Politicians want preschool attendance compulsory for Romani children, however they should probably make education accessible and affordable first.
Not long ago, there have been many discussions about compulsory preschool attendance as one of the measures supporting Roma inclusion in Slovakia. After getting off the agenda for some time and possibly inspired by practices from nearby countries, policymakers are putting the topic back on the table.
On Wednesday, May 2, EduRoma – a leading NGO promoting inclusive education for Roma in the country – organized a public discussion on the topic trying to answer some of the key questions. Is preschool available to all children today? Are preschools ready to co-educate Romani and non-Roma children?
Once and forever
There is a solid pool of evidence showing that building kindergarten capacities without investing in quality of provided services does not boost the potential of the children. While academia continues to build knowledge base for quality inclusive and affordable service, policymakers stick to the argument of obligation. Several EU Member States included it in their national Roma integration strategies.
So where did this obligation come from? We can only assume it emerged from the negative stereotypes against Romani parents. Local anecdotal experience shows that where service was provided and Romani parents were actively engaged, attendance increased and parents were happy to benefit from the service. In a situation, when the services are not even accessible, it sounds weird to discuss its obligatory character. And who says that the obligation will increase the educational achievements?
For Roma only
The most dangerous arguments in the discussion are connected to limiting of the obligation only to Roma or the so-called “marginalized Roma communities”, i.e. segregated Roma settlements and ghettoes. In fact, research indeed shows that the most disadvantaged benefit from early childhood services the most. However, there is no justification for introducing an obligation for one disadvantaged group and actually punishing and stigmatizing them for their situation once more.
Zuzana Havirova, founder of the Roma Advocacy and Research Center and a panelist at the event said: “There is no sense in targeting Romani children. If there is an agreement on decreasing compulsory school age, then the key benefit is in bringing the children together so that they can learn from each other and learn to live together in diversity since early childhood.” She sees preschool mostly as a tool to fight segregation: “This may help in dealing with disadvantages and exclusion of Romani children as there is potential that this would put them on track with mainstream quality education.”
Cost free and not free
Accessible and affordable are the terms that are often mentioned in connection to early childhood services. In many countries, including Slovakia, the last year before entering into primary education is without kindergarten fees and policymakers promote this as a measure to help the most disadvantaged. However, in this case the cost free may not be free in fact.
In Bulgaria, the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA) – host of the REYN National Network in the country– conducted a study which reveals that while the service may be free on paper, there are many financial or in-kind contributions families are required to provide to the kindergarten. TSA found that parents contribute in total €30 million to the system annually and there is not much reason to think it is different in other countries, including Slovakia. Instead of pushing for obligations, states should first focus on the available and affordable.
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