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School dropout among Roma children – myth and reality

by Ana Ivasiuc - Project Manager, Community Development Agency “Împreună”

Between April 2009 and January 2010, the Community Development Agency “Împreună” (Together) conducted a survey called O şcoală de nota zece? – A Grade a School?, with UNICEF support. Carried out in 70 deprived Roma communities1 in 20 counties, it examined Roma children’s access to quality schooling. The survey used data from parents of Roma school-age children, Roma children both in and not in school, interviews with school directors, teachers, and educational institutions. Below we detail some of the findings.

First it is important to define what constitutes school dropout in this context. The Rules of Organisation and Functioning of School Education Units  (ROFSEU) defines a school dropout as a pupil who “does not attend the daily training programme of a grade included in the mandatory education system and who is more than two years older than the age for the respective grade”2. Apart from the conceptual issue raised by this definition (the pupil who stops going to school at the age of the respective grade is not counted as a school dropout until two years after leaving the education system, which generates a cohort of pupils of undetermined status, outside the scope of public policies on this theme), the research exposed the widespread practice of inaccurately reporting the dropout rate by educational institutions. In the 80 interviews conducted with directors and teachers, the ROFSEU school dropout definition was applied only in two cases. Aside from these examples, either very vague definitions were used or the school gave arbitrary figures. The question “When do you think that a pupil becomes a school dropout?” produced the following answers:

  • “When the pupil misses school for a long period of time without giving any reason” (Sibiu, interview with a director)
  • “When they have missed more than 40 classes in a semester” (Sălaj, interview with a teacher)
  • “When the number of classes they have missed reaches 70 or 80 a year” (Iaşi, interview with a director)
  • “If, despite the repeated intervention of the school mediator, the pupil doesn’t attend school at all for more than two consecutive weeks” (Covasna, interview with a director)
  • “When the pupil doesn’t come to school for one month” (Dâmboviţa, interview with a director)
  • “When for one semester, the pupil only attends 20-25% of classes” (Suceava, interview with a deputy director)
  • “When a pupil doesn’t go to school for one or two months and they are not sick” (Gorj, interview with a director)
  • “When they do not come to school for one semester and fail to show up in the first month of the following semester, and therefore cannot be graded at all” (Argeş, interview with a director)
  • “Pupils are considered school dropouts if they do not come to school for one year” (Prahova, interview with a director)
  • “After three years without any marks or after three repeated grades” (Iaşi, interview with a director)

In short, everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a school dropout, ranging from two weeks to three years. 

Lack of consistency in the definitions and the use of arbitrary criteria distort the dropout data reported by the schools, thereby calling into question the basis for many projects aimed at reducing the dropout rate. One consistent definition should be systematically applied by all educational institutions.

These vagaries of definition severely impact teaching practices, since how the school dropout rate is defined shapes the prospective prevention strategies. According to the research, school dropout is just the tip of the iceberg, the culmination of a series of events which the pupil views as a personal failure: the gradual desertion of the school environment until motivation reaches its nadir and the pupil decides to leave the education system. One efficient strategy to prevent school dropout should be to identify the pupils at risk long before they actually drop out.

Asked “What does the institution do when a pupil is at risk of dropping out of school?”, the respondents first said there is no strategy to prevent this, and that when the school takes action, it happens mostly after the child has dropped out. One measure then taken to get the child back in school is coercion, with police involvement:

  • “We take special measures [...]such as notifying the police and having them provide us with support. We have recently decided with our colleagues that if we fail to reduce the truancy rate, we should ask the municipality and the police for support, to see what can be done” (Arad, interview with a director)
  • “We notify the police and the local authorities. We cooperate to try and bring the pupils to school or to guide them to special schools requiring a low level of attendance” (Argeş, interview with a director)
  • “We go to their home, talk to the parents [...] The local bodies also step in if we, as teachers, cannot convince them [...] They have really got involved [...] We also scare them with a fine here and there” (Dâmboviţa, interview with a teacher)

If school dropout is the result of a pupil feeling greatly troubled over a long period of time, then calling the police and using coercion to keep children in school is an excessive response. The fact that school administrators have identified this “solution” illustrates how pupils in distress, especially Roma ones, are perceived by the education system: as potential offenders whose redemption requires recourse to the law. Clearly police involvement will not help reduce the psychological reasons which may stop a child attending school.

Our research also highlights the causes of dropout. According to interviews with Roma children who have quit school, their main reason for doing so was financial hardship (24%), followed by participation in paid activities or caring for their younger siblings (20%), which is related to financial difficulties. Some 16% of the children who dropped out had done so due to unsatisfactory results in the previous years (low marks, failed grades, multiple retakes) and 12% said that they no longer wanted to attend, without specifying why. Some 9% of the children said their parents had made them leave, while in 7% of the cases, children did not go to school for health reasons. Finally, 4% replied that they had dropped out because of the distance from their home to the school, while 7% had other reasons.

An interesting aspect is the low prevalence of early marriage among children. Out of the 69 children interviewed, only one cited marriage as the reason for dropping out. According to the questionnaires completed by the parents, 10 cases of early marriage among the school-age children prompted dropout, which works out as 4.3% of dropout causes reported by parents. In the light of these data, it is quite likely that early marriage among Roma children is less of a factor than previously thought.

To combat school dropout, it is essential for the political decision-makers to have real data, both on the extent and causes of the phenomenon. Without such information, the programmes aimed at stopping children from abandoning their education have little chance of succeeding.

© UNICEF Romania
Friendly smiles in a break at school in Spantov

Vasile and Costel

Vasile and Costel are brothers. The elder one, Costel, has already dropped out of school twice, once in third grade and once in eighth grade. He is now almost 18. Like his younger brother, who was his classmate in eighth grade, he is now enrolled in high school. Vasile is 16. He has never repeated a grade. He enrolled in high school and has been to class on only one occasion since. He now stays home. He says he never returned to high school because he was short of money: “I didn’t have money to buy clothes to go to school!” In the first three weeks, Vasile and Costel only went to school once.

Vasile stays at home and helps with the housework. Costel has employment as a seasonal worker. However, for the time being, he is not considering going to classesHe’s thinking that he might go back to school “now that the winter is coming and I won’t find work... I want to complete at least tenth grade and get a diploma so that I can get a better paying job.” : “If I’m always at work, I’m tired. I can’t get up early in the morning! If I come home from work late in the evening... am I still able to go to school in the morning?!”

(An example of early school dropout, an excerpt from Renunţarea timpurie la educaţie: posibile căi de prevenire – Early school dropout: possible ways to prevent it (2009), a report from the project Soluţii eficiente pentru prevenirea abandonului şcolar: costuri şi mecanisme (Efficient solutions to prevent school dropout; costs and mechanisms, conducted by UNICEF and the Educaţia 2000+ Center).






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