Roma Nation Day 2014: the critical case for Early Childhood Development for Romani children

- Blog | Adrian Marsh

IMGP8590 At a recent Council of Europe conference on education for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families in Kosovo (see details of the project activities here, it became clear that the question of access to quality, early childhood education and care provision for our communities remains largely ‘off the agenda’. Education, for the communities in Kosovo and in those countries from which the invited experts brought their experience (Macedonia, Rumania, Albania, Germany), is considered primary education onwards, despite the general and oft-repeated call for action to tackle the lack of preparation for school that means Romani children experience significant disadvantage from the outset. The notion of improving access to ECD provision, whether preschool, kindergarten or community-based playgroup, and delivering the kind of programmes that have proven themselves (such as the excellent Step-by-Step “Getting Ready for School” projects in Croatia, working with Beyash families or the Traveller Education Services in the UK, delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage ( to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers), remains under-explored in most cases. Education experts from Romani backgrounds themselves, that are working with these initiatives, such as this one in Kosovo, are usually from higher education, rarely from primary education and almost never from early years education. Yet the critical importance of working with families from Romani communities, to ensure that the preparedness for school is in place and that ‘drop out’ as a result of children ‘falling behind’ their non-Romani peers, losing motivation and finally ‘giving up’, is recognised but not addressed. This is despite evidence from research carried out by Save the Children in Kosovo that demonstrates the positive education outcomes for RAE children who have attended early years provision, especially as regards school abandonment.
Today is Roma Nation Day, when the decisions of the 1st World Romani Congress in London (1971) changed the course of Romani politics forever. Organisation, rights and recognition were vigorously promoted as means to improve and emancipate the Gypsies, Roma, Travellers from the appalling segregation and exclusion that communities across Europe and beyond, faced in those times (and still do today). Access to education was a primary demand, as almost no Gypsies, Roma or Travellers had the right to education on their own terms. Early childhood education and care were not part of the discussions, as access to basic education at primary level was seen then to be the essential goal to achieve change on a mass scale. In the 1980’s and especially the 1990’s, the emphasis was placed upon increasing the numbers of university graduates from Romani backgrounds, building an intellectual vanguard that could achieve positions of influence and critical positions in policy-making and strategy-development structures, working in government and international institutions.
The push to support and extend Roma civil society was also seen as a key mechanism for achieving change, strengthening communities and empowering Romani people as agents in their own processes of change. The high point of this was probably in the mid 2000’s, when the first big Euro policies and strategies were fully developed and budgets from major institutions allocated to match these. The ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005-15’, ( the first EU Roma Summit in Brussels (2007) and a number of other high profile events seem to presage the real success of this strategy.
The economic crises undermined these developments enormously and have shown just how fragile the gains made were. Investment in early childhood development for Roma children has become more important in terms of policies and initiatives from those organisations that recognise this (UNICEF, Open Society Foundation, Roma Education Fund, ISSA, Bernard van Leer Foundation and a number of others), as the economic arguments have been persuasively made for cost benefits to governments and societies facing austerity measures and restricted budgets for social and welfare spending, yet arguably real investment in Romani children is declining. The human rights aspect of promoting quality early childhood provision for Romani children sometimes gets lost in these debates, but sadly the overall impact of recognising the importance of ECD in the lives of many millions of Romani children remains slight (outside of those who already ‘know’ of these benefits), in the overall scheme of things.
REYN should be the principle organisation for achieving this recognition and ensuring that the future generations of Romani and Traveller children are not condemned to poverty and exclusion, ignorance and ill-health. As practitioners and professionals working in the field, it is our responsibility to raise the profile of this issue and of the importance of ECD for all Romani children, in partnership with those ECD and early years organisations that promote the importance of quality early childhood education and care for all children. Roma Nation Day is one opportunity to add our voice as ECD experts and educators to the calls for emancipation from the tremendous obstacles that Roma children face in life, but each and every day should be an opportunity for promoting the importance of early years development and education with Romani families and the broader community alike, if we want to see real changes in these children’s lives…IMGP0028