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‘A GOOD START’ SEEKS TO INCLUDE ROMA CHILDREN IN PRE-SCHOOL EDUCATION

Fighting school segregation

SEGREGATED classes and regular, unjustified placement of Roma children in special schools are often cited reasons for the poor education of children from socially-disadvantaged Roma communities. Experts who gathered in Bratislava in early June to attend the third transnational workshop on the EU-funded project called ‘A Good Start’ stated that the roots of the educational problem among Roma children go far deeper and needed to be attacked at the pre-school level.

SEGREGATED classes and regular, unjustified placement of Roma children in special schools are often cited reasons for the poor education of children from socially-disadvantaged Roma communities. Experts who gathered in Bratislava in early June to attend the third transnational workshop on the EU-funded project called ‘A Good Start’ stated that the roots of the educational problem among Roma children go far deeper and needed to be attacked at the pre-school level.



‘A Good Start’ is a multi-country early care and education project coordinated by the Roma Education Fund (REF), an international NGO, that is assisting over 4,000 Roma and non-Roma children and their parents or caregivers in Slovakia, Romania, Macedonia and Hungary, four countries where many Roma fall far behind other children in educational achievement.

Insufficient facilities for pre-school programmes are believed to be among the principal problems in Slovakia and REF reports note that more than half of Roma children are not enrolled in any kind of early childhood education.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Semsi Sainov, REF’s senior programme officer currently in charge of managing REF’s Slovak, Czech and Romanian country portfolios. He was previously in charge of managing REF’s western Balkans portfolio.



The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Are there many differences between the countries you worked in previously and Slovakia, your current assignment?


Semsi Sainov (SS): Yes, many. First of all, the level of commitment of the Slovak government is less. While in some other countries the governments are much more committed, some representatives of the Slovak government are only now starting to admit that they should do something. A recent study by the World Bank has shown that if the Slovak government doesn’t integrate Roma children into the education system the country will then face huge problems that will come back as a boomerang in the form of an unqualified and unskilled labour force. That will be a problem particularly in conjunction with the birth rate, which is much higher among the Roma population.



TSS: Has anything changed in these few months that you have been working in Slovakia? What have you defined as the main problems?


SS: The biggest problem is segregation itself. When we speak of segregation, then we speak of low-quality education because the standards for the curricula [in segregated classes] are very poor and that’s the end for the children. Those children are actually persecuted; I can say it’s even a crime.

If you look at the proportion of Roma children and non-Roma children in special schools, you will see that over 60 percent of the children in these schools are Roma. So there must be something very wrong in the testing system. The testing system must be abolished. There is also a need for [qualification] criteria for people who work in the special schools as there are no ethical or moral norms for the commissions that deal with the entrance testing for enrolment in elementary education. I’m not against special schools; they are needed – but only for those who are handicapped and not for kids who are not.

Those Roma children are not handicapped but they are still sent there. And then there is a law saying that those who are in a special school are to be retested again after some time. But once they are in those schools it’s very difficult to re-categorise them and involve them in mainstream education because it takes a lot of money and effort. After three years, it’s very difficult to
transfer them into mainstream education.

Therefore, it’s very important for these children to get a pre-school education. It’s not only about the language barrier; it’s also about socialisation because they are ghettoised.

For instance, last week we visited one Roma ghetto and they wanted to show us good practices. But when I saw it I thought: ‘if this is good practice, what then is bad practice’? Because the truth is that those children are totally segregated. They have a community centre, a small barracks which looks like jail. And the nearest elementary school is one and a half kilometres from there. So why aren’t they integrated there? There’s the big question mark.

Then they have a mayor who was saying that they’ve been working with the Roma for 20 years and that they are very committed. They were telling us stories about housing. But housing is also implemented very incorrectly. For instance, they built several houses there with one room, but if you check how much they spent on that house per one square metre, it’s much more expensive than the market price. They could have built houses downtown with that amount of money. And on top of it, the ghetto is in an industrial zone and that means landownership issues are not resolved. And that means that in one year these buildings could be demolished. So this means a lot of money was spent for nothing. The system has to be aware of these problems and deal with them. But when you raise the issue of segregation there is a self-defence mechanism and people start saying ‘No, according to the policy they are all equal’; but if you go to the field you’ll see that it’s not like that.



TSS: The Slovak government now admits there is segregation?


SS: Yes. With the previous government we were trying to cooperate as much as possible but it was very difficult. Now at least the government admits that there is segregation and that it’s an issue to be dealt with. They also agreed that it’s not only about the pre-school programmes but also about the transition between elementary and secondary education – the drop-out rate at that time is really high.

It requires a comprehensive approach. You cannot deal only with education if employment and housing problems are not dealt with. If Roma are settled on the outskirts of the city many of them have problems with transport, for instance.

Of course we are open to cooperate, to support the education system, to exchange our experience from other countries, but the education system is an institutional problem and not a problem of the non-governmental sphere. So the initiatives in which the government is saying that community centres should become a substitute for pre-school education for these children are wrong. If it’s not institutionalised we again have a problem because they will have segregated community centres. And community centres cannot substitute for pre-school because there are no conditions, no staff, no teachers, etc. This should be solved institutionally in the education system and the NGOs can only provide support.



TSS: During the workshop you had a strong exchange of opinions about having a ‘zero grade’ for children from socially-disadvantaged communities. Can you share your views about this?


SS: The zero grade class was actually a temporary solution that was applied within the PHARE programme as a transitional solution for disadvantaged children. As an idea it’s good. But if you visit the existing zero grades you will see that most of them are segregated. Again, Roma children are in a majority there because they are socially disadvantaged. But if you actually check how many of those children who are attending zero grades are later enrolled in mainstream education and how many of them are enrolled in special schools, the percentage is about 40 percent or even more. So I think this is not a solution. Maybe as a transitional solution it worked, but not as a permanent solution because again something is wrong if you still have more than 40 percent of children enrolled in special education.


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