Roma education: what the EU Commission report doesn’t say

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

In a recent survey, the European Commission asked for an assessment of the perceived changes in education, healthcare, employment, discrimination, housing and services. The results? In all the areas except education the “no change” was the dominant answer. On Human Rights Day we reflect on a public survey that may harm instead of help Roma education.

The results of the survey on Roma integration submitted to the European Parliament and to the EU Council were published last week. The survey was open to anyone living in the EU or enlargement country. Participants were asked to rate progress towards the achievement of the National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS). With a lot of space for criticism and a clear call for urgent improvements, the 240 respondents also perceived education as the area with the most progress, including early childhood education (here).

The danger of surveys

The European Commission had already published its own review of the implementation of NRIS in 2017. Back then, they saw “a clear improvement in early childhood education and care (ECEC).” Since ECEC is described as improving also in the above mentioned survey, we may be triggered to think that education is already on the right path.

Firstly, we must clarify that these are not official data on Roma education; the survey results reflect the opinions of a marginal number of respondents (only 240 people). Secondly, even when the data was used (as in the case of the 2017 European Commission review), the selection of information and the conclusions were still questionable. In fact, in their follow up to the EU-MIDIS II report on education and employment, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency contradicts the European Commission (page 10, here).

It is certainly positive to see the EU asking for people’s opinion. However, more talking about compulsory preschool attendance will not improve the situation of children. Neither will it a higher school access without quality. As long as Romani children will be sidetracked into non-mainstream schools and kindergartens, segregated ethnically or by disadvantage, we cannot speak about progress.

There is a way forward. Let them know about human rights!

There is already a list of promising practices, encompassing science and the state-of-art knowledge, not beliefs and ideologies. Many successful initiatives are backed by data and the only step we need to see is the adoption of systems that work for all, including children.

Human Rights Day, gives us a great opportunity to think about Roma inclusion and its validation. As experts often talk about the economic advantage of early childhood inclusion, some may stick only to economics and forget about the importance of rights in the first place.

Along with the specific measures targeting children, we cannot forget about human rights. All the countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child must ensure the right to education and to a healthy and happy childhood for all children. Tell children that it is their right not to be discriminated and not to be sent to segregated schools. Then there will be progress.

Willing to speak Romani?

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

Today is the International Day of Romani Language, recognized by UNESCO and the Council of Europe. While waiting for recognition by many other institutions and authorities, Romani is finding its ways towards usability. Diversity cannot be embraced without acceptance of Romani. Are there challenges? Well, we never said it was going to be easy.

Using the Romani language beyond the Roma community can indeed be a challenge. At the community level, it is expected that people speak your dialect. Also, they will most probably understand the words adopted by the nearby majority language(s). Exactly this might be an obstacle just the moment you leave your own community.

Old words, new words and everything else

For centuries, the Romani language remained mostly unwritten, shared from generation to generation by a word of mouth. It has never been a language of science (not yet) and thus it has not been developed with new, modern words.

To describe modern subjects, Roma would typically use the local majority language term with a suffix: “-is” or “-os”. This might be a challenge for people who do not speak the local majority language. In Slovakia, for example they would be suddenly expected to understand počitačis (“počitač”=computer, plus the “–is” suffix). Despite easily understood by Slovak Roma (and probably by  Roma speaking other Slavic languages), it may not work for Roma elsewhere.

There are two main streams in efforts to make Romani usable at the international level. One is trying to develop new words by transforming the original ones – e.g. modifying the Romani adjective meaning right (ćaćo, čačo, tʃatʃo) to refer to right as a noun (e.g. in human rights).

The second one, relies on the use of international words. Thus, constitution becomes konstitucija and inclusion is inkluzija.

The struggle of writing

As you have already witnessed, writing in Romani is another challenge – as you have to decide which transcription you are going to use. The word for a girl/daughter can be written as čhaj, ćhaj, tʃaj and many other forms, while still keeping the original sound.

But it does not stop there. With the wide variety of dialects and different pronunciations, you may hear Roma also using shay, tschey or similar words to refer to girl or daughter. And yet, with Roma being the real global citizens, do not forget about the Roma in Russia or China, whose writing would be very different.

And still we must try!

In 2016, we translated the Romani Early Years Network manifesto and some other materials in Romani. To reach as many communities as possible, we have used two of the most widespread Romani languages in Europe. And yet, exactly because of trying to be universal, we are losing those who understand only their own dialect.

Still, using Romani, especially in projects and initiatives aiming for Roma inclusion, is a must. We accept all challenges, we understand that they would need to be addressed. That’s because for today’s open society it is crucial that Romani is accepted. Exactly because the lack of its development is only the result of centuries of efforts towards obliteration.

Roma health rates still alarm Europe, EU hearing reveals

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

Imagine the European Union, the world’s most powerful economy, with all its technology and innovation in place. And imagine that there is a huge group of people, including young children, older adults or people with disabilities that do not have access to running water. And imagine they mostly belong to one ethnic group.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organized a public hearing on Roma health in Brussels last Monday. I attended with Maria Evgenieva, Clinical Leader of home visiting programs with the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA).

Maria reported on the situation in the country: “Infant mortality of Roma children compared to their non-Roma peers is still unacceptably high, despite the efforts done in the past years to reduce it”, she said.

Alarmingly, 30% of Roma in the EU live in households with no tap water, and only half of young Roma children attend early childhood education – this is often less than half the proportion of children of their age from the general population in the same country (EU Fundamental Rights Agency).

The hearing’s title was “Roma’s health situation and their access to healthcare: assessing women’s and children’s health”.

TSA coordinates the REYN National Network Bulgaria. Maria presented their program Nurse Family Partnership, which brings health services to Romani pregnant women, mothers and children. People who often don’t have access to services because they are unable to pay for medicines and health checkups or because they aren’t informed well enough.

The program is active in many countries. What is remarkable about it is that better health (improved prenatal health and pregnancy outcomes) also leads to improved school readiness, fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and decreased likelihood of involvement in criminal activities up to 15 years of age.

Poverty and health in the EU

The lack of access to health services, or services determining health (e.g. access to water) indeed plays a significant role and poverty or low socio-economic status often go hand in hand with bad health. However, we need to keep in mind that higher income does not automatically lead to better health.

The Nurturing Care Framework, the guiding document for healthy development of young children, identifies several major risk factors for suboptimal development, and poverty is only one of them. The other ones are: malnutrition, insecurity, gender inequities, violence, environmental toxins, and caregivers’ mental health.

Just reading through the identified risk factors, we can easily see that there are multiple factors that contribute to health.  The key here is that health is a value on its own and is a concept much broader than just healthcare.

Shared values

We have witnessed multiple projects and initiatives aiming to improve the situation of Roma. Some were successful, some not. The key to long-term improvements is in the shared values behind the motivations.

We strive for a European Union where people would consider unacceptable that the life expectancy of members of one ethnic group could be ten years shorter. Without blaming anyone, we need to create a shared vision of equal access to health for all and of the right of every child to develop their full potential.

EU Roma Platform 2018: After agreeing on the values, who acts?

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

As attendees of the EU Platform for Roma Inclusion return home from Brussels, they get back to their daily work and concrete action. At the event yesterday, we heard a great expression of values – Roma are equal citizens, health inequalities need to be addressed, early interventions for young children and their families are crucial. But besides the good intentions is the European Union going to take action?

The 12th meeting of the Platform focused on health and housing, the themes identified both as an outcome and a driver of social exclusion. A third of the Roma population in the European Union, the background paper of the Platform says, live without running water. This and other disadvantages in housing are closely connected to poor health in Roma communities.

In the workshop focusing on health, REYN was present, and so were members from the national networks in Hungary, Italy, and Bulgaria. Thanks to their presence, the importance of early years was in the discussion and urgent appeals to act were made.

What do I do?

“What do I do?” was one of the questions asked during the groups discussion. Most of the representatives of civil society answered in line with what they do now. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will continue piloting innovative approaches and push for their adoption into the systems while looking for funding whenever they can.

Just like many other NGOs, REYN has been promoting the holistic approach, covering broad aspects of lives of families, housing and health included. Yet, we often hear about solutions that ignore the state-of-art knowledge. Governments keep repeating mantras about compulsory preschool attendance and we say that quality interventions should come at an earlier age.

The EU is listening but is it going to act?

Civil society has always been the bearer of innovation. Many successful programs currently implemented as part of national or international projects started with small-scale NGO initiatives. These include health mediation in Roma communities, or pedagogical assistants working with Romani children. Social housing pilots are still waiting for their scale up to the national level, and so are the pilots in early childhood education and care before the preschool age.

Now is the time when the EU and the Member States have a chance to stand up for their values and match funding allocations to the declared interests. We need to see early years well covered in policies and we need to see budgets allocated, also in health and housing. While civil society will continue with pilot actions and validation of innovative approaches, we need support from policymakers in terms of sustainability.

The next year, 2019 will be crucial for citizens of the European Union, including Roma and Travellers. We are looking forward to the European Commission and the Parliament elections, along with final discussions about the next EU Roma policy. We want a better future for children in Europe, we all know what to do, now is the time to do it.

A blog by Stano Daniel.

More Roma and Traveller teachers!

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

For most of the teachers, their job is a mission. Low pay and recognition despite high requirements on education are among the reasons that make this valuable job unnecessarily difficult.  

October 5th marks the International Teachers Day, commemorating the 1966 UNESCO/ILO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers. The recommendations apply to all teachers from nursery to kindergarten, primary, secondary, including technical, vocational or art education. And the more we study them, the more we see the relevance to today’s practitioners working with young Romani children.

Familiarity with the life and language of the children

Under educational objectives and policies [IV.10.i], the document lists that “all educational planning should include at each stage early provision for the training, and the further training, of sufficient numbers of fully competent and qualified teachers of the country concerned who are familiar with the life of their people and able to teach in the mother tongue.”

This recommendation is in line with REYN’s call for more diversity in early childhood services, both in practice and in the workforce. Simply put, we want a higher inclusive environment with more Roma and Travellers as teachers and other professionals – building on the advantage of community membership and multilingualism. We want to value the first language, not eliminate it as something useless that needs to be forgotten.

Better status for teachers, better quality for children

Why are there so few Romani and Travellers teachers? The reasons are many: early discrimination and lack of qualification later, low pay and recognition despite high requirements on education, difficult working conditions and low budget at kindergartens and schools in general. Many of the reasons affect both Roma and non-Roma.

Most of those teachers, who stay at the position, take their job as a mission. They work hard to ignore the low pay and try to see the higher good – smiling children, learning through play, new methods of teaching and the daily challenge of building new generations. But the enthusiasm has its limits. Without proper recognition, material as well as symbolic, kindergartens and schools will continue to struggle.

Attract and retain

The theme of this years’ World Teachers’ Day is The right to education means the right to a qualified teacher. The work done by our partner the International Step by Step Association (ISSA), to which we have contributed to in the past, testifies the benefits of professionalism in the workforce. They have done extensive work on quality of education, you may want to have a look at some of their publications.

We are grateful!

REYN takes the opportunity to express gratitude to those who dedicated their professional lives to provision quality education to children, in kindergartens or primary education. We can only repeat what the science keeps telling us all the time: the earlier we make that investment, the more benefits we get. Let’s invest in teachers, let’s invest in children.

Don’t forget to celebrate the heroes. Commemorate 2 August

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

Should we or should we not teach young children about the historical persecution of Roma? If yes, the “Final Solution” imposed on Roma by Nazi Germany on 2 August 1944 should be remembered in schools.

For several years now, young Europeans have been meeting in Poland to remember the persecution of their ancestors under the Nazi Germany. On 2 August 1944, about 3000 Roma were exterminated all together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland. The initiative Dikh he na bister – Look and don’t forget, driven by young Roma, raises awareness and advocates for the official recognition of 2 August as the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day: to “pay homage to the victims, heroes, survivors and strengthen the identity based on the deep knowledge of the past”. Read the full story on their website

The aim of the Roma Holocaust Commemoration is not to commiserate Roma. Instead, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the heroes, to listen to the survivors, to remember the victims and to make sure that history will not repeat itself.

There is a universal rule for when is a good time to start talking to children about difficult topics: it is when they ask! Let’s take Antigypsyism – a specific form of racism towards Roma. It is still widespread in our daily lives. Sadly, there is a high chance that young Romani children will experience hatred early in their lives. Many Romani parents ignore this and teach their children to ignore racism. But that will only work until the next time they face racism again.

Analyzing historical facts can make children, adults and the whole society stronger. Knowledge can help us to recognize the symptoms of fascist tendencies in politics. However, the facts of 2 August have often been left out of school curricula.  By including this topic in history textbooks society would nurture the knowledge of children and young people.

Two years ago, we wrote about the need for more Romani heroes in connection to Jud Nirenberg’s book, “Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis”. There are two aspects of the book worth highlighting again: firstly, it provides us with a story that Romani children can connect to.  The young Rukeli made it from poor living conditions to being the German light-weight boxing champion. However, a few days after the victory, he was stripped of his title because of his Roma origin. Secondly, the book also shows the persecution of Roma while describing the bravery of ordinary people who fought against the Nazi.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said once the writer and philosopher George Santayana. Build your knowledge, spread the word and help preventing the history from repeating: commemorate 2 August.

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: Celebrating Romani and Traveller culture, history and language

- Blog | Adrian Marsh

We are delighted to publish a guest blog by Dr Adrian Marsh about the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month held every year in June in the UK. For practitioners and early years pedagogues it is an opportunity to celebrate diversity, build stronger relationships with Romani and Traveller families and recognise the rich cultural heritage of Romani and Traveller people to wider European

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month (GRT HM) encouraged teachers, pre-schools, schools and
children’s centres to explore and investigate Romani and Traveller cultures in positive and surprising ways, discovering just how different the reality of their lives were, compared to the ‘fantasy’ of popular media stereotypes and myths.

GRT HM also gave Romani and Traveller children in the kindergarten or school, a chance to be those with the knowledge about the topic, the ones who could share this knowledge with the non-Romani children and teachers. Individual stories and histories of families or groups, put Romani children and their communities at the forefront of the activities with positive role models from the past and present, encouraging Traveller parents to get involved in pre-schools and schools to share and support the topic and activities.

celebrating cultural diversity

GRT HM was an initiative of the Traveller Education Support Services (TESS) in the UK, first launched in the year 2000, in schools in and around London. In response to the continuing celebration of Black History Month (October), Women’s History Month (March), and a regular multi-faith, cultural programme in schools and children’s centres that celebrated various annual events, such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrated in autumn (7th November 2018), the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr (15th to 17th June 2018), the festival at the end of Ramadan, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights (2nd December to 10th December 2018), Kwanzaa, the pan-African festival of light (26th December to 2nd January, each year).

TESS teachers wanted to acknowledge the contribution of Romani and Traveller cultures to wider European society, acknowledge the experiences of Romani and Traveller communities, and celebrate aspects of those cultures with various activities that positively ‘showcased’ Romani and Traveller people, for children and their families.

Activities in the preschool and classroom

GRT HM is intended to be celebrated by all children, regardless of their origins and ethnicity, and is an opportunity to highlight the Romani and Traveller communities. Stories, story-telling, games, songs, mask-making, drama, imaginative play, drawing and painting using Romani and Traveller motifs and icons, such as horse-shoes, waggons (the Romani word is vardo), wheels, birds, dogs (jukkel is Romani for ‘dog’), woven baskets, kerchiefs, bandanas, pegs, camp-fires and horses (or whatever motifs are common in the Romani community you work with).

Decorating paper-plates with floral motifs, or printing materials with foam shapes of flowers are two more activities that can be done with younger children, whilst making crepe paper flowers with older children, is another.

Find out what the crafts made by your Romani and Traveller community are or were in the past, collect stories from older Romani and Traveller people and make books, with the children illustrating them, get grand-parents and parents to come to the preschool or school and share their memories of the past or stories they were told when they were children.

Romani people and story-telling

Stories and story-telling have long been associated with Romani people and, according to scholars such as Francis Hindes Groome (1851-1902), Romani people brought many of the stories we know as ‘fairy stories’ to Europe from India (‘Gypsy Folk Tales’, 1899), such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Modern Romani and Traveller writers, such as Richard O’Neill, have written their own stories that can be used as the basis for preschool and classroom activities. I have developed a lesson plan for use with the story-book, “Ossiri and the Balamengro” by Richard O’Neill, Katherine Quarmby and illustrated by Hannah Tolson. Read a REYN blog dedicated to that.

This story and many others have Romani characters, Romani language and themes, that can be shared with the whole group of children to introduce elements of culture and traditions. Richard O’Neill’s “Yokki and the Parno Gry” brings themes of loss of ‘stopping places’ for Travellers, insecurity of work in ‘bad times’, difficulties in changing traditional crafts and trades, but also hope and the importance of family and kinship.

Other story-books feature real Romani and Traveller children and people, such as “Tom”, or “Where’s Mouse?” These simple stories are designed to improve language and spelling, strengthen reading skills and build vocabulary.

Both Romani and other children can identify with the central character, who, in this story about a Traveller boy called Dylan, has lost his dog called “Mouse”. Other books for young children and early readers feature Romani and Traveller history, such as ‘Moving Pasts’, ‘How Rabbits Arrived in England’ and ‘Uncle Walter’.

The Romani language

All these learning materials have been produced by and with Romani and Traveller people, so they represent the views, experiences and stories of the communities themselves, celebrating Romani and Traveller cultures and communities. The opportunity to introduce elements of language, such as the Romani and Traveller words in the Richard O’Neill stories, can bring an awareness of Romani and Traveller cultures to non-Romani parents and teachers who don’t know that these languages exist, that Romani and Traveller people have a long and complex history and that Romani and Traveller identities are older than many modern European identities; for example, Romani people arrived in Byzantium in the 11th century, well before modern English, Swedish or German identities are formed.

The Romani language is Indian in origin, Middle Indo-Aryan to be precise and older than Dutch, Hungarian and Flemish.

Using the opportunity of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month (remembering to translate this into the most appropriate and culturally respectful language, as many Romani people in Europe do not use the term ‘Gypsy’ about themselves, as they do in England and Wales), offers a chance to bring a positive perspective about Romani and Traveller people into the early learning environment. It is a chance to increase understanding and improve social dialogue between communities, to promote social justice and celebrate diversity. So let’s use it!