"Global evidence shows that early childhood education and care is essential to children’s development” recently stated Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Livia Járóka at a conference in Brussels to mark the achievements of the Roma Education Fund pilot project, A Good Start. “The new regional Roma survey data show that Roma children do not have an equal chance … it is time to close this gap." Overwhelming evidence indicates that Roma children who attend pre-school have significantly higher scores on measures of learning, and a much higher likelihood of subsequent enrolment into secondary schools.
While more than 80% of Romani parents want their children to complete secondary education, according to recent research, the chances remain slim for huge numbers of children. Inequities start early and the studies reveal that huge numbers of Roma children miss out on pre-school: In Slovakia it is estimated that only 28% of Roma children aged 3-6 are in preschool.
A Good Start worked with over 4000 Roma children and their families in sixteen localities in four countries to ensure access to early childhood education and care services. The direct experience of A Good Start, confronting the varied challenges and circumstances in deprived urban and rural settlements, combined with the research findings from the Roma Early Childhood Inclusion Report, and evidence from the UNDP / World Bank / EC regional survey, set a clear policy agenda for the future.
As well as a higher likelihood of attending secondary school, children attending pre-school are much less likely to be forced into ‘special needs’ education. In the context of extreme poverty and exclusion, developmental readiness for school requires a multi-dimensional concept of early childhood. In the face of absolute poverty, cost barriers to pre-school attendance must be removed. Roma parents need to be better informed of the benefits of pre-school for children’s later-life outcomes. Furthermore, for pre-schools to become truly inclusive and directly involve parents there is a need for outreach to Roma communities.
The conference took place just one week after the European Commission issued its assessment of the National Roma Integration Strategies. The review of the strategies conducted by Eurochild found that a “holistic” or rounded child-centred perspective is limited or non-existent; strategies fail to address broader issues of children’s rights and well-being; and that proposed actions are general and “difficult (if not impossible) to monitor in terms of implementation and impact.”
The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child proclaims that "the child shall enjoy special protection ... to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity." National governments who have ratified this legally binding Convention stand accused of failing and continuing to fail in their obligations toward millions of Roma children right across Europe.
When it comes to the rights and well-being of Roma children, the gap between rhetoric and realization is an affront that should, but somehow does not, inspire outrage and indignation among all right-minded citizens. The gap between what is and what ought to be remains very stark. A Good Start shows just how this gap can be closed.
To ensure the lessons learned from A Good Start lead to a better future for millions of Roma children, MEP Danuta Huebner in her conference address, called for a coalition of “all those who care.” To sustain the momentum generated by A Good Start, and ensure that early childhood interventions become an integral component of national strategies, there is a need to form a dedicated expert working group under the aegis of the European Union Framework for Roma Integration.
Much remains to be done to extend the consensus beyond the committed, to win arguments in the wider world of public policy in times of austerity. Concerted efforts are needed to counter anti-Roma prejudice and to broaden the base of support to do the right thing by Roma children, so that high quality early childhood education and care for all becomes a cornerstone of our democracies.