Many traditional Roma communities, especially in remote rural areas, maintai a vibrant cultural identity through oral transmission. Literacy, i.e. the ability to read and write, does not make immediate sense against the backdrop of such an oral culture. When there is no attempt at establishing intercultural dialogue to emphasise the extra potential a sound education may bring for the future of Roma children, what remains in place looks dissuasive: a lack of teaching facilities, roads to get the children to school, textbooks, properly trained staff sensitive to Roma culture, available lunch, etc. A combination of such adverse factors may explain why the degree of illiteracy is so high in many Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe. It is therefore essential to concentrate educational efforts on the early years, by means of early childhood education and care, i.e. pre-schooling and primary education. At this stage it is comparatively easier to teach children to read and write and, as the case may be, to let them acquire a sound basic knowledge of the language of instruction when it is not that which is spoken at home.

In addition, over the past few years, the economic crisis has made things worse for everybody in general, including Roma families nearing middle-class financial status. In this context, parents are becoming increasingly unsure of how they can support their child's education.

Language is another failure factor in education, which has gone unrecognised for many years: in Central and Eastern Europe, many Roma communities speak their own language, which may be a dialect of the national language or a truly specific language such as Romani. There are quite a few varieties of this language. In some Member States, the state’s constitution guarantees Roma communities the right to learn through their own language, but this is very seldom the case in practice. Situations vary widely from one country to another, but it remains constant that a child entering school late that does not have an understanding of the language of instruction will have fewer chances of success. The same observation applies to children of migrant Roma families who have left their homes to find better living conditions elsewhere. Many do not speak the language of the host country. As long as their language barrier is not specifically addressed, the children of migrant Roma will not integrate smoothly into the host country’s schools.

Mediation has proven to be one of the most effective tools for reaching out to Roma families. In many instances, mediators know Roma communities very well or are part of them themselves. This helps restore dialogue between worlds that are separated by accumulated misunderstandings and misconceptions. This is only a part of what remains to be done. Other measure include teachers’ training and a more integrated approach to take into consideration children's health conditions.

Another important factor is discrimination, which sometimes may be condoned by seemingly innocuous practices, such as mental health screening. The fact of the matter is that Roma children are overrepresented in special needs education. There have been many reports of systematic misuse of psychological-diagnostic testing of Roma children, which routinely ascribes their performance in certain tests to mental or cognitive deficiency. Prejudice, stereotyping, inadequate testing methods and similar adverse factors are at play; it might also stem from the fact that in these areas, children may be readily labelled as having learning difficulties when they do not understand the test questions because of a language barrier. All too often this is not recognised or simply not accounted for. Sometimes, this situation is made worse by social welfare benefits, which are allocated to families whose child has been diagnosed as having a disability. Another major issue to be contended with is the fact that in too many cases such misdiagnosed disabilities do not receive adequate therapeutic treatments, which in the best of cases would lead to a reassessment of the child’s actual needs.

Source: Roma and Education: Challenges and Opportunities in the European Union

© European Union, 2012

lifelong learning

This project is co-funded by the European Commission. This publication reflects the views of the author only and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use of the information contained therein.


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