The Roma people are the largest minority in Europe, numbering as many as the population of Sweden. Throughout the continent they suffer extreme social exclusion, extending to all ages: more than a third of Roma children in eastern Europe go hungry at least once a month.
Widening access to preschool has long been seen as one of the most powerful tools to dismantle early childhood disadvantage. But in Bulgaria, an evaluation of policies trying to increase preschool enrolment rates produced some intriguing results.
Researchers found effective ways of getting more kids into early education. But they also found, to their surprise, that Roma children didn’t seem to benefit from it — and may even have been harmed. It suggests that, for minority children, using preschool to fight disadvantage is not as straightforward as policymakers have assumed.
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Early education is essential
Gaps between vulnerable and advantaged children start to open very early in their lives, and persist over time. “Look at high school completion, for example,” said Joost de Laat, a professor at Utrecht University. “The time to close that gap is not when the kids are in high school.”
A wide-ranging academic literature has found extensive benefits to early education — particularly for disadvantaged children.
But Roma children have rarely been reached by governments’ efforts on this score. A 2011 survey run by the UN Development Programme found an enrolment rate of just 38% among three-to-six-year-old Roma children in Bulgaria, compared to 79% for non-Roma children.
That rate improved as the Bulgarian government banned tuition fees for five and six-year-olds, but kindergartens still charge families other fees, for example, to cover the cost of materials. Those further costs were one of the targets for a 2014 trial and evaluation by the Trust for Social Achievement, a children’s non-profit in Bulgaria, and the World Bank.
It aimed, said de Laat, who was one of the World Bank’s researchers on the project, to test what policies could most effectively increase Roma enrolment.
The study incorporated ethnically Bulgarian children as well as those from the Roma and Turkish minorities. Different groups of families received different interventions — including information sessions, cash incentives for enrolment and fee waivers — and their outcomes were tracked and compared to a control.
Freeing up spaces
Researchers identified three potential barriers to preschool enrolment for Roma families: that they weren’t aware of preschool’s benefits, couldn’t afford its costs or simply didn’t want to send their children to school.
Public information sessions were effective at convincing parents of early education’s benefits. But there was no consequent increase in enrolment, and direct payments for enrolling also had little effect.
Instead, the cost barrier seems to have been most significant. “The main conclusion is that the affordability is the most binding one,” de Laat said — eliminating the costs of preschool boosted enrolment rates.
That’s an important finding because it’s commonly thought in Europe that Roma parents prefer not to engage with formal education. “The stereotype is that they don’t want to send their kids to school, and that’s it,” de Laat explained.
Harder than it looks
But getting Roma children into preschool turned out to be only half the battle.
“In general, the assumption has been that preschool’s good for kids,” de Laat said. “That’s not what we find, to put it very bluntly.”
In fact, the study’s results suggest that Roma and Turkish children are actually harmed by attending preschool, with decreases in socio-emotional skills and numeracy.
It’s well-established in the academic literature that early education must be good-quality to improve outcomes — simply intervening early isn’t enough.
And, de Laat said, the study found that parents who sent their children to preschool significantly cut back on activities like reading to, singing to or playing with them, which are also vital to good development.
“If you talk to Bulgarians,” de Laat recounted, “they will say yes: if you send your kid to school, you don’t have to do things at home any more.”
But poor Bulgarian children in the study did have improved outcomes after a year of attending preschool, even though they were in the same schools and saw similar reductions in parental involvement.
That suggests something particular to minority children’s experiences of early education, de Laat suggested. “Perhaps it’s that these preschools are not providing an inclusive environment in which these minority kids can thrive,” he said.
The data from the 2014 intervention don’t allow that theory to be tested. But there are hints: the evaluation report says that “teachers find it more difficult to work with groups of children of different ethnic origin”, because they lack teaching techniques to manage cultural difference.
And one in five kindergarten teachers believe that children’s abilities are tied to their ethnicity, according to the Association of Psychologists in Bulgaria.
“We’re now developing a new project, to see if it’s possible to actually do something about that preschool environment,” de Laat said. The Trust for Social Achievement is again involved in the follow-up study, which draws on work done by the Romani Early Years Network at the International Step by Step Association.
There’s some way to go before that research will be complete. For the time being, the message to policymakers is one of caution: even if we know how to get minority children into preschool, the effect is not as uncomplicatedly positive as we might have hoped. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/Voice of Roma Partnership)