CHILDREN belong in school and the Roma Reform will bring them back there, so said Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Government Proxy for the Roma Communities Peter Pollák when introducing the education-related part of a long-heralded reform to address problems of the Roma community on October 22. Authors of the reform pitched 14 solutions which include obligatory three-year pre-schooling for children of families regarded as being at risk, in order to prevent the further “creation of professional receivers of social subsidies”.
While observers say that several of the education-related proposals are steps in the right direction, they also note that their success depends on the way they are implemented and whether there are concurrent measures in other areas. They would also like to see more inclusive policies and hear a less repressive tone in the reform.
“I understand that everyone might have a different view on how to bring up children, but the fact is, and perhaps we all can agree, that children belong in school,” Kaliňák commented on the introduced measures, as quoted by the public-service broadcaster Slovak Television (STV).
The government document lists the unpreparedness of children coming from what it calls at-risk families when entering the first grade level of elementary school as one of the problems that need to be addressed. To do so it proposes obligatory 3-year pre-school education for children from at-risk families, who would be identified according to criteria like the parents’ education level, criminal background and long-term unemployment rate, as well as the indebtedness of the family and a history of truancy, according to the document published on the website of the proxy for the Roma community.
The reform also assumes the introduction of a day-long educational system at elementary schools for children from at-risk families which, according to Kaliňák, would mean that the children would return home only for the night.
The implementation of the measures would last three years while the first legislation should be adopted as early as next year, according to Kaliňák.
“In the proposed [Roma] reform most of the steps are headed in the right direction, for example, more children in pre-school care, longer time spent at school,” sociologist Oľga Gyárfášová, of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a think tank, told The Slovak Spectator. “However, the important thing will be how all this is implemented. The proposal will need a more detailed execution plan and of course the wide support of all the institutions involved.”
When asked to identify the main problem of the system of education of Roma children, Alexander Mušinka, of the Institute of Roma Studies at Prešov University, said it involves a set of mutually intertwined problems from which it is difficult to single out a root cause, adding that it is almost like trying to define the start of a circle.
Yet according to him, part of the problem is rooted in the social status of part of the Roma community while generally it applies that for socially weaker groups, regardless of their ethnicity, education is not as highly valued. Yet another problem lies with the schools themselves, including the content of their curriculum, Mušinka added.
“The introduction of obligatory pre-schooling of children in itself is not a bad idea,” Mušinka said, adding that nevertheless the form and content of the curriculum must be reformed as well, not only at the pre-school level, but mainly at the elementary and secondary school levels. “Without structural changes in the system and the content of education it will not be effective enough.”
While Mušinka sees the proposed solutions as positive if they are carried out along with further changes, he also objected to how the proposals “in principle address only one part of the problem: the problem of the failings of the student or the parent, but almost fail to address the failings of the school”.
When addressing the issue of identifying at-risk families, Mušinka says that this might be more problematic because it could interfere with civil rights. However, he also adds that at this point without seeing how the state actually wants to perform this task, it is rather difficult to comment, but “the published indicators suggests that it will not necessarily be as simple as it seems at first sight”.
The reform also assumes that children’s attendance and behaviour at school will directly impact the volume of state social assistance for the family of the child, according to the document.
Children who after nine years fail to successfully complete the eighth year of elementary school would automatically be enrolled into an obligatory three-year apprentice school with an obligatory two-year practice based on the selection and abilities of the student, the decision of the parents, as well as the needs of the labour market, according to the document.
Gyárfášová said that a recent study called Segregation vs. Inclusion of Roma in Education, carried out by a team consisting of independent consultant Jana Huttová, Martina Sekulová and herself, both from IVO, also confirms that pre-schooling, optimally for three years, from 3 to 6, has long-term positive impacts on the education of children.
“We have not yet managed to increase the share of children from marginalised communities in kindergartens,” Gyárfášová said. “On the other hand I do mind the wording of the reform because it is repressive and might have a discriminatory character, and far too much stands out as ‘social engineering’. I would be for the application of approaches which would motivate rather than dictate.”
Children with special needs?
The reform also covers so-called special schools, claiming the education acquired in such schools significantly reduces the chances of children finding a place in the labour market. Yet the state proposes to secure objective entry-level and subsequent diagnosis of children with less severe special needs with what it calls a “responsible state institution”.
According to the document, the fee for the education of such students is unnecessarily burdening the state budget and the type of education acquired by these students actually significantly lowers their chances of finding jobs and thus they become dependent on social aid.
Mušinka suggests that the results of diagnostics, which in his opinion are often in principle correct, should not automatically result in the placement of students into a special school.
“For many schools these pupils are sources of income and they become a business for the schools,”
Mušinka said, adding that he is convinced that by lowering the rate per student with mild special needs to the level of the rate for regular students, their number would significantly drop at special schools. “These students in most cases do not need education at a special school but rather a change in the approach to their education at a regular school.”