The children






© UNICEF Serbia / Dusan Milenkovic

Why the primary years matter

To reach their full potential, all children need a good quality basic education. This is the foundation on which they will build their future, and is a vital stage in their development. It is important, however, that they are ready for primary school, that they remain in school, and that what they learn in the classroom has real meaning in their daily lives.

For some children on the edges of Serbian society, however, the primary years are characterized by further marginalization. For the country, this represents a waste of human capital and precious resources. For the children themselves, this represents lost prospects and ever deeper social exclusion.

The situation in Serbia

The law is on the children’s side. Serbia’s landmark 2009 Law on Education requires the full inclusion of children who were once shut out of mainstream schooling, including children with disabilities and children from Roma communities. Enrolment and attendance rates for Roma children have risen by around 20 per cent since 2005, and more children with disabilities are now being enrolled in mainstream schools. But there is still a mountain to climb to achieve their full inclusion in mainstream education. There are two main problem areas:

  • Supporting early childhood development. Few young children (aged 3 to 5) from the most vulnerable groups enrol in early pre-schooling – only 8 per cent of Roma children, for example. This means that they are simply unprepared for primary school. As a result, they are more likely to drop out of school, having started at a disadvantage.
  • Keeping marginalized children in school. Many children with disabilities, and up to one third of Roma children, still attend ‘special’ schools in their early primary years. Many of those who transfer to ordinary schools lack the support they need to help them adjust and are, again, more likely to drop out.

The primary years are not only about education. They are also about the well-being and safety of children. And for some, these are years of risk. Most children in Serbia aged 2 to 14 (67 per cent) have experienced violent discipline, which includes psychological aggression and/or physical punishment, rising to 90 per cent of children between the ages of five and nine in Roma communities. The long-term impact of violence on their development, education and well-being at this crucial stage in their lives cannot be over-estimated.

© UNICEF Serbia

What is needed

Efforts are being made to tackle these problems. For example, the introduction of the one-year compulsory Pre-School Programme (PPP) may make a dent in low enrolment rates, with more than 78 per cent of Roma children taking part in 2010, and more than 90 per cent enrolling in primary schools that year. Given the critical importance of early childhood education for social inclusion and lifelong education, one key priority is to expand coverage of adequate early development and learning programmes for marginalized children between the ages of three and five, so that all childre have stimulation and an opportunity to be ready for school.

But comprehensive approaches are needed that go beyond the education sector itself to address social exclusion in the widest sense. The aim must be to connect marginalized families and their children to mainstream schools that are equipped to address their situation needs and that encourage parents and children to participate in the life of the school itself. The work of UNICEF and its partners to promote social inclusion in education and to address violence aims to ensure that previously marginalized children emerge from their primary years educated, safe and ready for the next chapter in their lives.






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