European Union – Roma Strategy
The Foundation is currently selecting target countries for a strategy addressing the poverty, discrimination and social exclusion faced by young children in the European Union’s minority Roma population, based on research commissioned in 2011 and 2012.
The strategy will aim to offer best practice examples for other countries by investing in capacity building, community centres, and advocacy efforts for young Roma children, to ensure they have access to integrated support services and basic amenities. We have already supported some pilot projects.
The Foundation is also a member of the European Foundation Centre Forum for Roma Inclusion.
Roma in the EU
Numbering around 12 million, with over 2 million aged 0-8, the Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. According to a study of 11 EU member states by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2011, the situation of Roma people in employment, education, housing and health is worse than that of non-Roma living in close proximity. The study found:
- 90% of Roma live below national poverty lines;
- 45% live in a house lacking at least one amenity among indoor kitchen, indoor toilet, indoor shower or bath, and electricity;
- 40% said somebody in their household had gone to bed hungry in the last month because they couldn’t afford enough food;
- about half reported experiencing discrimination in the past 12 months because of their ethnic background.
Roma children face challenges even before they are born, as they are less likely to receive ante-natal care. The low birth weight rate is twice the European average, and in some countries young Roma children are up to six times more likely than average to be underweight.
One of the central reasons for the health problems faced disproportionately by Roma children is the dismal living conditions in which many of them grow up. As one World Health Organization doctor put it, "I can continue to cure the illnesses of Roma children, but if I send them back into the conditions that made them sick, what's the point?"
Helping Roma parents send their children to preschool
Preschool enrolment has increased significantly among Roma children participating in the A Good Start (AGS) programme. This promising result led two governments to adopt the model in 2014: Macedonia has adopted it in 18 municipalities, Slovakia in 21.
Research shows that going to a good-quality preschool pays great dividends later in life. Yet traditionally Roma children have been much less likely than their non- Roma peers to go – often because their parents can’t afford to pay for fees, supplies or transport.
In 2010, the first phase of A Good Start was rolled out in 16 localities in Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Slovakia, reaching over 1600 Roma children and their families on an ongoing basis. While details differed, all A Good Start programmes had four common goals:
• Raise awareness among Roma parents of the importance of preschool to a child’s later life.
In Romania, local community mediators visited Roma families to encourage them to send their children to preschool.
• Make preschools more welcoming and accessible for Roma children and parents.
In Slovakia, parents were invited to visit preschools and meet teachers ahead of registration. Roma assistants were hired to overcome language barriers and build parent–teacher relationships.
• Eliminate financial barriers and provide practical support.
Families received stationery, clothing, lunches and transport. Kindergarten fees were paid. And in Romania and Macedonia, parents received support on getting the identity documents and birth certificates necessary for their children to attend.
• Provide Roma parents with parenting support designed to promote early learning at home.
In Hungary, ‘Your Story’ empowered Roma mothers to tell stories. In Romania, illiterate parents received reading and writing classes. In Romania, Macedonia, and Slovakia, parents learned techniques to support early learning at home.
Phase 1 was implemented by the Roma Education Fund (REF), International Step by Step Association (ISSA), Fundación Secretariado Gitano, Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) and 12 local partners, with support from funders including the European Commission and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Beginning in 2012, Phase 2 was implemented by REF, Unity in Diversity Foundation, Partners Hungary Foundation, College of Nyíregyháza, and eight local partners, with financial support from the European Commission Directorate General for Regional Policy, the LEGO Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the Network of European Foundations as well as the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
The second phase expanded best practice and lessons from the first phase. For example, two interventions that had worked especially well in Hungary were extended to all four countries – the Your Story sessions and Home–School Liaison Programme workshops, where parents and preschool teachers worked together to prepare lessons. The teachers shared techniques with parents, while the parents contributed teaching ideas. One trainer said: ‘This has encouraged teachers to see that mothers can be teachers, and mothers to understand that the education they can give to their children is important, and also to support and collaborate with the teacher.’
The second phase also added a Toy Library service to lend high-quality toys, books and games to support parents in playing with and teaching their children. External evaluations using control groups confirmed the effectiveness of the approach used in A Good Start. Your Story was found to lead to increased enrolment, improved learning outcomes among children and improved reading skills and attitudes towards education among parents.
One father in Macedonia told researchers: ‘Now, when I go to take my child home from preschool, I’m asking if they learned something new: “what did you do today?”. Before, I was just asking about his behaviour and if he ate.’
There are also wider benefits: the work is building bridges between Roma families, other community members and the authorities. ‘We have evidence that many of the teacher trainees involved in A Good Start were able to overcome stereotypes and prejudices about Roma people,’ says Judit Szira, Executive Director of the Roma Education Fund. ‘They see that Roma parents want to read to their children just like any other parents. And this is really important for the sustainability of our approach.’