Education for All not just for developing countries, says UNESCO Director-General at meeting on education for Roma children
“Education for All is not just a developing country issue,” said Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, opening the Consultative Meeting on “Promoting the Right to Quality Education for Roma Children” (UNESCO, 7 April). She described the education of Roma children as “one of the most important educational challenges in European societies”.
Speaking to delegates, ministry representatives and experts from eight countries in Central and Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine) as well as representatives from the Council of Europe and the European Commission, the Director-General pointed out that “Exclusion and marginalization prevail to different degrees everywhere - including at the heart of Europe”. Ms Bokova also expressed support for the recently-announced European Union strategy to improve the plight of the Roma.
Qian Tang, Assistant Director-General for Education, affirmed that quality education for Roma children was a top concern for UNESCO and essential for the quality and equity of education systems.
With an estimated population of 8-12 million, the Roma people are one of Europe’s largest minorities. Many obstacles prevent them from exercising their right to education. Low enrolment levels are a common challenge while school segregation has led to poor attendance and high drop-out rates.
During the consultation, the education of Roma children was variously presented as a rights issue, a values issue and an integration issue. It was vital to understanding the barriers preventing the access of Roma children to quality education: poverty, language, cultural difference and traditional gender roles that prevent girls in particular from enjoying their rights.
Participants agreed that poverty was “not just a Roma issue” but had a compounding effect on access to quality education. The interactive effects between poverty and ethnicity thus needed more attention. Education could break the vicious cycle of social, economic, linguistic and other barriers but a multi-pronged approach was necessary. Access to education was not just about Roma children but the whole Roma community, especially parents and teachers. Although the importance of quality early childhood care and education for Roma children was repeatedly stressed, participants said that education for the Roma community should be addressed with a lifelong learning dimension.
In his concluding remarks, Qian Tang addressed UNESCO’s role in further promoting quality education for Roma children. In view of the Organization’s experience with literacy programmes for women and girls and its work with other excluded groups, it was agreed that UNESCO would organize a technical meeting in the region for experts and partners. It would aim to identify two or three key areas where the Organization could best contribute to the mission of ensuring quality education for “one of the most disadvantaged groups in Europe.” UNESCO also intended to strengthen cooperation with partners working in this area, notably UNICEF, the Council of Europe and the European Commission.