According to the Council of Europe, six million Roma people live in the European Union, making them the largest ethnic minority.
Poor socio-economic conditions, social exclusion, discrimination and segregation have left Romani children with limited and restricted access to quality education an addition barrier to equitable opportunities. “Young Roma children face multiple inequalities in areas of their lives that impact their development and growth,” says Aljosa Rudas, Program Manager at the International Step by Step Association (ISSA).
According to the recently published REYN Early Childhood Research Study, 60 per cent of Romani children under the age of three do not have access to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services nearby, while 70 per cent of them experience difficulties understanding the learning language.
Indeed, only 44 per cent of Romani children between the ages of three and seven (or the starting age of compulsory primary education) are enrolled in early childhood education, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service. “This impacts their cognitive, social and emotional development,” says Solene Molard, Project and Policy Advisor at Eurocities. With the first five years the most defining age period in a kid’s life, “the lack of education will have a domino effect on all opportunities throughout the children’s lifetime,” Molard added.
Denying access to high-quality, affordable and inclusive early childhood education and care perpetuates deep-rooted disparities compared to non-Roma children. “Ensuring that Romani children have access to high-quality education and care is not only a matter of children’s rights but also a strategic investment because by tackling their inclusion at an early stage, they’ll be able to reach their full potential and contribute to the development of socially inclusive and cohesive societies with no one left behind,” adds Molard.
Tefik Mahmut, Programme Specialist on the Rights of Roma at UNICEF, recognises the role of municipalities in enhancing opportunities for marginalised groups at early stages. “Cities play a crucial role in implementing Early Childhood Education and Care policies, or enhancing these services thanks to the certain autonomy law gives them,” he states. Authorities can ensure that policies and practices reflect the commitment to equality.
Trust, communication and role models
However, local governments face many challenges. Educational centres are inadequately available and accessible locally; this is particularly true for Roma families who are more likely to live in peripheral segregated neighbourhoods. Another barrier is Roma communities’ awareness of the educational programmes and the importance of early childhood development.
Mahmut advocates for a strategic approach to effectively showcase the benefits of child education, and build community trust. Rather than merely conveying this information, the preferred method involves presenting it, with the participation of Roma parents, mediators and educators.
Advocating for inclusivity and equality from the early stages of development entails not only enhancing the representation or involvement of Roma educators in the ECEC institutions but also fostering an environment that genuinely mirrors the diversity inherent in the Roma communities.
“If we disseminate an awareness-raising campaign, we’re delivering the message,” Mahmut explains, “whereas if we galvanise members from the community into focus groups, for example, we’re making sure that they get behind the importance of ECEC, highlighting that it works and the benefits that it brings to the community and their children.”
Indeed, language barriers are one of the main obstacles the Roma community identifies. Another one is the absence of Romani culture and staff representation, “meaning we may not only lack Roma educators, but also educators with the capacity to enforce diversity and include ethnic minorities, or those with different socially constructed identities,” Mahmut explains.
Rudas, a Roma educator himself, states that “internships and scholarships for Roma students are crucial” since the group lacks opportunities to start in the labour market. ISSA initiated a campaign in which Roma professionals shared their experiences to foster Roma role models in the educational sector.
The “Dragan Kovacevic” school in Montenegro include Roma mediators, educators and volunteers. Roma parents there are involved in a “council of parents”, and leaflets are distributed in Romani to tackle the language barrier. “This sends a crucial signal and enhances the community’s trust. Once you have that, parents are then willing to approach the institution,” Mahmut says.
Rebuilding trust in Stockholm – Roma parents only
“We forget that there is a lack of trust between the community and the institution in general, given that Roma have been subjugated and discriminated against for a very long time,” explains Mahmut. “The result of that is a lack of trust towards any institution.”
Stockholm has also identified lack of trust as the main reason only a few Roma families enroll their children in the city’s pre-schools. “If they don’t trust you, you can not work with them,” explains Angelina Dimiter Taikon, Project Coordinator for Roma inclusion at the Education Department.
Dimiter belongs to the Roma community herself – along with another Roma colleague, she accompanies families to an open preschool exclusively dedicated to Roma families one day a week. “They trust us, so we are there the whole time,” while Roma parents meet each other and talk with city officials who can help them with social issues.
It is imperative to explain the invaluable benefits of early education directly to Roma parents. To effectively engage with parents and foster their understanding and active participation, it is essential to communicate in their language, thus bridging cultural gaps, breaking down language barriers and instigating a collective commitment to education.
“Parents know I want to help them,” she states. “We can tell them you can bring your grandma, aunt, so they see we don’t want to do anything bad to the kids.”
To create the open preschool, Dimiter highlights networking activities and dissemination about the importance of education and a municipality that understands the approaches and enables access to funding, facilities and staff.
This is part of what the city of Stockholm has developed based on the national strategy: to offer equal opportunities in life as non-Roma children to those Roma who will turn 20 years old in 2032. “In the long-term, we’ll come to a very good understanding and work with children in preschool, but the open pre-school is the first of many steps we must take,” she adds.
Roma educators in Croatia – Play hubs
Cities in the Croatian County of Medjimurje, where several Roma settlements have low employment levels and education enrollment, are evaluating resource centres and play hubs for children and parents.
The number of children enrolled in the cities’ kindergarten is rather low, with one municipality registering almost 85% of absences. In the capital, numbers are inverted, with around 20% of children not attending kindergarten, most of whom belong to these vulnerable groups. Also, more than half of the kindergarten centres are private, making them inaccessible to low-income families.
“In some cases, it’s only in primary school that children have contacts with adults who do not speak Romani and are outside of their family,” says Ivana Cosic, Education Officer at UNICEF Croatia. “The first day of preschool is not easy.” The solution is “to bring Early Learning and Play close to Roma settlements,” Cosic adds.
The centres employ preschool Roma facilitators who are trained and empowered. “Their role is crucial, so the parents and children feel welcome, at ease, and in a familiar space,” explains Cosic.
Roma facilitators and other teachers with a pedagogical background work together to make the experience similar to kindergarten centres. But also, “it’s important to involve local authorities in all crucial steps and decisions. The natural transition of the Play Hubs to preschool is a model being tested to a service that the local government administrates,” explains Cosic. Play Hubs, she explains, are spaces where parents can discuss routines that support children’s learning.
UNICEF placed the centres near the Roma settlements and close to other schools, playgrounds or other communal spaces, to encourage interaction between Roma and non-Roma kids.
Kindergartens in Budapest – ending segregation
Another exemplary practice that significantly enhances the availability and accessibility of ECEC services for Romani children at the grassroots level is the city of Budapest.
Jozsefvaros is a multicultural district that hosts the highest number of Roma and migrants in the city. Historically, there has been a high segregation among students (including two thoroughly segregated kindergartens), with one in ten children not a native Hungarian speaker.
Since 2019, the Jozsefvaros district has been committed to ending this segregation. As the only municipality-managed educational institution, Józsefváros started with kindergartens. “The earlier we intervene in social processes, the more effective the intervention can be,” says Henriett Horvath, Project Coordinator in Józsefváros.
For two and a half years, the project “aimed to offer children with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds quality preschool education.”
To achieve that goal, Horvath’s team wants to decrease the segregation of Roma and disadvantaged children in municipal kindergartens, improve the quality of education in segregated areas, attract non-Roma and middle-class families and support teachers integrating inclusive methodologies.
“We ended up closing the most segregated kindergarten,” Horvath’ explains. “ “We redrew the districts, and eventually no children were enrolled there in the last two years.” Kids went to other institutions, maximising the options for integration.
Also, “it was very important for the team to get parents involved both in the programmes of the kindergarten but also in the decision-making processes. Also, to have greater visibility of what kindergartens do and what children do there daily,” Horvath recounts. For example, posting on social media or advertising activities and events in public spaces.
One of those events was named “Bring your grandma” and children took part in physical education classes together with elderly people from a care facility nearby. Additionally, every September, all children from the 11 kindergartens participate in a march through the district with their bikes or scooters.
Understanding the language in Vienna – The learning aid initiative
After preschool education, the integration of vulnerable children must continue to ensure their learning success. Vienna implemented a Roma Learning Support Programme for school students to work with the Roma workforce from the educational sector to support children’s learning twice per week.
Groups of no more than 12 students receive help with homework, assessment on learning methods and work on artistic activities in a multilingual environment, including German and the families’ native language (mainly Romani and Serbian).
Each school year, the programme starts with parents discussions and information sessions offered by experts from the healthcare, education or pedagogy fields, ending with certificates and books to empower the students.
“Parents may have had bad experiences with school,” says Dilek Tasdemir, Researcher at the Research Institute for Multilingualism, Education and Integration of the Vienna Adult Education Centre, so transferring good feelings about the educational system to their children may be difficult for them.
“In addition, parents fear for their children’s future,” Tasdemir says. To avoid that, parents and mediators gather together to follow up on the school’s programme.
Present education enhances future opportunities
“The EU Roma strategic framework adopted in 2023 focuses on socioeconomic inclusion of marginalised Roma communities,” explains Marcela Adamova, Policy Officer at the Roma Coordination Unit from the European Commission. More concretely, it focuses on equality, inclusion and participation.
Among the seven objectives of the framework, the strategy aims to increase adequate equal access to quality inclusive mainstream education. This educational goal breaks down into three concrete objectives for 2023 – reduce the gap in access to quality early childhood education and care between Roma and non-Roma populations, ensuring that at least 70 per cent of Romani children participate in preschool; ensure that the majority of Roma youth complete at least upper secondary education; guarantee that fewer than one in five Roma children attend Roma-only or mostly schools.
“Children do not choose their ethnic belongings, neighbourhoods or parents. Our role is to give everybody an equitable opportunity to enhance their overall development,” reminds Mahmut. “If the foundations are not good, a child’s ability to learn and develop further will be affected,” he explains.
The EU Council recommends member states to involve regional and local authorities and local civil society in the design, implementation, monitoring and review of national strategic frameworks. It also encourages regional and local governments to develop or update actions for equality, inclusion and participation.
Mahmut says he is optimistic about the future. The UNICEF Programme Specialist on the Rights of Roma points out that people from the Roma community are now more prepared than they were years ago. Also, Dimiter says that Romani will be part of the teaching programme for the Education Degree at one of the Swedish universities.
“Children do not hear what we say, they follow what we do,” Mahmut says. “Having role models in these settings creates a domino effect by inspiring them and making the pragmatic changes you want to see on the ground,” he adds.
“It’s not a question of competences, but of willingness and abilities of authorities and those in decision-making processes to involve them,” Mahmut says.
The EU, member states and local governments have the power to build inclusive educational systems towards a fair and equitable Europe for all children. Romani children are among those groups, but access to early childhood education and care should drive change.
Together, we can establish a bedrock for a more inclusive and equitable educational landscape from the beginning, ensuring that no child is left behind.
The webinar “Inclusion of Roma children in ECEC” leveraged lessons learned to enhance on-the-ground efforts and improve the impact of Eurocities and UNICEF partnership work in empowering Roma communities.
This partnership aims at building local authorities’ capacity in the local implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the EU Child Guarantee.