Ethnicity and non-discrimination

Problem statement

Individuals or groups should not be treated differently because of their social class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, life and work choices, language, or race. Specific legislation and practices across the EU counter discrimination against certain groups or individuals and ensure equality and justice when and if discrimination occurs. In recent decades the European Union has put large efforts into building a legal framework against discrimination and providing support for measures to combat it. However, despite having a strong legal framework in place, its implementation faces challenges. Various forms of discrimination, in particular on the grounds of ethnic origin, still prevail. For example, ethnic origin remains the most widely perceived grounds for discrimination in the EU [1].

Implications for education

This poses a threat to the implementation of fundamental rights including the right to education for all. For instance, certain groups of children (e.g. Roma) can be excluded from high quality education by being refused enrolment under pressure from non-Roma parents or being placed in ‘special schools’ or ethnically segregated classes [2] [3]. In addition, a growing number of immigrants and refugees bring new challenges to ensuring the principle of non-discrimination in education. For example, evidence shows that migrant children perform less well and tend to drop out from school more often than their non-migrant classmates [4] [5] [6] due to insufficient diversity management at schools, language issues, insufficient support and attention provided for these children during their learning process, differences between school and home culture and teachers’ prejudices and expectations towards refugee and migrant children [7] [8]. Other key challenges to countering discrimination in education include lack of public awareness of rights and under-reporting of discrimination cases. In addition, lack of equality data, collection of which is the responsibility of Member States, makes it difficult to quantify and monitor instances of discrimination [9].


Numerous evidence-based suggestions could be regarded as possible strategies when combating discrimination in education. There is a need to improve diversity management practices at the school and classroom level by providing adequate initial preparation and effective continuous professional development to school leaders and teachers [10] [11]. Also, teaching practices should be improved at all levels of education in order to deal effectively with the diversity of languages and student backgrounds, be sensitive to culture and gender issues, promote tolerance and social cohesion, and respond effectively to disadvantaged students and students with learning or behavioural problems [7] [11] [12]. Curriculum frameworks also need to be adjusted to better reflect the diversity of the pupil population. Furthermore, education systems need to be more flexible in order to cope with diverse learners through adequate and sufficient provision of learning support measures and special services, better engage parents and community in learning processes and individualisation of education [10]. The provision of equal educational opportunities to all pupils and students requires, on the one hand, the provision of equal access to all starting from early childhood education and care, and, on the other hand, the provision of quality education to all children. In addition, it is crucial to conduct more research, improve the availability of sound evidence on existing forms and types of discrimination and establish a sound database to track inclusion and learning outcomes for all.

[1] TNS Opinion & Social at the request of the European Commission, Directorate-General Justice, ‘Discrimination in the EU in 2012’, Special Eurobarometer 393, 2012. PDF file

[2] Kjaerum, M., Exclusion and discrimination in education: the case of Roma in the European Union, speech on 8 April 2013 at a conference on Roma issues at Harvard University to mark International Roma Day, 2013. Web Link

[3] Kertesi, G., Segregation in the Primary School System in Hungary, Causes and Consequences, Roma Education Fund, 2015.

[4] OECD, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2012.

[5] Schnepf, S. V., Inequality of Learning amongst Immigrant Children in Industrialised Countries, S3RI and IZA Discussion Paper No. 3337, University of Southampton, 2008.

[6] OECD, Untapped Skills. Realizing the Potential of Immigrant Students, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2012.

[7] EADSNE, Inclusive education and classroom practice, Summary report, 2003. PDF file

[8] OECD, PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity. Giving every student the chance to succeed, Volume II, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2012.

[9] European Commission, Joint Report on the application of Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin (‘Racial Equality Directive’) and of Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (‘Employment Equality Directive’), COM(2014) 2 final, 2014. PDF file

[10] European Agency for development of Special Needs Education, Teacher Education for InclusionChallenges and Opportunities, European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, Odense, Denmark, 2011.

[11] Roma Education Fund, Making Desegregation Work! A Desegregation Toolkit Developed by the Roma Education Fund, 2015.

[12] OECD, Teachers Matter. Attracting, Developing and Retraining Effective teachers, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2005.