The Importance of Getting Roma Children into School Early

Early childhood education is not an extravagance, it is essential—especially in the case of Roma children, as a new report coauthored by the Open Society Foundations makes clear.

In recent years, an array of evidence has demonstrated the economic and social importance of investment in early childhood development. A European Union–funded survey of Roma confirmed the strong influence of preschool education on pupils’ competencies. In every aspect monitored, differences were displayed between Roma children who attend kindergarten and Roma children who do not.

But the investment in early childhood education pays dividends that go far beyond the school walls. Indeed, there is a growing recognition that promoting and developing early education could be a critical component in addressing inequity and participation in Roma communities.

A good place to test this theory is the Czech Republic, a country that suffers from an exceptionally high level of early years educational inequality. This week, the Open Society Foundations, the Roma Education Fund, and UNICEF released Roma Early Childhood Inclusion, a report on Roma inclusion in early childhood education and care in the Czech Republic. The report found that, while starting compulsory schooling can be a challenge for families, the evidence confirms that these critical first steps are vital for Roma parents and their children.

This year, the Czech Public Defender of Rights cited “the lack of preschool education” as one of the main reasons Roma children fail to do well in elementary school. This lack of preschool education springs in part from a rigidly differentiated education system in which certain children—particularly Roma and children with disabilities—are structurally excluded from mainstream education.

Structural exclusion is prevalent, usually in the form of separate schools or differentiated classes attached to mainstream schools. Studies on the educational pathways of Roma pupils reveal that Roma children are 10 times more likely than majority children to be diverted to schools or classes outside mainstream education.

More action should be taken by the government to monitor and enforce respect for equal treatment legislation, which could help address these divisions. The view that many Roma children are better off in separate schools remains widespread among teachers and other education professionals, who frequently subscribe to the stereotypical view that Roma pupils and their parents lack discipline and don’t value education.

Another challenge is the Czech Republic’s inadequate supply of early-years education and care provision. Compared to the EU member states’ average, fewer resources are allocated to services in support of family and child well-being in the Czech Republic, which exhibits one of the lowest participation rates in care for children under three among EU countries, a situation that has not changed in the last decade. For the majority of Czech Roma families, already often geographically isolated and trapped in precarious living conditions, this limits the opportunity to access early-years education even further.

Moreover, the Czech Republic has no systematic monitoring of participation rates of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in early years education. This makes it difficult to accurately evaluate the effectiveness of policy, provision, and practice initiatives aimed at securing improvements in equal access, regular attendance, and satisfactory attainment of Czech Roma children.

For all these reasons, the Roma Early Childhood Inclusion report recommends a professional consensus on the understanding of “inclusive education” for all children in the Czech Republic, and education that is compatible with international best practices. The report urges the government to commit towards a national early childhood strategy, a higher participation of Roma educators, and appropriate involvement of all regional and national authorities in this process.

The early years of a child represent an enormous opportunity to address inequality and improve outcomes later in life. This makes early-years education and care vitally important for the thousands of young Czech Roma children who deserve a better chance.

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In Romania, is one of the biggest problem that the children has to work (scrap collecting e.t.c.). The society shuld support the family, so the children can go to shool. One problem is that, when a roma child do something wrong, the punichment can be no school today! I was so suprice, when I understud that but, the parent told me that, its the best punichment because they like so much to go to the school. Of course, we had a big meeting and try to avoid this. The parents have gone in the school, under communist time but they told me that its also important how to learn to live in this powerty and bad living situation. Now we have a oun school for this children and try the best to let the children to go to the school.

I don't think separate education is the answer long term. Neither are generalisations. In some families children have to work and in some they may be kept from school as a punishment. But there is plenty of work to be done to make education more inclusive and child-centred. Early childhood education lays the foundations.

These children come from homes that are terribly degraded but in which they learn ancestral skills, best taught by parents in a living continuum. What we have done is provide library schools and a stipend to mothers who formerly had to leave their babies with grandmothers in Romania and return to Florence to beg in the streets for their family's survival. The children in this programme then can enter school already with the knowledge of books as well as skills. We believe it is important for the mothers and fathers to also have schooling, the whole family, but not to break the valuable continuum of culture. Here we have a Romanian Roma who started school at six, finished technical school in Buzau, was living in poverty, twelve to one room with no windows, but who has restored the 'English' Cemetery in Florence, Donatello's pulpit in Prato, Odoardo Fantacchiotti's large sculpture of Hope with CNR, using laser, this because he combines traditional Roma skills, his grandfather the top copper smith in their part of Romania whose tools he has inherited, with those he learned in technical school. In the evenings he studies history, particularly the history of his own people. He and his wife create multi-lingual school books for the project, for adults and children, in Romani, Romanian, Italian and English, and all his four daughters excel in school. The first house he built was taken from them by rich brothers whose family owned the land before Comunism, so he lost all his earnings until then, but he has now bought land again and built their second home, all in eight years. It is extremely important to hold Alphabet School for the parents and children in these families, to keep the family structure intact. Roma tell me that though they are poor, lacking houses, work, their children are their greatest value. They do not allow their babies to cry the way we do, the crying which damages the early brain formation. We have much to learn from Roma about the love and nurturing of babies, instead of imprisoning mothers who beg with their children, causing the separation of mothers and children into different countries, and then to separate children from their extended families as well. Educate the parents with the children! And teach using Montessori methods. Like Finland! We are talking with Roma NGOs in Bucharest about a publishing house of books and websites of excellence for children and schools, illustrated to the highest level, instead of the poor quality I saw in bookshops there, and which are inclusive, not exclusive as those books are at present. Books so excellent that both Roma and non-Roma will want them and the children growing up remember them.

When I was reading the article, I was thinking about the Moroccan situation concerning the Early Childhood Education. The situation in Morocco is really alarming particularly among those disadvantaged children who cannot benefit from this phase to develop their imagination, and different skills; not to speak of how can the early childhood education participates and provides opportunities to address inequality between pupils' levels when they enter primary school. Now, moroccan government is conscious of the problem since the level of schooling in degrading in the primary schools. Many campaigns are rolled out to raise awareness of the dilemma and encourage association to take part in developing this sector for the sake to promote schooling from its basis.

Hello, I volunteer for a small NGO in Western Romania. We currently have after school homework clubs for the Roma but we are thinking of starting something for the 2-4 pre schoolers as we are finding many children of this age are not attending kindergarden. I was wondering whether you can point me to any resources, to any material or funding for such a thing. Thanks, Kate

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