Investment in early childhood development is linked to direct returns in the form of equity and social justice, particularly in regards to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those are the findings of the Roma Early Childhood Inclusion (RECI) Studies, a joint initiative of the Open Society Early Childhood Program, the Roma Education Fund (REF), and UNICEF. The studies present a unique opportunity to promote research-based advocacy that helps ensure equal access to quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) for Roma children.
The Roma Early Childhood Inclusion+ (RECI+) Croatia report [PDF]—which is the sixth in the series and launched in Zagreb in February 2015—confirms that education is one of the most critical areas of intervention for Roma children. While its findings show that progress has been made to bridge the gaps in educational policy and reaffirm the initiatives set out in the National Roma Inclusion Strategy 2013–2020, it also indicates that gaps in the ECEC system have a disproportionately negative impact on Roma children and their families.
Appropriate early childhood development services are essential for achieving school readiness and for giving Roma children an equal start as they enter primary education. Some recent improvements in Croatia are encouraging—for example, the number of Croatian Roma children registered in primary school increased from 4,186 in 2009/2010 to 5,470 in 2013/2014.
But there remains ample room for improvement. Of the Roma households included in the study, only 20 percent of all Roma children from zero to six years old are accessing any kind of preschool education or program, including preparatory pre-primary programs. As a consequence, many preschool- and school-aged Roma children are falling through the cracks when it comes to nationwide preschool provision.
The study recommends that focus be placed on improving Roma children’s educational attainment and regular attendance in preschool institutional settings. It indicates that parents either don’t know about existing local preschool facilities and support, or are unable to enroll their children due to exclusion, unemployment, absence of Roma teachers or teaching assistants, a shortage of kindergartens, rural isolation, or financial burdens associated with formal education.
The study findings also confirm that the Roma population faces the greatest socioeconomic challenges in Croatian society, characterized by a high degree of social exclusion, which has a lasting negative impact on infants and children. The isolation of many Roma settlements in Croatia hinders the successful integration of Roma children into the education system. In addition, poor infant health is exacerbated by the substandard housing and dangerous and unhygienic environments of these areas.
The RECI+ Croatia study highlights the significantly lower level of resources allocated to programs that support family and child well-being in Croatia, compared to other European countries. Although the start of the research coincided with a period of economic crisis and austerity policies, with extensive cuts to welfare benefits and social services, it remains clear that for Croatia to achieve a successful education and fulfilling life for every child, early childhood education and care for all children must be a top priority.
There is a growing body of evidence that underscores the importance of investment in early childhood development. This is especially true in the case of Roma children. It is time that government, civil society, international agencies, and donors acted at local, national, and international levels to apply what has been learned about the benefits of early childhood education and care for all children.