Fast on the heels of the European Commission communication on the critical importance of early childhood education and care (ECEC) on February 17, the Hungarian Presidency of the EU hosted a conference on improving equal access to quality early childhood education.
To its credit, the Hungarian government has accorded priority to both ECEC and Roma integration during its presidency. How these issues intertwine was made clear in the crudest fashion just a couple of days beforehand, when the Italian politician Tiziana Maiolo declared: "E piu facile educare un cane di un Rom" ("It’s easier to educate a dog than a Roma"). Maiolo resigned shortly thereafter.
In a continent where mainstream right-wing leaders are lining up to proclaim the death of multiculturalism, it's troubling that Maiolo’s anti-Roma hate-mongering might resonate louder in the public sphere than would the Commission’s observation that "although their needs are greater, participation rates of Roma children in ECEC are significantly lower than for the native population, and expanding these opportunities is a key policy challenge across the EU."
The Commission is of course correct in its assertion that ECEC can play a key role in overcoming disadvantages faced by Roma children. What’s worrying is the possibility that more EU citizens connect with the recent "communication" by neo-fascist Jobbik Party president Gabor Vona, when in another tirade against "Gypsy crime" in Hungary, he declared that the Roma birth rate should be lowered, and "Roma children of lazy parents" must be taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools.
The contrast between what is and what ought to be remains very stark. There is a burgeoning consensus that ECEC is vital for the most disadvantaged children, to break the vicious cycle of deprivation and the intergenerational transmission of poverty and exclusion. But much remains to be done to extend this consensus beyond the converted, to win arguments in the wider world of public policy, to counter prejudice in the public sphere, and to broaden the base of support to do the right thing, so that quality early childhood education and care becomes a cornerstone of our democracies.
Three years after the landmark European Court ruling against the systemic racial segregation of schoolchildren in the Czech Republic, that country, together with its neighbors, continues to send Roma children into "special education." One teacher in the Czech Republic explained:
I am not a racist …. These children are not stupid; they are developmentally behind other children, because when they are brought up, they are not talked to, they aren't told how to hold a pencil or told that a baby dog is called a puppy.
Research conducted by the Roma Education Fund points to a clear trend: children are simply misdiagnosed. Few Roma children are prepared for testing compared to their non-Roma peers; few are fluent in the language of instruction. If psychological testing defines these disadvantages as symptoms of mental disability, then the deficiency lies not with the child but with the system. There is a crying need for the system to embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach to early childhood education that facilitates transition into mainstream primary education.
All the research confirms that early childhood education and care is not an optional extra, but rather an essential component of the infrastructure for sustained economic development. If, as the experts tell us, in terms of a person’s cognitive development, "the race is already halfway run" before schooling, then we need to get Roma children to the starting blocks post-haste. We know inclusion makes economic sense, and that Europe cannot afford the youngest and fastest-growing demographic segment of its population to become a lost generation.
While there is merit in framing debates in terms of future economic returns, it is important to emphasize that when we speak of Roma children we are not just talking about future economic units of consumption and production, but rather the fate and dignity of millions of rights-bearing young individuals in all their diversity and uniqueness. We must refute those who would diagnose these children in terms of what they lack, those who would categorize them as problematic.
What is needed is supportive, child-centered learning environments for children to realize their potential and successfully adapt to mainstream schooling. We know from the work of the Open Society Foundations and the Roma Education Fund, from preschool to postgraduate programs we support, that this is a generation with huge creative potential, possessed of vast reservoirs of talent, and much to contribute to the future of Europe.
However, the material deprivation endured by so many Romani children impedes their potential to progress from the very outset of their lives. To ensure equal treatment and outcomes, there is a clear need for a series of compensatory interventions at the earliest possible stage in a child’s life. We need to think in broader terms than compulsory enrollment in preschool. Readiness for school must include health and emotional well-being, and cognitive and linguistic development, and fully take account of family and social environments.
For early childhood interventions to have the desired lifelong effects, what happens in school is of course crucial. Policy makers need to ensure that new or revised public education acts, drafted in times of austerity, do not exacerbate inequalities, compound socio-economic disadvantage, and widen the opportunity gap between ethnic minority and majority citizens.
Mainstream schools must transform into welcoming and supportive environments for all; environments where diversity is simply part of the human condition; environments that cultivate a shared sense of common belonging amongst our youngest citizens, and provide quality education so that no child gets left behind.