International Conference "The Right to Education for Every Child: Removing Barriers and Fostering Inclusion for Roma Children" Belgrade, June 2-3, 2009

Mr. Steven Allen, Regional Director, UNICEF CEE/CIS, H.E. Ambassador Josep Lloveras, Head of EC Delegation, Republic of Serbia, Ms. Tuende Kovacz - Cerovic, State Secretary, Ministry of Education, Republic of Serbia, Mr. Zarko Obradovic, Minister of Educa
© UNICEF Serbia/ Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
Steven Allen, Regional Director, UNICEF CEE/CIS, Josep Lloveras, Head, EC Delegation, Serbia, Tuende Kovacz-Cerovic, State Secretary, Ministry of Education, Zarko Obradovic, Minister of Education, Bozidar Djelic, Deputy Prime Minister for EU Integration

Decade of Roma Inclusion: 2005-2015

International Conference The Right to Education for Every Child: Removing Barriers and Fostering Inclusion for Roma Children      

The aim of the Conference was to scrutinize policies, identify successful practices, lessons learnt and to agree upon the key strategic steps.  It focused on four thematic areas:
o The importance of starting and including children early in education
o Ending segregation and fostering inclusion
o Supportive classroom and school environment
o Public financing for vulnerable children

The Conference gathered senior officials and experts from the Ministries of Education of Roma Decade Countries, Roma civil society representatives, international and local education experts, representatives of UN and other international organizations, European Commission Delegation in Serbia, Council of Europe, and bilateral partners.

The following statement was delivered by UNICEF Regional Director for CEE/CEES Steven Allen.
‘Every Child Matters: and Has the Right to be Given a Chance’

Honourable Minister, Distinguished participants, Colleagues from Partner organisations, especially Roma Organisations, Colleagues from the UN, Friends,

It is a pleasure to be with you here today, and to be back in Belgrade and in a part of the world where I have many fond memories. I am also aware of the challenges of the past, and those that lie ahead as you build this important part of Europe.
We are here this week to find ways to remove barriers from the rights of Roma children to Education; and to remove them quickly, decisively and to ensure that they do not return in new forms.
Economic and financial crisis is going to make this harder. There is a risk of budgetary cuts on all sides, and real prospects of fiscal constraints for a lengthy period. We are already seeing a rise in xenophobia that so often accompanies difficult economic times.  Now our efforts to address exclusion and tackle problems, which were not resolved in recent ‘good times’ of economic growth, become even more urgent and pressing.  

I want to concentrate on two aspects of the challenge ahead as we look at education.
First, I want to build on what Professor Davies has just said on the right of every child to education.  The right to education is not something to be given or taken away. All children, no matter their origins, abilities, ethnicity or economic status, have a right to education.   
Focusing on the rights of all children changes the perspective with which we look at why so many Romany children are not in school. The education system and the services that support it, need to work for each and every child, including Roma.   This takes us away from the many pilot projects, which have been helpful in showing the way but till now have not succeeded in bringing systemic change.  Specific actions are needed for Roma children. But they must be part of a wider approach to making our education systems more open, more inclusive, more enriching, for all children.  We need good policies for all children – plus targeted efforts for the Roma child.

Every government gathered here is committed to build a socially inclusive society. But that cannot be achieved unless every single child is included. The school and education system becomes a crucial space for bringing about social change.  Children from the mainstream gain by learning from different cultures. This helps breakdown stereotypes, and builds understanding and appreciation of diversity.

There are economic gains from investing in the education of each and every child, leading to better employment prospects, especially for young Roma adults.
Secondly, I want to focus on the particular dimension which UNICEF – and science – believe is crucial in breaking down life-long barriers of deprivation: namely early child development (ECD). 

ECD is at the heart of the social inclusion agenda.  It has become a central part of many countries efforts to combat structural deprivation and to empower communities to tackle intergenerational disadvantage. 

What do we know?      
Early childhood is a particularly critical period for the realisation of child rights. Early experience interacting with the environment has a fundamental influence on a child’s development, starting before birth, and is central to the child’s health, growth and development.

Early childhood interventions in poor neighbourhoods lead to children doing much better in schooling, leading to holding down jobs and performance in later life. 

Early experiences set children on trajectories that become progressively harder and more expensive to modify as they grow older.  Most children are resilient and cope with difficult circumstances, but children who start behind are likely to stay behind.

These we know, and yet remarkably little experience exists in drawing on this knowledge to benefit Roma children, and in making early childhood development a part of Roma development strategies. 

So how do we bring that knowledge to bear to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage that Roma children face? 

We need to ‘start early’.  Issues that should not in principle have anything to do with ECD, such as birth registration and not having civil registration documents, become critical barriers in the presence of discrimination. They can lead to the denial of a child’s later access to health, education and development.

We do not need new and expensive services. If existing health, education and social protection services are ‘inclusive’, much of the battle would be won. If cash transfers reach all those whom they are intended for - and were of a real value to the family - then many more Roma children would be supported in going to school.

What we do need is space for Roma communities to say what they feel is appropriate and how such services can be built. 

Pre-school moves to centre stage. Kindergartens are often seen as a support to working mothers. It is often overlooked that access to pre-school is just as essential in poorer communities who may not have regular access to jobs.

ECD can be a critical part of transition to primary and secondary schooling. But these benefits disappear rapidly if the school is not welcoming and responsive.

ECD is not just child care but includes counselling and other support for families with young children. In other parts of the world, ECD is a key part of community actions, emphasising peer to peer interaction and links with other social and economic programmes. Such innovations can be powerful, and mobilising.

But as we make a concerted push for ECD, there are pitfalls to be avoided: 

It is not a matter of just transferring knowledge of parenting mechanically to parents.  There is a risk that we see the family as the problem rather than as a resource; and that we see the Roma child as a problem rather than as an asset.  It is about building confidence and empowerment of the family, seeing its strengths and what is needed to direct those strengths to benefit the child.

Children do not grow up in isolation from their environment.  A close link exists between ECD and the rights of young Roma girls and young Roma women. At the same time, early marriage and early and repeated childbirth can have serial, negative effects on a girl’s health and on her ability to access and stay in education.

Policies in education and health alone will not do the job, nor introducing strategies that appear to bring solutions and behaviour change, but fail to take into account the environment of discrimination in which such interventions are launched.

This week’s meeting is a turning point - the beginning of a major re-orientation of our work on education as part of the Decade.  We need to do what we are doing better, to be more rigorous in approach and in ensuring that ECD is indeed part of the lives of Roma children.

This requires a significant engagement and effort, backed by research on ‘what works’, evaluation, and coordinated policy action, and investment of resources in a new area, when budgets are tight.

Partnerships are crucial, and partnerships around ECD require special reflection. We need a partnership around ECD – as an area of work, bringing together the best global and regional knowledge, with Roma and mainstream communities. This needs to be an explicit part of the Decade, with a ‘roadmap’ which all partners share and commit to. A roadmap backed with some money, of course. Partnerships are needed with and within Government.  Synergy is needed between sectoral actions, for which joint commitments of different ministries are required.   
Such an engagement cannot be done ‘for’ Roma. It has to be with the full participation of the Roma community. ‘Nothing about us, without us’ is even more important for issues around family life and development of children.  There has to be a partnership with parents, and participation of children.

Here I would like to underline UNICEF’s own commitment to this goal. We already have a strong and creative collaboration with the Roma Education Fund (REF) and with Open Society Institute (OSI).
UNICEF is committed to work with partners and governments of Decade countries to take forward the agenda for action that emerges from this Conference. The right of every child to develop to his or her full potential is at the heart of our mandate. Every child has to be given a chance – at the earliest opportunity.

We need to change systems. We need commitment to social inclusion to be at the centre of the Lisbon agenda. Otherwise our actions will be neither decisive nor sustained. 

This is not going to be easy, but I am equally convinced that it is doable. Enough reports have been written, many left on dusty shelves (or in long forgotten computer files). Enough meetings have taken place without clear follow-up action. The denial of the rights of Roma children to education has been going on for too long. Let’s make this week in Belgrade different and decisive.
Thank you.

Conference Background

The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, a major international effort to meet the common European challenge of Roma inclusion in a coordinated, open and transparent way, is approaching its midterm.

Since 2005, a large number of initiatives, at policy and project levels have been designed and implemented to increase the access of Roma to health, housing, employment and education. The inclusion of Roma children in the mainstream school system and their access to quality education are widely recognized as key factors in overcoming social exclusion and discrimination and essential for equipping the young generation with skills and resources to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

The Serbian Presidency of the Decade, (June 2008 - June 2009), has put strong emphasis on education, including on prevention and elimination of discrimination of Roma children in education system.

The mid-point of the Decade represents a good moment to take stock of accomplishments and major gaps and to outline the necessary steps towards fulfilment of the Decade goals on education. It is within this context that the Conference “The Right to Education for every Child; Removing Barriers and Fostering Inclusion for Roma Children“ is being organized on 2-3 June in Belgrade, Serbia. The Conference will bring together relevant stakeholders and education experts from the Decade countries and elsewhere to scrutinize policies, identify successful practices, lessons learnt and to agree upon the key strategic steps.

Conference objectives  

The overall goal of the Conference is to review and take note of important improvements in the education of Roma during 5 years of the Decade, especially in fighting discrimination, and to further elaborate the road map leading to fulfilment of universal right to quality education for Roma children.

Specific Conference goals:

The drafted Outcome Conference Document is distributed to participants as the Conference material. It will be discussed, revised and amended at the WG sessions. The plan is to finalize it in one week after the Conference, share with all Roma Decade member states and submit it for approval/adoption at the end of June at the Roma Decade International Steering Committee. 

Conference format

The Conference will last two working days and will include plenary sessions and parallel working groups.

The both days of the Conference will begin with two plenary sessions. The first one, the “high power” panel will provide overall human rights framework for discussion in “thematic” panels and working groups’ sessions. The second plenary panel will provide framework for further discussion on conditions for ensuring universal access to quality education. More in-depth elaboration of these themes will take place during the “thematic” panels and working groups’ sessions. In addition to international experts, Roma representatives from different Decade countries will provide their perspectives and experience related to the above themes. 

The working groups will examine concrete examples of different policy solutions, practices, results and constrains in Decade countries, discuss the draft outcome document and suggest corresponding changes. Special attention will be paid to linkages and interrelations between different thematic focus areas to ensure the convergence and synergy of proposed measures. The results of each working group session will be reported to the Conference plenum in the afternoon of the second day.

© UNICEF Serbia/ Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
From left to right: Ms. Judita Reichenberg, Area Representative, UNICEF, Serbia, Mr. Steven Allen, Regional Director, UNICEF, Regional Office CEE/CIS, H.E. Ambassador Josep Lloveras, Head of EC Delegation to the Republic of Serbia

Conference themes

Barriers that prevent full access of Roma children to quality and relevant education are numerous and different in scope and nature. With the view of identifying and removing barriers and fostering inclusion, the Conference will focus on four critical aspects in ensuring quality mainstreamed education of Roma children.

I The importance of starting and including children early in education

It has been widely documented that early access to quality education is one of the most powerful means of fostering child well-being and development, breaking the cycle of disadvantage and improving life opportunities.

Improving quality pre-primary provision and widening access to ECD are potentially the most important contributions that school systems can make to improving opportunities for all and for achieving the Lisbon goals of sustainable economic growth and social cohesion.

At the Conference thematic panel and in two parallel working group sessions, the discussions will address the following most critical factors and issues in improving access and quality of early educational inclusion:

Each topic will consider lessons learnt from successful practices with the aim to extract elements for policy considerations and  recommendations that could apply across different countries. 

II Ending segregation and fostering inclusion

Segregation policy practiced for many years in the number of countries in the region has been identified as one of the major causes for the lack of social inclusion of Roma. School desegregation is therefore seen as one of the most important strategic steps for removing barriers to social inclusion and at the same time an essential condition for the realization the Decade goals in education.

Panel presentations and two parallel working group sessions will address specifically the following aspects:

III Supportive classroom and school enviroment

Access to schools by itself does not automatically provide for favourable long term development and education achievements. Innovative and functionally balanced pedagogies as well as responsible, accountable, competent professionals and fine-tuned teaching practices are essential. Efforts to improve educational environment will benefit all children and ensure that education achievements of Roma children do not differ from those of non Roma.

The Conference panel and two working groups will address the following most important issues in creating supportive education environment:

IV Public financing for vulnerable children

Changes in financing are a condition for removal of systemic barriers and for fostering full and effective inclusion leading to long-term quality results in education and development of each child. In this context, the Conference will examine the proposals for Per-capita financing with special focus on:



Approximately 150 Conference participants will include senior officials and experts from the Ministries of Education of Roma Decade Countries, Roma civil society representatives, international and local education experts, representatives of international organizations, UN organizations, Delegation of EC in Serbia, CoE, and bilateral partners.

The simultaneous interpretation will be provided in English, Serbian and Romani languages.


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