Too Cool for School? The Education of the Roma Minority in Poland

The Roma have achieved nearly mythological status in Polish society as roving bands of freedom-loving “gypsies”, with music and art following them wherever they go. The Roma, it seems, are not plagued by the everyday concerns and problems faced by the rest of society.  This description, however, is far from accurate.  As one of Poland’s poorest and least-educated minority groups, the Roma struggle with issues as basic as high unemployment, inadequate housing, and low levels of education.  This report hopes to ground the “free-as-a-bird” image of the Roma in an everyday reality.  Specifically, this report describes the issue of a system of education for today’s Polish Roma. 

The Current Status of Roma Education

According to a 2003 government estimate, approximately 70 percent of Roma children in Poland regularly attend school1.  In some towns, however, the majority of Roma children do not attend school whatsoever.  In either case, Roma children attend school at far lower rates than non-Roma schoolchildren.  Moreover, school attendance of Roma is clustered at the primary school level. According to an estimate by the European Roma Rights Center, 90 percent of Roma children do not continue their education past the fourth or fifth grade2, despite Polish law which makes education obligatory until the age of eighteen.  Andrzej Grzymała-Kazlowski, a specialist on National and Ethnic Minorities at the Ministry of the Interior and Administration, notes that Roma schoolchildren received grades far below those of their non-Polish counterparts3.

It is important, however, to remember that the education of Roma in Poland has made remarkable strides in the past decade and a half.  The fact that Roma children do graduate from primary school in significant number is a positive sign; but, while these statistics indicate progress in Roma education, such progress cannot become the grounds for a policy of complacency.  Areas for improvement remain and, specifically, for concrete action by both the Polish state and the Roma community.

As Sławomir Lodzinski, a sociologist at Warsaw University, states, “the principal area of conflict is culture.”  The dilemma faced by the Roma centers on “how to modernize one’s own culture but sustain one’s own identity?”  It is true that guiding elements of Roma culture – solidarity and community – do not harmonize with guiding objectives of the Polish education system.  According to Joanna Chojnacka, Secretary of the Polish Roma Association of Szczecinek, “Roma people are not competitive at all…which is completely the opposite of what is promoted in Polish schools.”  In addition, the Roma identity is based on the exclusion of non-Roma influence; under this framework, the Polish school system is construed as “an element of an external, non-Romani world.”4

The Cultural Obstacles to Roma Education

The main obstacles to acquiring an education are child marriage – strongly connected to the custom of “kidnapping” – the nomadic tradition, and the language barrier.  The tradition of child marriage in Roma culture mandates that both young girls and young boys marry at an early age, usually between the ages of thirteen to sixteen.  Because the responsibilities of adulthood have been assumed at such an early age, the young Roma, particularly females, tend to drop-out of school in favor of married life with children of their own.  This situation is manifested in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Roma children do not continue their education past primary school; and even if Roma parents desired a secondary school education for their daughters, attending school presents the constant danger of “kidnapping,” a Roma custom where young Roma men may “kidnap” a young woman in order to marry her.

Despite state policies aimed at permanently settling the Roma, the nomadic tradition continues in Roma society.  Many Roma families still engage in a seasonal form of nomadic movement, bringing their children along with them.  It goes without saying, these seasonal changes of residence disrupt the continuity of a Roma child’s education; and the time required to travel often results in Roma children missing school for extended periods of time.  Jacek Milewski, Director of the Suwalki School, cites the example of a fifth-grader whose family explained that he would be traveling but would return following the holiday break; Mr. Milewski, based on his experience with Roma families, “doubt[s] that they will return him to school here.”

Most Roma children speak only the Romani language in the household and rarely learn the Polish language before beginning primary school.  This insufficient mastery of the Polish language – the language of instruction – places the Roma at a clear academic disadvantage in relation to their peers.  This disadvantage makes education a source of frustration for a Roma child and makes him less willing to continue his education; additionally, because children cannot communicate the source of their frustration – that is, the language barrier – schools may misdiagnose them as suffering from learning disabilities; in a number of documented cases, albeit not all, Roma children “consequently…were qualified for special education.”5

Current State Educational Policy

In Poland, the Roma receive one of the most comprehensive government assistance programs afforded to any ethnic or national minority.  As Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski explains, “The Roma receive constant financial support from the state, despite public complaint that impoverished ethnic Poles receive comparatively less support.”  Because the Roma are less integrated than their minority counterparts and because of the Roma’s visible poverty, the Polish state appears eager to bring the Roma into socioeconomic lock-step with more affluent and better integrated minorities, such as the Armenian minority in Poland.

The first formal initiative on Roma education was the 1992 Initial Teaching Programme for Roma.6 In contrast to the current policy of integrated classes, the Initial Teaching Programme placed children in “all-Roma classes” to motivate them to attend school and to provide remedial education before entering regular classes.  This pedagogic experiment failed.  Since the curriculum of “all-Roma classes” was less advanced, children were held back from entering regular classes and remained only with Roma children.  As such, “the classes were de facto racial segregation”7 with disastrously limited resources.  In Maszkowice, as an example, “the Romani classroom, which accommodated all children from 7 to 14 years of age, was about 20 square meters and the class had only one teacher.”8

The most recent initiative governing Roma participation in education is the “Programme for the Roma Community in Poland,” entered into law in 2003.  Based on a 2001 pilot program conducted in the Malopolska Voivoidship, the 2003 country-wide initiative offers policy prescriptions on a series of issues faced by the Roma; among the issues addressed are housing, unemployment, health care, and education.  In fact, the Polish government names improvement of the Roma educational situation as its paramount priority.  Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski notes that, “Education is the most crucial issue to tackle; when the Roma are educated, the most basic of problems – unemployment and sub-par standards of living – will be addressed in turn.”

Accordingly, in its Programme for Roma, the Ministry of the Interior and Administration develops a number of objectives for Roma education: improving graduation rates at the primary school level, improving attendance rates again at the primary school level, and increasing the number of Roma students who continue their education beyond primary school.  To achieve these objectives, the Ministry introduces innovative and simultaneously practical ideas concerning education.  The Programme for Roma calls for funding Roma enrollment in nursery schools; continuing with a policy of integrated classes (as opposed to remedial all-Roma classes); compiling textbooks to teach Roma language, culture, and history; making effective use of Roma assistants in the classroom; and adapting current curricula to emphasize the artistic and musical abilities of Roma children.

The state has provided a set of well-informed and well-considered measures which, if properly carried out, has the potential to improve the educational situation of Roma children.  Among those involved in the dialogue on Roma education, there is general approval for the Programme for Roma; Izabela Jaskowiak of the Roma Educational Association of “Harangos” considers the Programme a “positive development” while Dr. Lodzinski declares there to be “many positive aspects to the legislation, making the Programme a genuine achievement for the state.”  Such a welcoming reception naturally begs the question: if the state is supposedly on the right path, why does Roma education remain so persistent of an issue?

The answer lies in the problem of policy implementation, rather than policy formulation.  Three obstacles, it seems, prevent a practical realization of the Programme for Roma, undermining the cause of genuine educational reform.  These obstacles are, first, federal budgetary concerns; second, the reservations of local government toward implementation; and third, the reservations of Roma families to engage the education system and use the opportunities available to them.  Until these obstacles are somehow addressed, the Programme for Roma cannot rise from the level of academic, public policy theory to the level of concrete, on-the-ground reality.

Institutional Obstacles to Roma Education

Budgetary Concerns

From a monetary standpoint, the issue of Roma education is particularly difficult.  The average Roma family lives well below the Polish poverty line; parents can scarcely afford food and shelter, let alone textbooks and other school supplies.  Therefore, in order to educate Roma children, the state must, in most cases, fund a child’s education from nursery school onward; and even when a Roma family is comparatively wealthy, the state must usually fund the education as incentive for that family to send the child to school.  In total, educational initiatives for the Roma require more funding than the state can bear, resulting in mandates which local school districts must leave unmet.

“Since the early 1990s, the Polish state has undergone a budget crisis,” according to Dr. Lodzinski, “resulting in the educational under-funding witnessed today.”  To illustrate the state’s budget problems, Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski details how the Pilot Programme in Malapolska Voivoidship suffered from consistent budget slashing by state authorities.  “In 2003, the Malopolska program received ten million Polish złoty but, within three years, that number was cut to five million Polish złoty.”

In the Polish education system, however, the burden of implementation falls on the local government in conjunction with the local school district.  As such, these local authorities struggle to meet a mandate without the necessary finances, often reaching an unsatisfactory midway point.  A Roma assistant, Ewa Trojanek, relates her experience on this matter.  Although the state prioritizes Roma assistants as the imperative link between Roma parents and non-Roma schools, local school districts cannot offer these assistants full-time employment or consistent salaries.  “Yes, I am considered a freelancer so, as an assistant, I cannot receive any employment benefits; this state of affairs is frustrating.”  She discusses cases where fellow assistants received only partial compensation for full work days or, worse yet, received salaries months too late.

Local Government

Beyond the issue of insufficient funding, implementation at the local level is often impeded by local governments themselves.  When funding does exist for a Roma education program, local governments either lack the initiative to apply for the funding or they seek to divert the funding toward non-Roma concerns.  As Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski cited, local governments do not typically demonstrate enthusiasm when it comes to applying for Roma education funding; “the necessary paperwork is time-consuming and complicated; if there is no strong will within the government to complete the paperwork, it simply will not happen.”

This situation often occurs in relation to funding nursery school education.  The state has prioritized nursery school education for Roma children and made funding available for any Roma child to attend nursery school; in the opinion of the state, integration into the Polish education system and familiarity with the Polish language at a young developmental age are the keys to a better long-term educational situation.  However, many local school districts have failed to seek out this funding because of the paperwork involved, making it so that a significant number of Roma children still do not attend nursery school.

A second issue in local implementation of federal initiatives is the lack of oversight from federal authorities.  Few formal mechanisms exist to monitor the ways in which federal resources earmarked for Roma education are used by local governments and school districts.  Such a system leaves local authorities with the incentive to spend the resources on issues the town prioritizes, rather than on the issue of Roma education, as designated by the state.  For example, Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski discussed one Polish town where money set aside for Roma education was instead used to repair a broken schoolhouse roof.  Naturally, the case of this Polish town is a symptom of a general budgetary crunch rather than corruption by local authorities or ideological unwillingness to assist the Roma. The fact still remains, however, that if the diversion of funding goes unmonitored, the state cannot effectively assist Roma children; the state could mistake unfunded policies for ineffective ones and cut potentially useful programs.

The Roma Community

Roma educational reform requires more than the willingness of the state or the willingness of local authorities, it requires the willingness of the recipients.  If the Roma community does not pursue the opportunities afforded to it, educational reform is essentially a pipe dream.  Still, traditional Roma communities are the most troublesome of the actors involved to convince.  The reservations of the town and the state to implement reform are grounded primarily in budgetary problems, but the essential willingness exists; Roma reservations are based on a concern that is much more difficult to allay – a concern for the maintenance of their culture and identity.

Interestingly, an unwillingness to engage the education system is a disputed point among those involved in the Roma community.  Ms. Trojanek contends that “we Roma understand that our society must change; such change is only natural.  As a Roma, I know of no other Roma who reject education because it will change the culture.”  Dr. Lodzinski notes, however, that “the Polish education system is still viewed as a tool of assimilation to Polish culture” and Mr. Milewski recalls that “Roma attitudes toward education vary, but I know many Roma in my community who see no need for education.”

Although the Roma community seems more amenable now than in recent years to the concept of education, a palpable, albeit diminished, ambivalence toward the concept remains.  Such ambivalence explains why Roma children do not continue their education past primary school and why so few Roma families send their children to nursery school.  Ms. Chojnacka states that Roma parents do not necessarily want their children to attend nursery school because “there is the issue of a Roma culture that says that my child should remain with me and not at a nursery school.”  Until the culturally-related reservations of the Roma are alleviated, full progress cannot be achieved.

Recommendations for the State and the Roma Community

Engaging the Roma in a Dialogue on Education

Because the state lies outside the sphere of influence, it cannot take effective action when the Roma have cultural reservations about specific issues.  For example, the state provides funding to any Roma attending secondary school, but this funding is to no avail; Roma do not use this opportunity because of their cultural reservations about secondary school attendance.  As Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski states, “We do not know how to convince the Roma to attend secondary school, so we wait for their initiative.”

Culturally-based issues can only be solved from within Roma society and, in order for these issues to be addressed in the community, effective organization of the Roma is necessary.  The Roma community must recognize that the improvement of the Roma educational situation requires action by not only the state, but by the community itself as well.  In addition, there is the possibility of change from one generation to the next when it comes to greater civic engagement by the Roma.  As the current generation of Roma finishes primary school, and as the Roma community in general becomes more educated, the desire to participate in a dialogue about their own education will increase.

Introducing Holistic Educational Methods

Currently, the state education system is based on the learn-by-rote model of education, wherein the student’s role is more that of listener than active participant; however, the first three levels of Polish education – Forms 1, 2, and 3 – have begun adopting more interactive teaching styles.  Such a shift in teaching style offers significant educational benefits for Roma children and should be implemented at other grade levels.  This interactive model focuses on the child as an individual with individual needs and as an active participant who should engage his teacher and whom the teacher should engage in turn.  In concrete terms, this interactive educational model integrates artistic expression, musical expression, athletic activity, and hands-on field trips into its curriculum; within this curriculum, the child is able to use his head, heart, and hands.

For two reasons, this interactive model is the model of education that best suits the learning style of most Roma children.  Unaccustomed to the abstract thinking central to the learn-by-rote model, a Roma child would respond positively to the interactive model with its emphasis on concrete, “head, heart, hands” learning.  In addition, in learn-by-rote classes, “Roma children find it difficult to remain still for long periods of time,” as Ms. Trojanek phrases it; a curriculum grounded in constant engagement, both cognitive and physical, would be better suited to Roma children.  And, indeed, it is not only Roma children who learn best under this teaching method; significant benefits may exist for Polish schoolchildren whose teachers employ this model as well.

Improving the Status of Roma Assistants

The concept of Roma assistants is an imperative building block for any sound educational policy regarding the Roma.  As Ms. Jaskowiak comments, “Roma assistants are the ones who can and will make the real difference for the children.”  As a concept first developed in the 2001 pilot program in Malopolska, Roma assistants serve to bridge the gap between Polish schools and Roma parents and children.

These assistants, of Roma origin themselves and hand-selected by a town’s Roma community, visit the classes attended by Roma children and converse with school teachers and school directors on the children’s educational progress, behavioral issues, et cetera; furthermore, they hold similar discussions with the Roma parents, offering themselves as a familiar face with whom the parents can discuss unfamiliar educational issues.  In cases of conflict, the assistant can mediate between parents and school.  For the children, too, the Roma assistant is a motivating force in the pursuit of education.  As Dr. Lodzinski explains, “the Roma culture is centered on complete respect for Roma elders,” leading to a situation described by Ms. Trojanek where “children respect and listen to the Roma assistant in a way that they cannot for non-Roma teachers.”

Respected by the Roma community for their effectiveness, these Roma assistants deserve the same respect from local school districts.  In truth, however, the assistants do not rest on equal footing with other school employees, causing some, such as Ms. Trojanek, to “feel as though [she is] in an inferior position to her colleagues.”  In the majority of school districts, Roma assistants do not receive employment benefits, such as health insurance or paid vacation; also, they are treated as part-time freelancers and hired on a non-contractual basis.  In order to recruit the best and the brightest Roma assistants possible, local school districts must provide the assistants with the benefits and the work contracts they deserve.

Improving Nursery School Enrollment

One of the most important determinants of a Roma child’s educational success is whether that child attends nursery school.  The educational problems faced by Roma children in primary school are insufficient mastery of the Polish language and insufficient ability to process abstract concepts; however, early introduction to Polish language and abstract thought, while in nursery school, significantly reduces the severity of these problems.  A “Harangos” report points to Roma children in the town of Czarny Dunajec; these children adapted to the Polish language during nursery school and did not require remedial coursework when they entered primary school.

Although the state has declared nursery school attendance a policy priority, the obstacles from local authorities and from the Roma community must be removed.  First, Roma reservations about nursery school attendance must be allayed; in this way, nursery school attendance depends on both the efforts of Roma community leaders and the local authorities who must coordinate with the community leaders.  Together, they must articulate to the Roma the reasons why nursery school is a practical necessity for their children.  In addition to arguments centered on the educational benefits of nursery school, the practical benefits of nursery school must be explained; when nursery schools provide a simple necessity that Roma parents cannot easily provide, “this will be motivation enough for the Roma parent to bring his child to nursery school,” as Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski summarizes.  For example, the provision of free meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – for Roma children who attend nursery school should be used as an explanatory tool to Roma parents.

The Final Recommendation: Teaching Mutual Tolerance

Beyond structural or practical concerns for Roma education in Poland, there is one touchstone issue.  Considerably more abstract than budgetary restraints or curricula changes, intolerance toward the Roma is the most troubling problem in the education system and, in fact, in general Polish-Roma relations.  As long as Roma schoolchildren feel discriminated against or even misunderstood, there is a possibility that they will reject the education system; in a hostile learning environment, the security found in a Roma community – insulation from any outsider’s prying gaze – can seem too tempting to resist.

A caveat to this discussion is that cases of school discrimination have decreased in the past few decades; Ms. Trojanek notes that much has changed from when she attended primary school twenty years ago when other school children labeled her “a dirty Roma.”  The authors of this report, however, contend that when it comes to discrimination, it is extremely dangerous to understate the situation.  The level of discrimination cannot be ascertained from statistics; when discrimination occurs, the victims do not necessarily report it to the authorities, particular when those victims cannot, because of a language barrier, express themselves as they wish.  For this reason and others, cases of anti-Roma discrimination “usually end at the stage of verbal complaining,” according to Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski.

Tolerance toward the Roma must be incorporated into the educational process for both teachers and students.  This incorporation should occur at two levels: first, the academic level with in-class programs on tolerance and second, the cultural level with after-school programs designed to bring Polish and Roma children together and introduce Polish children to Roma customs; the latter teaches tolerance in an implicit manner by allowing students to accept and embrace their differences.  Ms. Chojnacka mentions a model of cultural education used in Szczecinek, where the town school and a local Roma organization joint coordinate an after-school youth center; at this center, Roma and non-Roma students can come together and play in a Roma music band.  Through their shared experience, the Roma and non-Roma benefit from their diversity instead of being divided by it. These programs, designed to bring Roma and non-Roma youth together, are especially important because they teach mutual tolerance to both Roma and non-Roma children.

Finding the Cultural Middle Ground

There is a tendency to think of culture as something fixed, something immovable, something never-changing.  From this perspective, it becomes easy for the outside observer to think of Roma culture as forever in conflict with Polish society; it becomes easy to ask “What need is there for dialogue?  For action?”  This perspective, however, must be reevaluated.  Roma culture, Polish culture…all cultures, in fact, are not entities unto themselves; culture is determined by individuals and if individuals can cooperate with each other to a common understanding, so can cultures.  The Roma and Polish societies can come together and, in many respects, already have.  Thirty years ago, it would be unthinkable for a majority of Roma children to be attending school and, today, the majority of Roma children graduate from primary school.  This progress is a move in the right direction and can continue, but only if Roma and Polish societies remain actively engaged.

References

Chojnacka, Joanna: Secretary of the Polish Roma Association of Szczecinek.  Conducted 23 June 2006.

Grzymała-Kazlowski, Andrzej: Specialist on National and Ethnic Minorities at the Ministry of the Interior and Administration.  Conducted 26 June 2006.

Jaskowiak, Izabela.  Member of the Roma Educational Association of “Harangos.”  Conducted 28 June 2006.

Lodzinski, Sławomir: Sociologist at Warsaw University.  Conducted 26 June 2006.

Milewski, Jacek:  Director of the Suwalki School.  Conducted 27 June 2006.

Trojanek, Ewa.  Roma Assistant for the Szczecinek School District.  Conducted 24 June 2006.

FOOTNOTES

1. Ministry of the Interior and Administration, “Programme for the Roma Community in Poland,” 2003, p. 4.

2. As quoted by the European Roma Rights Center, “Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Center Concerning the Republic of Poland for Consideration by the United Nations Committee on the Right of the Child,” 2002, www.crin.org/docs/resources/treaties/crc.32/Italy_ERRC_ngo_report.doc, p. 19.

3. According to Mr. Grzymała-Kazlowski, the average grade for Roma children in the public school system is 2.78 on a scale of 1-6, only slightly above the passing grade of “2.”

4. Jacek Milewski, “Roma Education in Poland: Yesterday and Today,” Educational Assocation of Suwalki, 2004, p. 29.

5. Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, “Roma in Public Education: National Focal Point for Poland,” 2004, p. 6.

6. As discussed by Andrzej Mirga, “Addressing the Challenges of Romani Children’s Education in Poland – Past and Current Trends and Possible Solutions,” Project on Ethnic Relations, www.per-usa.org/PolandRomaeducation.doc.

7. Ibid, p. 10.

8. Ibid, p. 9.

9. Roma Educational Association of “Harangos,” Evaluation of the Implementation of the Pilot Programme in Malapolska Voivoidship 2001-2003,” 2005, pp. 28-29.

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