarian classes” is often formed at the insistence of non-Gypsy parents who prefer their children to be in separate classes from the Gypsies (Tanaka, 2001: 133).

Remedial special schools for handicapped childrenThese are likewise institutions with prevalent Roma presence, in which, according to unofficial estimates, the Roma amount to 80-90% of all the pupils. The basic reason why so many Gypsies are attracted to these institutions is the benefits provided there, which the regular Gypsy school does not offer, i.e. room and board, free food, clothes. All special schools are entirely financed by the Ministry of Education and Science, unlike the rest of the schools, which are supported by the municipal budgets. Thus the demographic crisis, which has led to an overall decrease of the number of schoolchildren and to the risk of schools being shut down, is becoming a serious motive for teachers to become more active and make special efforts to persuade Gypsy parents to send their children to schools for the handicapped. The larger budget of special schools affords better living conditions compared with those of the family homes of these children. The Gypsy children’s families are typically very large, undernourished, their homes often lack electricity and running water; children lack health care and parental control. Hence the special schools for handicapped children can be considered a source of life support and the only means for the families to meet the elementary needs of raising, caring for, and educating their children.

Gypsy opinions on education – a qualitative survey

After presenting the kinds of schools where Gypsy children study, we are going to present briefly the opinions of parents and children in focus groups in two Gypsy neighbourhoods in Sofia..
Briefly on the focus groups
Focus group with parents from “Faculteta”  neighbourhood was organized in March 2004 with the participation of 13 persons, distributed as follows:
in gender: 11 women and 2 men;
in age: under 25 – 7 persons; 25-30  – 3 persons; 1 of the parents was 32.
- in educational level: 6 parents have finished 6th grade; 5 parents – 8th grade; 2 – 4th grade.
in the numbaer of children: 10 of the persons had 3 and 3 had 2 children.
In “Filipovtsi” neighbourhood focus group with parents was organized in May 2005 numbering 10 persons with the following features:
gender – all women;
age : 18 – 2 persons; 20-22  – 7 persons; 1 parent was 25; 
education –9 persons have studied till 5th grade, one has studied till 4th grade;
-number of children: 8 of the persons had 3 chidren; 2 persons had 2.
General impressions from the focus groups with parents
Parents were active enough. There was some confusion and reluctance to explain and comment in the beginning, but later on they relaxed and took an active part in the discussion. The question discussed concerned poverty, unemployment, the impossibility to provide for the children, the difficuties parents meet in contacting different institutions. The sense of education was commented in the light of what school provides children, how do they feel among their peers, is there an interest towards school subjects, how family supports education and training of children. 
Focus group with pupils was organized at the end of April 2004 at 75th school, known as a “Roma school”. Here the attending children were 100 percent Gypsies. 12 children took part in the focus group, featuring the following characteristics: 
age 11 to 13 (4th to 6th grade); all of them have attended that school only;
- gender: 7 boys and 5 girls;
- non of the chidren has repeated a school year.
At “Filipovtsi” neighbourhood the local 103th primary and secondary vocational school also known as a segregated school was used as a base for recruiting chidren respondents. Focus group of 12 chidren was organized by the end of April 2005; Gypsy participants were characrerized as follows::
age 11-13;
-gender - 5 girls and 7 boys;
- 3 of the chidren have repeated 3d grade.
The discussed topics covered: regularity of classes attendance; family conditions (economic conditions included), parents’ support to school attendance, teachers’ attitudes, interest towards classes, the usefulness of training in class, preparation in various subjects, plans for a future education.
The children insisted that they go to school willingly and they like it. Almost all of them stated that they had no time to prepare their lessons  but they go to school whenever possible. It turned out that most of them (especially boys) take an active part in scraps collection and they go around the quarter together with the adults. They did not have any plans concerning their future education and most possibly they would drop out school. Most of them had difficultues communicating in Bulgarian. To the question what did they study in school and did they consider it useful to be in class the answers varied from “Don’t know” to “It’s very hard to study”. 
The opinions shared in the focus groups add to the empirical foundings and data from other surveys (Denkov, 2001; 2005; Milenkova, 2004,Stigmata, 2004); the attitudes towards education are defined by family values, the school institutions and the training process as well as by general social context. Thus several groups of (variables) are formed, influencing perceptions and perspectives toward education:
- characteristic features on micro level3, connected with family, educational level and profession of parents, traditions and values of family milieu, contacts and communications between parents and children, stimulation of school attendance. 
- characteristic features on meso level, connected with learning environment (institutions and process). 
- characteristic features on macro level concerning educational policy and measures provided by state and non state organizations toward including Gypsy children in school attendance. 
Characteristic features on micro level 
Educational status of the parent of the chidren included in the focus goups was distributed between elementary and primary. We should mention here that in their majority parents were of the generation Gypsies born between 1975 and 1986 i. e. some of them have taken the “opportunities” of socialist education and they have been put to pressure by school administration in the years prior to 1990. One cannot consider those Gypsies illiterate, as all of them had attended school for several years. Thus one can expect that middle-age generation of parents 20 – 30 years old to support their own children motivation to go to school. However in the focus groups respondents often expressed their dissapointment from the school.
Thus it turned out that despite their inclusion in the school network and their participation in educational socialization Gypsy parents were not quite disposed to motivate their children to go to school because “it is of no use”. Women though are more in favour of their children’ attendance of classes.
More than 70% of the children respondents had unemployed parents; national statistics and some data from other surveys (Tikidjiev, 2003, Dimova, 2004) show a consistent high unemployment among Gypsies. Thus a rather sombre perspective for Roma education, school attendance, expectations and eventual motivations on the part of parents is outlined. The present generation of Gypsy parents is dissapointed because they live in poverty, in misery, they have no work, no resources, no hope, no choice. And the overall economic situation as well as state policies by no means stimulate educational aspirations.
Educational status of parents is symptomatic for cultural capital of families and their possible support – as values and motivation to their chidren school attendance. However literate Gypsies  are more in favour of their chidren going to school than the illiterate ones. From the talks and the shared opinions one could suppose some break through the traditional Gypsy irresponcibility towards institutional training and state schools, as similar situation in the 60-ies and 70-ies would develop in an open parental negativism towards school structures and teaching. 
A serious problem to school non-attendance (connected with family) is violence and psychological and emotional discomfort as well as different deviations: “there are often scandals and fighting at home”. 
All Gypsy chidren in the focus groups said that they have been fiercely punished by their parents for their offences. Psychological discomfort and family problems are proportional to family size, because there are more troubles, strains, more occasions for conflicts and difficulties. Greater families live harder, poorer and with more psychological crises. Almost all Gypsy children live in big families – of five, six or more, adults included. It turned out however that Gypsy children seeing no alternative to the existing family model and relations with their parents, accept violence, conflicts, drinking and quarrels at home as fully natural. Thus a strongly disharmonic variant of reproduction of a primitive way of life and relations is created and due to lack of another example it is accepted and transmitted later on to the newly founded families of respondents; violence, irresponcibility, ignorance and brutality are reproduced.  
There is a third aspect of the characteristic features of families, connected with different duties of children in school age. Most of them look after their younger brothers and sisters or after elderly or sick people. Children in focus groups stated that they helped their parents to provide for their families, featuring different dimensions, depending on living places, traditions, trades and size of families. All those circumstances in general dicover the unfavourable conditions in Gypsy families for school attendance and they are serious obstacles for a development of educational strategies and expectations. Economic difficulties, parnets’ unemployment, the low standard of living put chidren in a difficult sItuation and concerns about living and survival becomes their responcibility too. The inclusion of children in different forms of economic participation is often connected with violation of chidren rights and is a discouraging feature of the quality of life and the situation of the Bulgarian society. 
Meso level characteristic features of learning environment concern educational institution and learning process. Here institutional school infrastructure and services – library, counseling services, as well as the content of the formal educational activity, syllabuses, teaching methods, teaching materials, skills and qualification of teachers, assessment procedures – are included. 
As we mentioned above, material conditions – infrastructure and services at Roma schools are worse in comparison with those school attended by non-Gypsies. And teachers leave those schools and try to find possibilities for a realization elsewhere due to dissatisfaction. Moreover teaching programs for mandatory education (up to 16 years of age) are identical for all schools. The contents of Bulgarian education system however is assessed by schoolchildren as “too complex”, “difficult to understand” and “with plenty of unnecessary information” which demotivate students. From their side Gypsies meet even greater difficulties, most of them do not speak Bulgarian, they feel hard to grasp the context of training, to cope with lessons. Just for that reason they lag behind too quickly.

The most serious problem is that very often Gypsy children do not receive even basic literacy, expressed in reading, writing, calculating; sometimes multiplication tables are a luxury. Most of Gypsy children born after 2000 shall be graduating formally only elementary and partially primary school. At those levels nowadays they number 5 to 30 percent of all the schoolchidren depending on the region (Denkov, 2005).

Parents from the focus groups openly stated that children should learn Bulgarian, because they speak only Gypsy in the neighbourhood and that prevents “learning the things in school”. Several times an opinion was shared that teacher assistants are very important in the training process as they sympathize with chidren and help teachers in their contacts with young Gypsies. From that point of view pre-school groups for studying Bulgarian are an important means for future adaptation and learning in school.

Another part of parents wished more classes of music and dances; that has to be concidered a serious deficit of training and an important accent on teaching Gypsy children.

It is also important for Gypsy chidren to have  “favourite teachers”. They ususally describe the favourite teacher as a person “communicating with children”, “sympatizes with their problems and is emotionally devote”. Gypsy children try to find a favourite teacher due to difficult situation and emotional deficit in their own families. In contrast one witnesses a fluctuation of teachers in segregated schools, who are leaving at first occasion and often feel dissatisfied with their work.

Another important moment of educational policies towards Gypsies is the introduction of early profiling, acquisition of professional skills and practical activities.

Parents insisted on “what they study to help them in life”. The most important criterion for the interest in education according to them is “its usefulness”; parents wished their chidren not just to get some knowledge, but to acquire direct professional application.

Children in the focus groups said that they “did not want to work”, some even stated without confusion that they preferred begging or stealing; there were some who wanted to become bodyguards. However none of them thought that what they were taught in school would help them, that there were some particular use. “Well, reading and writing, calculation. That’s enough”. Thus attitudes towards learning are comprehended by a certain pragmatism, drawn to elementary minimum. From that point of view it turned out that boarding schools system of education where pupils spend greater part of the school year in a “common space” together with their tutors and teachers, cut from the influence of the neighbourhood, of parents and relatives was a more successful way of getting knowledge and formation of values, of training. Living “at home” charges young Gypsies more or less negatively towards learning; it is another problem that there is always some other work to be done – either to accompany their parents somewhere, or a celebration, or looking after somebody or something.

Macro level characteristics include institutional settings of the society, provided by state policy and NGOs.

In all the ratified “programmes”, “strategies”, “plans” for policies at state level as the basic priority is established the educational integration of ethnic minoritites’ children through:
- providing teaching material and training aids for the children of socially weak Gypsy families;
- providing clothing and breakfast to children in the segregated schools;
- inclusion of Gypsies as teacher assistance in the training process.
Parents in the focus groups thought that schools have to provide not only free textbooks, notebooks and training aids, but food and clothing as well. Thus social assistance of children (food, clothing, funds) is assumed by Gypsy parents as a necessary condition for school attendance.

Parents thought that children have to take part in different sport clubs, cultural forms such as music, dances organized outside schools. As a whole parents estimate the participation of NGOs as particularly important through their projects of the inclusion of Gypsy children in general educational Bulgarian schools in towns, called “integrating schools” thus contributing to desegregation. Parents opinions in the focus groups supported the idea of studying at integrating schools and classes with Bulgarian children, where except thelanguage they learn more things, and a motivaton for learning spreads up. At the same time however, there were views that chidren were discriminated in Bulgarian environment, that they cope with difficulties and they refuse to go to school because teachers “treat them badly”. These facts of ethnic retirement and isolation do exist in the Bulgarian schools and they were noted by different researchers.  The same time it is necessary to emphasize that the exit from the ethnization of education is not the retirement to the ghettoes. Obviously the problems connected with the integrating classes and schools have to be solved gradually and at the cost of patience and efforts and there have to be succession and continuity in their decvelopment. Moreover in spite of the ratification of documents at the state level concidering the integration of Gypsies in the education, the desegregation programme is not secured by the state budget, but fundung comes from NGOs instead.


The outlined characteristic features of Roma perceptions of education show the complexity of the problem. From the one side, schools and administrative structures of education have serious responcibilities, normative and organizational, for the realization of the training process, as the quality of textbooks, the contents of teaching matter, the qualification of teachers, running out classes, the system of marks, order in schools are of direct competence and priorities of educational agencies and institutions. From the other side, dropping out of school gets out of school system and is transmitted as a debate inside the whole society – about the quality of life, the responcibility of the state, the parents’ morality, the social values.

In the most cases (of mandatory school age) absences from classes are realized by children with family problems – unemployed parents (low education), conflicts, violence, marginality. The analysis of Roma education in terms of a complex syncretism between reconciled values of institutionalized teaching and family upbringing is important, as it tries to reveal the ambivalence of the situation in which the Gypsies exist: on the one hand their world is imbued in a high degree with traditional relationships and hierarchies, with the domination of the head of the family, on the other hand there is participation in the modern structure of the school, where individualism and a new understanding of success predominate.

One of the serious shortcomings is to seek the causes of low education and complete lack of education only in Gypsy ethnic attitudes and values, and to limit analysis to family structures as the main cause for the situation, where the interest of children in school must pass through the parents’ loyalty to the system. In the field of education there is a view that schoolchildren are consciously or not being “discriminated” on the basis of ethnic group and social class, which is influencing the teachers’ attitude, assessments, and opinions. Many field surveys support this view and demonstrate that minorities and the poor are treated differently by teachers. It turns out that education policy is an important part of the “ethnic” problem, of its non-solution or postponed solution. The ethnic division of education should be explained through the existence of “Roma” schools and neighbourhoods only if these schools are seen as part of a consciously conducted policy of Bulgarian governments since the time of socialism, a policy that created the preconditions for aggravating the isolation of Gypsies and reproducing ethnic backwardness. The way out of this vicious circle can hardly be achieved in a few years; several generations must pass, together with their values. This requires the development of the whole society itself and its economic stability. That is why every attempt to engage Gypsy children in school is actually working for perfecting social relations and ties. Today the desegregation of Bulgarian education must pass through:   
-improving the material basis of the “ghetto” schools by a targeted support with free textbooks, specialized classrooms, computer training;
-extending the access to pre-school education with an emphasis on learning Bulgarian;
-helping the teaching process, including the system of assistant teachers;

  1. active dialogue between teachers, parents, and children: the presence of Gypsies in Bulgarian education will become an increasingly important and sustained factor preventing the shutting down of schools due to the low reproduction rate of the Bulgarian ethnic group. In a sense ethnic integration of Gypsies in Bulgarian education are becoming a means for consolidating society, but also a means for preserving the Bulgarian school.

Those who say that the system has done all it can, are closing their eyes to the ethnic separation in education and leaving things to be solved by themselves. The “reasonable” explanations conceal the actual state of things. For the dynamics of development and the rapid change of ideology and preferences in the last years have filled education with a number of variants of pedagogical solutions and approaches, with quite a few undertaken activities and commitments to the process going on in schools, yet in most cases with a discrepancy between words and deeds.


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About the authors:

Dr Valentina Milenkova, Seniour research associate at the Institute of Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, sociologist, specialist in Sociology of Education

Dr Maxim Molhov, Seniour research associate at the Institute of Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, mathematician, specialist in Methodology of Sociological Survey Research.


1 Data are referring to mandatory education age: 6-16 years.

2Sofia is definitely a region with an enormous concentration of Gypsy population, which has become a leading motive for the choice of schools in this survey.

3 Beside family one has to include referent groups in the characteristic features at micro level, but we prefer to choose family as the most important factor for the educational attitudes of the individuals in our opinion.