Interview by Ariane Bailey, Bureau of Public Information, UNESCO
What makes education for Roma children specific?
In large part historical factors. First, it is related to the long history of discrimination that Roma had to endure, entrenched in many European institutions and in particular many education systems. Second, a number of Roma communities have preferred to keep a distance with the non Roma, especially in the area of child upbringing. As a consequence many Roma today are suspicious that education will improve their living conditions, and non Roma see Roma as unwilling to integrate and adhere to the national societal model offered by formal education systems. This also means that the level of education of Roma parents overall is much lower than that of non Roma parents and therefore parental support among Roma is less effective. The economic problems that Roma children face tend to be more serious and the cost of education is more difficult to sustain for many of them. Finally, differences in culture and language can also be a barrier but this is a lesser issue than what is often said.
Are there signs of change?
Today the Roma community is going through major changes. A new elite well trained and much more at ease with their Roma identity, is starting to make a difference. It is well integrated and willing to work on improving the situation of the Roma communities. It is small but growing. The number of Roma integrating university is increasing rapidly and this is reflected in the demand for university scholarships offered by the Roma Education Fund that is nearly doubling every year. We see enrollment improving clearly in practically every country. The issue however with the quality of education received by Roma children is still very serious and there is a lot of evidence that they are receiving the lowest quality of education, especially in countries where education systems tend to be increasingly unequal as in Eastern Europe.
Could you give any concrete example of programmes that work?
We have many examples of programmes that work well at the local level, what is missing most often is the political will to take the steps needed to make them national and part of the education system. This requires resources and policy changes that are very difficult to mobilize. Focusing on ensuring one year of pre-school education in an integrated environment (Roma children together with non Roma) provides excellent results if enough support is given to the child during the year. This involves help with homework and with catching up organized by Roma NGOs in coordination with the school, and assistance from community facilitators who help parents communicate with the school. School attendance can be further encouraged by reduced education costs for families (free books, transportation costs, school lunch), …. Actually we know what works, what we know less is how to move these programmes from a school or a municipality to the national level.
What do expect from this meeting?
We need many more meetings with Roma NGOs, practitioners, government representatives, development organizations to exchange experiences. We also need to discuss concretely the next steps. I hope this meeting will look at what works instead of doing an inventory of all that does not work. There is too much pessimism around education of Roma. Experience in the field shows that we have no reasons to be so pessimistic!