Education of Roma children from marginalized communities: the Slovak experience

In Slovakia, ensuring quality education for the whole population is still a problem.

By Prof. Stefan Porubsky, Skola dokoran – Wide Open School

Pupils who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds show a significant failure rate in PISA tests (OECD 2018). This is because their family background is unable to create good conditions for their home preparation for school tasks.

On the other hand, the schools are not able to use educational strategies that respect the educational needs of these pupils. Pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with a different mother tongue and a different language code than the one used at school find themselves in the position of outsiders with a high risk of school failure.

This is particularly the case for Roma pupils from marginalized communities who carry all three risk factors (socially disadvantaged environment, different mother tongue, different language code).

Preventing segregation

The problem is that schools are not sufficiently prepared to work with this type of pupils, it is very common to place them (often right at the start of compulsory education at the age of 6) in special classes in mainstream primary schools or special schools, meant for pupils with mental disabilities.

Thus, it is not unusual that special classes in primary schools and classes in special primary schools are made up of Roma pupils only. This creates barriers that prevent the creation of an inclusive environment in schools, and the situation of Roma pupils from marginalized communities is a serious social problem in some localities. The solution requires a comprehensive approach, with changes in approach to the organization of their education.

Two areas are very important

The first area entails creating such conditions that will allow Roma children from marginalized communities to have the same starting point at the beginning of compulsory education as the children from the majority. The solution could be to enable all these children to be included in compulsory pre-school education in kindergartens.

The second area is the gradual and systematic creation of inclusive environment in primary schools to enable these pupils to participate fully in the educational process, taking into account their social and language specificity, as part of the compulsory education.

The law against segreagation

Despite the adoption of a new law introducing compulsory pre-school education from 5 year olds in 2019, which is undoubtedly a sign of progress, the issue still raises some doubts. The most important question is whether the state will create sufficient capacity in kindergartens to train the whole population and, in particular, whether it will create conditions for taking into account the specifics of Roma children from marginalized communities in the process.

Will the preschools have sufficient support staff, such as teacher assistants with Roma language, and will the teaching staff be able to respond in a pedagogically suitable way to the different habits, mother tongue and language code of these children? Besides, neither kindergartens nor primary schools currently have sufficient methodological support to teach Slovak as a second language.

It is as if the law did not expect schools that are not created explicitly for national minorities (for example, the Hungarian national minority in Slovakia, but not the Roma) to teach children whose communication language is not Slovak. These challenges of introducing compulsory pre-school education require not only financial and staffing capacity but also time. It was therefore decided that the Act would not enter into force until January 2021.

Best practices

An even more complex problem than the introduction of compulsory pre-school education is the challenge of creating an inclusive environment in schools to enable Roma children from marginalized communities to be fully integrated into the educational process, taking into account their social, cultural, linguistic, and personal needs. There are many examples of good practice in Slovakia as regards to the creation of inclusive environments in schools, especially in locations with a high concentration of Roma living in disadvantaged social conditions and segregated communities.

One of the successful civil society organizations is the non-profit organization Wide Open School, which has been operating in the field for 25 years. Its activities and programs are targeting Roma children and their families in marginalized Roma communities. A model example of good practice is the cooperation between Wide Open School and the school in Spišský Hrhov .

The municipality of Spišský Hrhov is a model in solving the problems of marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia. It has a comprehensive program that includes the creation of equal opportunities in education. The joint programs of the local elementary school and kindergarten create better conditions for Roma children and pupils and these children achieve better school results. The teachers participate in trainings and workshops to be able to implement educational strategies that respect the cultural, social, linguistic and individual characteristics of this group of children and pupils.

The creation of the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in the school has strengthened the school’s non-formal activities. The Play Hub provides socially disadvantaged families with the opportunity to borrow toys and games that they could not afford otherwise. Parents of Roma children have the opportunity to experience and understand the function of play in the personal development of their children and learn which games and toys are suitable for their children. At the same time, the barriers between the school and the pupils and families are overcome. Both the children and their parents are gradually getting the feeling of becoming full-fledged members of the school community. 

Positive stories from the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs: Elina

Elina is cheerful and friendly.  She is a great girl and everyone accepts her, her friends told me. Elina loves to come to the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia). This has helped her ability to communicate with others. She is also a good student and would like to become an educator. 

By Peter Strážik, Headmaster of the Elementary School in Spišský Hrhov.

Elina, 12, is the eldest of four children, has two younger sisters and a small brother. Elina is a Roma. She lives in Spišský Hrhov, in a district where more than 98% of the local Roma are based.

Elina is cheerful and friendly.  She is a great girl and everyone accepts her, her friends told me. That is how it should be always and everywhere.

Not long ago Elina has become the star of the Play Hub.  Thanks to her appearance in the Toy for Inclusion promotional video, her smile and her communication talent. In the video, she described why she likes to come to the Play Hub and what activities she is involved in. We all enjoyed watching the video on social networks.

Elina, with her siblings and parents live in a new brick house with running water, heating, bathroom and internet connection. Every member of the family has a smartphone and they actively use internet.

They have their accounts on social media and they use them to communicate with me regularly. On Sundays, Elina‘s family goes for a walk in the local park, which is a rarity. Roma families usually prefer to stay in their community, at home or on the street. Elina‘s family also attends different events in the village, such as concerts, theater performances and art exhibitions. They do their best to integrate in Spišský Hrhov. We like them!

I met the family when Elina enrolled in school after finishing kindergarten and came to visit the school with her parents. Since then, the parents have been regularly communicating with the school, showing interest in the performance and attendance not only of Elina but also of her two younger sisters. They regularly visit parents’ meetings, while honestly, most of the Roma parents in the village do not.  

It seems to me that, at least is some cases, they fear criticism about their children having a lower attendance and grades than other children. Comprehensibly, who would want to listen to their children being criticized in front of other parents? Roma families often prefer personal meetings. with the teacher.

Elina’s parents are an exception. We became closer since they started visiting the Play Hub. Nowadays, we meet weekly for a wide range of activities.

I am very glad that the school has a place like the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub. This enables us to have informal talks with the parents during extra-curricular activities. We have time to talk about their family situation, drink a coffee together, things that I do not have the occasion to do during the school hours.

Intergenerational activities

Elina’s parents got used to their regular visits and enjoy them. They engage in activities and games with the children, her mum even volunteers at the Play Hub, often helping to prepare activities with Elina. They also borrow games they do not have at home, always returning them in perfect shape, and this is a success, it helps build the children’s trust and responsibility. Another positive thing is that they play together at home, not many parents nowadays have time and space to play with their children.

Her teacher says

We also noticed that visiting the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub has helped Elina expand her ability to communicate; according to her literature teacher, she is more eloquent, active and likes to describe the texts she reads. This makes us all very happy! Her effort and hard work have helped her to be accepted by the majority, I know that all the children in her class consider her a good friend. She says that she would like to work as a kindergarten teacher in the future, and I am sure that if she continues with her pace and trend, she will succeed.

Roma children‘s Christmas wishes confirm poverty gap

School Principal Peter Strážik asked children in his school what they wanted for Christmas. Over 50% of the children in the school are Roma. The difference of wishes between Roma and non Roma children reflect the hard reality.

As a headmaster of the only elementary school in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia), I often do various surveys that provide me with precious feedback. Sometimes I check the satisfaction of parents, sometimes I send surveys to the school staff to find out what to improve and how to move forward.  Most often and very gladly, I ask questions to the children. It helps me to understand their world better. The children are usually open and truthful, they leave me in amazement, or even shock me.

I ask the children

In the past, I have asked children about the quality of school lunches, the severity or benevolence of the teachers, workload and bullying. Sometimes I also focus on inclusion, that’s because 52% of pupils in our school come from the marginalized Roma communities. The school Inspectorate monitors the respect of human rights, integration and acceptance of differences. I do not exaggerate if I say that the results show a high level of acceptance of Roma, and there are friendships between the children, who sit together without bringing up their differences.

Last week, I wanted to study something unusual, something not so important for the life of the school, but very important for the headmaster who wants to be a friend of all the pupils of the school. The only question I was interested in was what the children wanted for Christmas.

Inspired by my sons

I was motivated by a situation at home where I asked my two sons to write a letter to Santa Claus with a list of wishes and gifts. My older son (16) refused to do it, he said that he has everything and needed nothing. (He’s modest like his father). The younger son (12) took the paper and pen without hesitation and brought me a not so modest list. He asked for several gifts which had a total value of 1,500 euros. Fortunately, besides material gifts, he also wished for peace, health, happiness, or good election results.

The survey

Going back to the survey, the results show way too much. Although I never do it, this time I asked the children to write their names on the lists. I had a reason for it. Are you wondering what I found? You should be.

Slovak children had roughly the same wishes my younger son has: mobile phones, tablets, computers, play stations… etc. The lists of Roma children also showed unity. However, a diametrically different one. Some might not believe it, others might be saddened by it. I offer the results of the survey to you, you are welcome to come and see the questionnaires in my office, with a cup of quality coffee.

More than half of the Roma children wanted sweets and cakes, and for their father to be at home with the family at Christmas. About 30% of the children wanted a jacket or a sweater; girls preferred shoes and scarfs. A few respondents wanted toys, with a book here and there. There were also bizarre wishes including chainsaws, axes and knives. Out of the total number of children in this group, only two wished for a cell phone.

What conclusion can we make?

The everyday reality of children from excluded communities has remained unchained for a long time. It is marked by poverty but on the other hand by strong social bonds: the need for a family, (grand)parents, siblings and neighbors. They stick to their habits and traditions and still have respect, something, which has become a thing of the past in the majority community. Roma do have things to teach us. Trust me!

By Peter Strážik, Principal of the primary school of Spišský Hrhov, Slovakia.

The children’s gift to Pope Francis

- News

Pope Francis appreciated receiving the decorations prepared by the children of our Play Hub in Slovakia. “The pope urged parents to find time for their children… he wants them to “play together”.” The Slovak President Andrej Kiska said.

The President of the Slovak Republic, Andrej Kiska visited Pope Francis in the Vatican and presented him with the Christmas tree ball prepared by the children of the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov.

During their meeting at the Vatican, last Friday, the two had the chance to talk about inclusion and integration among other things. Mr. Kiska informed the pope about the work done in Spišský Hrhov.

According to Mr. Kiska, much of their discussion centered on the family. He recalled how the pope urged parents to find time for their children. But not only with technology; he wants them to “play together.”

The balls will be hanging on the Christmas tree in the House of St. Martha, where Francis will serve mass every day until Christmas.

The Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov is situated in the local school and kindergarten. “Our children talk about the Play Hub during the day and plan meetings there after school. In this way, meetings among Roma and non-Roma families become part of the education system”, says Peter Strážik, school principal and local team coordinator.

Over the past months, the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Slovakia has been receiving appraisals by high level politicians, families and children.

What children say about TOY for Inclusion in Slovakia

- News

The TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Slovakia keeps receiving appraisals! Recently we reported about Thorbjørn Jagland, the Council of Europe Secretary General and other high level politicians who applauded the project. Today we are happy to share some cheerful quotes that children who attend the Play Hub have told us!

The TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia) is placed in the local kindergarten and school and it’s visited every day by dozens of children.

This is what they say.

“I was amazed to see the colors of the room… We don’t play at home because we don’t have such modern and new toys. My father left us when I was a baby, so my mom takes care of me on her own. Last time before going home, Tatiana [a volunteer], told my mom we could take some toys with us at home. I could not simply believe that! We took a Lego set home and I spent long time constructing it until I fell asleep.” Zuzana, 8 years old.

“We come in and make ourselves comfortable. There is no day without Play Hub, I can’t wait to come again tomorrow!” Sonia, 6 years old.

What parents say

“A unique place for us Roma mothers. I have never seen a place where so many different children play together like in our Play Hub.” Monika, mother of 4 children.

“I have never felt so welcome and respected before. My boys are happy to play with other children of the village and nobody treats them any different. They even have the chance to use books and toys I could not afford. What a perfect place!” Anna Dirdova, Roma mother of six children.

Learn more about the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs here.

Slovakia: arguments for compulsory preschool sound loud again

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

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.

Tell us what you think, share your posts on social media with a hashtag #REYNdiscussion

Village in Slovakia as an example of Roma integration in the NYT

- News

We are happy to hear that one of the villages we are working with has been mentioned by the New York Times as an example of Roma integration.

“The children know each other in school, so they play together,” an interviewee said. And “we sometimes sit together, Slovaks and Roma, when we are at the pub together.”

Roma people like all people are a resource when they are valued and respected. As reported by the New York Times, the village of Spissky Hrhov (Slovakia) has partnered with the Roma community to create positive change.

In Spissky Hrhov, we are working to create a TOY for Inclusion library together with the Wide Open Academy, the pre-primary and primary school.

Read the article here.