Invitation to interact on inclusive and quality education for Roma children
“Forced immersion in the majority language instruction is failing children, particularly ethnic minorities”
“Education should start from the known and go to the unknown. Instead, the education system is starting from the unknown”
“It’s very difficult to pick up abstract concepts in a foreign language.”
Htin Zaw, Senior Public Relationship Officer, NGO Shalom Foundation, Myanmar
Do Roma children receive Inclusive and Quality education?
In September 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals were formulated at the UN Summit. Goal 4 says: Ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning for all by 2030. At this point we don’t know how this goal will be reached, but we do know that most of us agree that we want Roma children to be included in good quality education.
What we often struggle with is that we see inequalities in access to and participation in good education, which has negative effects on learning outcomes of Roma students. There seem to be structural barriers that prevent many Roma children to be included.
What are some of those structural barriers? In the following I question some current practices of teaching Roma children that I think are not inclusive nor provide quality education. I also suggest an alternative way of teaching. I invite your feedback!
I am making general statements that I know don’t cover every situation. I know that many people are doing their best to include Roma children and give them a good education and I admire those of you who are involved in this. I also realize that many Roma do not speak Romani. I ask for your understanding if you feel you are not represented in the way I state things. I am doing this for the sake of challenging current thinking about the role of language in education and to get a conversation going.
Situation of Roma children in schools in Europe:
European countries have diverse populations. Not all citizens of a given country belong to the same ethnic group, especially since migration has increased so much in the last 50 years. In many countries there are large groups of people that do not belong to the majority ethnic group. They are called ‘non-dominant communities’ because they do not dominate in a country. Roma populations in Europe can be identified as ‘non-dominant’ or ‘minority ethnic communities’.
Therefore in many places the classrooms in our schools are culturally and linguistically diverse. Not all children in our schools come from the same background and they often speak different languages at home.
In order to teach a child, the teacher and the child need to share a common language. What happens when a child has not learned this common language, the language that is used in school to teach?
Usually the child does not learn much if anything. Not only do they it not understand what the teacher says, they don’t understand what the teacher does and why he/she does it as cultural practices differ between different language communities.
So a child gets behind right from the first day of school. The teacher is frustrated with this situation. And the child feels left out and a failure. Parents may want to help but can’t. Resentment builds up, often resulting in the child school leaving prematurely.
In the last 10-15 years there have been numerous internationally affirmed declarations supporting the linguistic, cultural and educational rights of children from non-dominant communities, including Roma communities. (see for instance Article 29 of the 2009 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Annex II objective 6 of UNESCO’s 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and article 14 of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)
In spite of those well-meaning declarations, and in spite also of many well-meaning teachers, the reality is that linguistic and cultural barriers are too high for most Roma children to be able to succeed.
Five observations that show inequality in access to and participation in good education for children who speak Romani at home:
1. National language only in school – Roma children are usually taught in the national language of the country they live in. This language is taught to them as soon as possible in order for them to attend and participate in school.
2. Minority languages not suitable for school. As a result of school language policies, teachers, parents and children all have come to believe that the language that minority children speak in their home community is not suitable to be used in school (except maybe for the first little while to help explain things to children, or where there are Roma teaching assistants) Thus: national language is ‘right’, minority language is ‘wrong’. There are no or very few books in Romani languages and Roma culture is little represented in national curricula.
3. Unequal starting point Roma (and other minority) children, are at a disadvantage when they start school. Their peers who speak the national language at home, are ready to start learning new things in that language. But minority language speakers are expected to start learning these same new things while not knowing what the teacher is talking about and not knowing how to express themselves well. Roma children also often don’t attend Preschool or Kindergarten.
4. Roma children generally have feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. As a result of the above, Roma children feel bad about themselves and their home language and culture. They are behind in school from day 1 and often never learn some of the needed basic concepts, often never learn to read and often leave school before they finish.
5. Parental help for children. Roma parents are not able to help their children with homework because they do not know the school language well enough, or they are not literate, or there is no place in the home where children can do their homework.
The following two statements give one reason for the situation as it is now (see above) and also one reason for my proposal (below)
1. In Europe it is commonly thought that the best way to help Roma children succeed in school is to help them learn the national language and culture (language and culture used in school) as soon as possible.
2. Worldwide research confirms that children learn best if their initial education is in the language they understand best (usually their ‘mother tongue’), and if they feel safe in an environment that is not foreign or hostile to their own culture. Other languages can then be added gradually. (For more information about this, see some of the website links below.)
A proposed alternative way: give Roma children ‘equal chances’ of success, by allowing them to first learn by using their own familiar ways of thinking and communicating and learning. When they develop their cognitive skills in a safe environment first, they are more able to adapt to a multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment and succeed in it.
Instead of asking Roma children to jump across the gap of culture and language differences when they enter school on their first day, let’s help by building bridges for children to confidently cross those gaps and walk into situations that are unfamiliar at first.
Roma communities aren’t the only minority communities in the world. An estimated 2.3 billion people, nearly 40% of the world’s population, still lack access to education in their own language.
In the last 20 + years, in many different countries, education is increasingly being improved through multi-lingual education (MLE). Governments are adopting new policies that can include some years of teaching in minority languages to students who speak those languages as a bridge to gradually introduce them to schooling in the majority language. The result is that in these countries, minority language speakers perform better and drop out less, even when they switch to learning in the majority language in later grades. (For information about some of these practices, see links at the end of this article)
What is possible and effective elsewhere and can it be transferred to European countries?
Many Roma people speak their own language. They have their own history, way of doing things and sense of identity. They have lived and survived in often hostile environments.
Whereas Romani is generally considered by linguists as one language (with the possible exception of Sinti), there are lots of variations. Some European countries recognize Romani as a minority language, thus making it possible to ‘develop’ (local forms of) the Romani language. It is possible to make alphabets for local languages and dialects and to develop books and other materials with local speakers of the languages. It is possible to train local Roma people to teach Early Childhood Education Classes to do pre-school activities with Roma children. See some of the links below for examples of minority languages used in education in other countries.
I suggest: teach Roma children in a safe environment for them to learn in. Make use of what they already know and consider using their own language for the first years of schooling. Take time to gradually teach them other languages. Let Roma children that do speak a national language have enough time to develop in their language skills (through providing help for parents and/or through preschools).
Make sure that Roma ways of learning and communicating are represented in the classroom. Develop Romani languages by involving Roma communities in the education of their children.
I am interested to know what you think:
Do you think this is possible? Is it needed?
Can you think of reasons why it would work, why it would be difficult?
Do you think language and culture are not issues at all, but there are other issues more important to address?
Do you want more information about how to make an alphabet or how to make books?
Please let me know by posting a reply to this or contacting Marianne Fast at email@example.com
A few website links for more information:
For a short description of MLE see:
For more information on the topic of MLE see:
Reading about what different countries have done: