What are the obstacles?

Many traditional Roma communities, especially in remote rural areas, maintain
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


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icon Project Coordinator
Kostas Diamantis-Balaskas
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Telephone: 0030 210 6822606