The Economist – September 13, 2010

Start early

Sep 13th 2010, 14:27 by E.L. | LONDON

CALL them Gypsies, Romanies or Roma, they represent Europe’s biggest social problem and a stain on its claim to be a superpower at least in terms of the welfare of its citizens. We compiled an audio report last week, highlighting some of the conceptual problems behind the issue (how far is it a question of class, and how far one of race; how far is it discrimination, how far ingrained anti-social habits).

Leslie Hawke, the founder of Ovidiu Rom, a Romanian NGO, is one of the continents’ doughtiest campaigners on the issue (her work was highlighted in a three-page briefing on the subject that we published in 2008). She has written a powerful article about the importance of early-years education in breaking the cycle of disadvantage and discrimination. We reproduce it in full below.

An Open Letter to the Citizens of the European Union, including Romanians

Imagine there were a virus spreading across Europe that severely impeded young children’s intellectual and physical development.  The disease was so debilitating that children afflicted by it could never hold responsible jobs or be productive members of society. They would have to be cared for by the state for life.

And what if the children who were most susceptible were the fastest growing segment of society?  There was no cure for this disease, once contracted, but there was a vaccine to prevent it.

How would such a crisis be dealt with by the European Union and its member states?

This is the current situation of children of Roma descent throughout the EU.  The disease is Lack of Education.  The antidote is high-quality early education.   It is an established fact that children’s brains do not develop as they should in deprived environments. Study after study has shown that early education reduces “the probability of children being retained in a grade, needing special education, dropping out of school, being unemployed, and being incarcerated[1].”

As France and Romania play human ping-pong, hundreds of thousands of children are getting even less schooling than their parents received a generation ago.  Another whole generation of Roma is going to be unemployable unless they start school at the same age as other European children.

French law mandates that all children must attend school from age three. According to a recent NPR (National Public Radio, US) report, “In France, 100 percent of three, four and five-year-olds attend preschool. So everyone starts first grade on an equal footing.”

That’s actually not true.  Most Roma children in France are not enrolled in early education programs – and for the older children in families that are “repatriated” to Romania, the process of transferring them from the French to the Romanian system is complicated at best, and tortuous when parents are functionally illiterate – and the authorities are not particularly cooperative. (Frequently, the children either lack transfer documents or their foreign records are not recognized by Romanian school directors.)

Romania, like France, has perfectly adequate children’s rights legislation – but the laws designed to protect and empower the marginalized are not implemented or enforced.   The Romanian constitution declares that public education is free – yet a report last week from Save the Children concluded that the annual median parent expenditure on “free” education is about 500 euros.  No wonder Roma parents often postpone their children’s enrolment as long as possible (until age 8-9).  Interestingly, the law that makes schooling mandatory from age 6-7 is not implemented, but the law that prevents registration of a child over the age of nine is strictly enforced.

Instead of playing the blame game, EU member states should be actively registering for preschool all Roma children residing in their country.  A strategy well worth considering is one that is currently being implemented with American dollars in 20 Romanian communities.  It’s simple:  The local authorities register every child between the age of 4 and 6 (next year it will be 3-6) in preschool and provide appropriate clothes and other essentials on an as-needed basis.  Parents under the poverty line receive 12 euros a month in food coupons if their children have perfect attendance.  Registrations and attendance have increased dramatically in the communities where this strategy is being applied.

Economic analyses have demonstrated that the money invested in quality early education yields a rate of return from three to ten times the original investment[2].  The World Bank estimated in April that one billion euros a year is lost in productivity and tax revenues as a result of the unemployment and under-employment of the Roma – in Romania alone; across the continent the estimate runs to over five billion.  This can’t possibly be reversed unless EU member states address the Roma education gap with the same conviction and resolve they would a lethal disease.

Leslie Hawke

11 September 2010

[1] Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education, p.34. NY, Teachers College Press, 2010.

[2] Reynolds & Temple, “Economic returns of investments in preschool education” in Zigler, Gilliam & Jones A Vision for Universal Pre-school Education (pp.37-68) NY, Cambridge University Press 2006.

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