The European Union and its member states have identified Romani children as a vulnerable group in need of special attention, protection, and investment. Their life opportunities are severely limited by poverty, segregation, and the negative attitudes their families and communities often face. However, high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the most crucial factors in breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. ECEC improves the development of reasoning skills, increases the ability to cooperate with others, boosts self-esteem, and prepares children for the transition to primary school. Moreover, providing quality ECEC services is a cost effective way to combat the issues facing Roma communities and to give Romani children the opportunity to develop to their full potential and to become active participants in society.
According to a report by the World Bank, substantial social and financial benefits can be achieved by investing in Romani youth education. Specifically, an investment in quality ECEC for disadvantaged communities can produce a positive net gain via reduced spending on social welfare programs and increased tax revenue as a result of the future economic gains from improved ECEC services. ECEC is especially crucial in these communities because the negative impacts of living in poverty, and in a disadvantaged community, are more intense during early childhood, which largely affects personal and socio-economic outcomes later in life.
Roma, and other disadvantaged communities, often face additional barriers when securing early childhood education and care. The structural barriers to early education must be addressed if equal access to ECEC services for all children is to be achieved. Structural barriers include: persistent segregation in kindergarten schools; poor quality education and infrastructures in Roma communities; and a lack of awareness regarding Roma-specific issues and intercultural educational strategies during the planning stages of ECEC programs. These barriers, among others, reduce the involvement levels of Roma and disadvantaged community members in ECEC activities.
While sustainable change cannot come from NGO interventions alone, they are an important component in ECEC activities. The “A Good Start” (AGS) program, which is run by the Roma Education Fund, proposes that it is possible to provide quality ECEC activities to disadvantaged communities through well-designed, community-based services. The AGS program is designed to adapt to the specific needs of each community and to the particular barriers to ECEC activities each community faces.
The Roma Education Fund, with the European Union’s support, advocates for the restructuring of ECEC policies and programs to allow for the addition of Roma issues. The AGS program demonstrates the importance of collaborating with governmental organizations to implement and increase ECEC services for Roma communities in their countries. Similarly, the European Union 2020 strategy and European Commission communications explicitly provide funding to address the structural barriers that prevent Roma children from receiving quality ECEC. However, to increase the speed and the scope of these crucial structural changes, national and local governments must follow the European Union’s lead.
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