Education of Roma children from marginalized communities: the Slovak experience

In Slovakia, ensuring quality education for the whole population is still a problem.

By Prof. Stefan Porubsky, Skola dokoran – Wide Open School

Pupils who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds show a significant failure rate in PISA tests (OECD 2018). This is because their family background is unable to create good conditions for their home preparation for school tasks.

On the other hand, the schools are not able to use educational strategies that respect the educational needs of these pupils. Pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with a different mother tongue and a different language code than the one used at school find themselves in the position of outsiders with a high risk of school failure.

This is particularly the case for Roma pupils from marginalized communities who carry all three risk factors (socially disadvantaged environment, different mother tongue, different language code).

Preventing segregation

The problem is that schools are not sufficiently prepared to work with this type of pupils, it is very common to place them (often right at the start of compulsory education at the age of 6) in special classes in mainstream primary schools or special schools, meant for pupils with mental disabilities.

Thus, it is not unusual that special classes in primary schools and classes in special primary schools are made up of Roma pupils only. This creates barriers that prevent the creation of an inclusive environment in schools, and the situation of Roma pupils from marginalized communities is a serious social problem in some localities. The solution requires a comprehensive approach, with changes in approach to the organization of their education.

Two areas are very important

The first area entails creating such conditions that will allow Roma children from marginalized communities to have the same starting point at the beginning of compulsory education as the children from the majority. The solution could be to enable all these children to be included in compulsory pre-school education in kindergartens.

The second area is the gradual and systematic creation of inclusive environment in primary schools to enable these pupils to participate fully in the educational process, taking into account their social and language specificity, as part of the compulsory education.

The law against segreagation

Despite the adoption of a new law introducing compulsory pre-school education from 5 year olds in 2019, which is undoubtedly a sign of progress, the issue still raises some doubts. The most important question is whether the state will create sufficient capacity in kindergartens to train the whole population and, in particular, whether it will create conditions for taking into account the specifics of Roma children from marginalized communities in the process.

Will the preschools have sufficient support staff, such as teacher assistants with Roma language, and will the teaching staff be able to respond in a pedagogically suitable way to the different habits, mother tongue and language code of these children? Besides, neither kindergartens nor primary schools currently have sufficient methodological support to teach Slovak as a second language.

It is as if the law did not expect schools that are not created explicitly for national minorities (for example, the Hungarian national minority in Slovakia, but not the Roma) to teach children whose communication language is not Slovak. These challenges of introducing compulsory pre-school education require not only financial and staffing capacity but also time. It was therefore decided that the Act would not enter into force until January 2021.

Best practices

An even more complex problem than the introduction of compulsory pre-school education is the challenge of creating an inclusive environment in schools to enable Roma children from marginalized communities to be fully integrated into the educational process, taking into account their social, cultural, linguistic, and personal needs. There are many examples of good practice in Slovakia as regards to the creation of inclusive environments in schools, especially in locations with a high concentration of Roma living in disadvantaged social conditions and segregated communities.

One of the successful civil society organizations is the non-profit organization Wide Open School, which has been operating in the field for 25 years. Its activities and programs are targeting Roma children and their families in marginalized Roma communities. A model example of good practice is the cooperation between Wide Open School and the school in Spišský Hrhov .

The municipality of Spišský Hrhov is a model in solving the problems of marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia. It has a comprehensive program that includes the creation of equal opportunities in education. The joint programs of the local elementary school and kindergarten create better conditions for Roma children and pupils and these children achieve better school results. The teachers participate in trainings and workshops to be able to implement educational strategies that respect the cultural, social, linguistic and individual characteristics of this group of children and pupils.

The creation of the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in the school has strengthened the school’s non-formal activities. The Play Hub provides socially disadvantaged families with the opportunity to borrow toys and games that they could not afford otherwise. Parents of Roma children have the opportunity to experience and understand the function of play in the personal development of their children and learn which games and toys are suitable for their children. At the same time, the barriers between the school and the pupils and families are overcome. Both the children and their parents are gradually getting the feeling of becoming full-fledged members of the school community.