Real lives

Real lives

 

Roma Education: Reaching Out to Children and Communities

© UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina
Inclusive preschooling, Kakanj, BIH, classroom attended by Roma children

Inside it looks like any modern classroom. Drawings paper the walls, small groups of enthusiastic children gather around low, round tables while off to the side two girls dance to a tape of upbeat music.

What’s unusual about the pre-school at the Mula Mustafa Baseskija primary in the Bosnian town of Kakanj is that it exists at all. It’s the result of a UNICEF supported initiative to make preparatory schooling available to a greater number of children in Bosnia particularly those from Roma families.

Since the project began six months ago, around 20 boys and girls, including nine Roma children, have spent their mornings together in a lively, relaxed atmosphere that fosters creativity. According to their teacher, Melvida Neimarlija, it’s been a learning experience, and not just for the children.

© UNICEF/Bosnia and Herzegovina

“We’re definitely learning as we go along,” she said. “Before we started, there had never been a pre-school in this municipality.  This is the first, but because of its success, it certainly won’t be the last.”

UNICEF’s experience in assisting the most vulnerable, such as minority or returnee children, shows that including them in the mainstream school system is the key to fighting discrimination. The need for greater integration was highlighted recently by UNICEF research showing that up to 80 percent of Roma children do not attend school regularly.

Mirsad Sejdic, a Roma community leader has been instrumental in raising awareness of the pre-school among Roma families. “It’s a great opportunity for Roma children to learn to love school. But first we have to educate the parents and show them what their children are missing if they don’t attend. The school also has a responsibility to provide the right atmosphere for the children. If a Roma child feels he’s being discriminated against, he’s more likely to stay at home.” 

The unemployment rate among Bosnia’s Roma officially stands almost at one hundred percent and many families face severe economic hardship. Too often the burden of providing an income falls to children who are compelled to take on odd jobs or to beg. If a family is able to send a child to school, boys may be favoured over girls for the privilege. 

Aida, a six-year-old Roma girl, is one of the lucky few. She’s been coming to the pre-school in Kakanj regularly since it opened. And she’s clearly enjoying it. “I get to play with my friends and there are lots of coloured pencils,” she says, proudly displaying her latest drawing of multi-coloured stars.

The creation of inclusive pre-schools for Roma children is aimed at developing their learning and socialization skills ahead of enrolment in the formal education system. Through its Child-Friendly Schools Project, which emphasises creative learning over formal lectures, UNICEF has a crucial role to play. It is assisting the international community to monitor issues such a minority access to education and helping governments to put into practice education reform agreements.

The pre-schools project is underway in five locations across Bosnia where there are large Roma communities. It’s expected to lead to higher enrolment among Roma children into first grade, improved understanding of Romani culture and traditions, and improved ability among teachers and their assistants to provide child-centred teaching. The programme will also form the basis of UNICEF research on the inclusion of Roma children into mainstream education.

Even in Kakanj there are more children who need to be reached. “There are still lots of Roma children who aren’t coming to school", Mevlida Neimarlija said. “Parents are concerned about the costs and we have to reassure them that it’s all free.”

The trend, though, is in the right direction. “There are three primary schools in this area. Five years ago we had nine Roma children attending classes. Today that number is 133,” said Mirsad Sejdic.

Whether a Roma child attends school depends, in most cases, on the parents. Educating parents about the value of school is as important as educating their children. Parents are first made aware of the pre-school programme, told of its benefits, and then encouraged to visit the classroom and meet the teachers.

“We tell parents they’re giving their children a head start,” said Mirsad Sejdic. “There are very few opportunities for children or young people here. If they’re not in school there’s a higher chance of them getting into trouble. But I also say to parents that this is a chance to educate people about our way of life. In my view, if children are exposed to different cultures it’s good for education generally.” 

     By Tim Irwin for UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

 
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