Supporting Education for Romani Children in Bijeljina, Bosnia

18 June 2007

Meredoc McMinn and Danijela Colakovic1

In 2005, the United Nations reported that there are 115 million children across the world, the majority of whom are girls, that do not receive primary education. The education of children is a requirement and a right. It is needed for their personal development and for them to support themselves and their families in modern society. The fact that the United Nations' second Millennium Development Goal is to ensure that all children receive primary education by 2015 is testimony to the importance of education.

This paper focuses on one specific group of children, those from the Romani ethnic minority group in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and explores a programme that was established to support the access of Romani children to primary education. It is a model that the authors believe could be used to support the integration of any excluded group of children into an education system.

Prior to the military conflicts in the countries of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was a problem of Romani children not receiving education, and the situation arguably became worse after the conflicts. In BiH, many Romani children do not attend school. In 2001, international organisations (IOs) including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the non-governmental organisation Suedost set up a programme to deal with this issue in the north-eastern BiH town of Bijeljina.

This paper discusses the reasons found for many Romani children not attending school in the Bijeljina area, the programme set up to support the school attendance of Romani children, and a brief analysis of the somewhat interventionist approach of the programme.

Factors preventing school attendance

One general barrier which prevented Romani children from attending school was systemic discrimination against Roma, which is endemic in the Balkan countries and BiH, including in institutions within the education system. Governments and societies in the Balkan region have been slow to accept multi-culturalism and as such there has been long-standing discrimination against ethnic minority groups, such as Roma. Government and education authorities generally did not proactively support the Romani community in sending its children to school. The situation worsened following the 1992-1996 conflict in BiH, which entrenched ethnic divisions. Although there have been policy level initiatives to support the education of Roma, by 2006 they had not yet resulted in a sufficiently notable increase in the number of Romani children attending school.

It was also a problem that the Romani community did not sufficiently support its children in attending school. This is partly because the community is disempowered. As well, some Roma seemed to perceive their community as being outside broader societal institutions, such as schools. During discussions with the IOs, some Romani parents said that they did not think that education was important. However, in public meetings regarding the education of Romani children a number of Romani parents were in attendance, which indicated that many parents did want their children to attend school but that they required support to do so. A number of parents complained that they could not afford to send their children to school and provide the necessary clothing, scholastic materials and lunches, etc.

There were also cases of Romani families in which the children worked and were thus prevented from attending school. Larger social problems such as these are beyond the scope of education programmes but also need to be dealt with in order to improve the access of Roma to education. Importantly, most Romani children indicated that they did want to attend school, but some did not feel confident enough to do so.

It thus seemed that to support adequately the education of Roma there were two important goals: First, to change the perceptions of stakeholders – including education authorities and the Romani community – so that they worked to ensure that all Romani children attend school and, in doing so, overcome discriminatory attitudes on the basis of ethnicity; and second, to provide a practical means to support the access of Romani children to schools, and in doing so develop the capacities and preparedness of the children and, thus, their confidence.

Programme to support school attendance

The approach of the IOs was fairly proactive and took parallel approaches. One was to press regional and local education authorities to ensure education for all children under the age of 15, in accordance with BiH law. As much as was possible, IO representatives worked to relate to local education authorities as partners in the process and held regular meetings with municipal authorities to further develop cooperation. This approach was somewhat successful as municipal officials who were essentially supportive became more focused and those who were unsupportive or sceptical later began to take ownership of the process.

The other approach of the IOs was to go to the Romani community and discuss with parents and community leaders, again as partners in the process, about enrolling their children in school. Bijeljina had an estimated Romani population of 6,000 before the conflict, and at the time the programme was starting, up to 2,500 had so far returned. Of this number, not more than 500 were of primary school age (6 to 15).2 Public meetings were arranged with Romani parents to discuss enrolling their children in school. Municipallevel representatives from the department of education were invited to these meetings in order to show support for the education of Romani children. During these meetings, a number of parents pledged to send their children to school.

Given that the Romani community had limited experience with the local education system, there were concerns by all parties – including school authorities, parents and children – regarding the children attending school. Concerns were specifically raised as to the compatibility of the children with the regular school system and the ability of the schools to absorb them, including the social reception of the Romani children by staff and other students. Thus, in 2002 the IOs operating in Bijeljina decided to set-up a summer school to prepare the children, socially and academically, to enter school. The idea was adapted from a programme implemented in Brčko, BiH, in 2001 supported by the United Nations Development Program. The programme had been successful in preparing approximately 20 Romani children for school and included a summer school and tutoring during the school year.

The Bijeljina summer school aimed to improve the academic skills of the children to prepare them for the regular school environment and generally to build their confidence. The children were familiarised with a classroom environment and teaching was provided in reading, writing and mathematics. Local school teachers were hired, which ensured that the children would be familiar with some of the teachers when they began school and enabled the teachers to form a positive attitude towards the children in order to ease their integration into the schools. Additionally, literate adult Roma were hired as teaching assistants in order to provide assistance in the classroom and to act as role models for the children.

In order to ensure that the Romani children continued to attend school once they had begun, it was crucial that the municipal authorities and Romani parents became more supportive of the education of the Romani children. Three times that summer, meetings were held with the IOs, teachers and parents to discuss the children's education and especially their enrolment in school in September. This dialogue also enabled parents and teachers to bridge the social gap between the institutions and the community. The teachers explained to the parents that it was the parents' responsibility to make sure that their children attended school regularly and were prepared to encourage the children to do their school work. As well, discussions during the meetings about the children's ongoing success in the summer school improved the attitudes of the community and education authorities towards the education of Romani children.

The cost of the summer school programme was relatively low. Classroom use was free, the teachers were paid somewhat more than their regular wage and some school materials were provided. A small lunch was also provided because some of the children were not properly nourished. This was necessary for their concentration, and it also encouraged them to attend. Twice that summer, recreation days were organised and the children were transported to a nearby farm to participate in outdoor games. The recreation days enabled the children to broaden their horizons as many had never before been out of the town or participated in organised sports.

Challenges to programme implementation

There was some opposition to Romani children attending local schools by some school authorities. Some schools did not want to provide classrooms for the summer school but were eventually pressed to do so by the government. One school director also complained that as a consequence of eventually enrolling Romani children in the school, non-Romani parents would not enrol their children because these parents were concerned, amongst other issues, that the quality of education offered in the school would deteriorate. A couple teachers complained about the behaviour of Romani children, referring to negative stereotypes. During these discussions, IO representatives always asserted the law that education is mandatory for all children under 15.

There were various other issues that had to be dealt with in order to ensure school attendance by the Romani children. A number of the concerned Romani children did not have birth registration, which school authorities require for school enrolment. However, the regional education inspector stated that the law stipulating that children must attend school supersedes this requirement, that birth registration is not a prerequisite for school enrolment, that it was sufficient for parents to simply bring their children to the local school in order to enrol them, and that birth registration could be done at a later date. Municipal officials also attended the summer meetings with Romani parents and informed them how to register their children for school. The IOs also pressed municipal authorities to make birth registration more accessible and arranged for local lawyers to assist local Roma in registering their children for school.

It was also necessary to ensure that children were educated in a fully integrated environment. There was some concern about municipal and education authorities trying to segregate Romani children in the school system. One way in which they attempted this was by pressing to designate a separate school for the Romani children to attend. This was countered by the IOs insistence that the children attend the school in their own residential area. However, as there were two neighbourhoods in which most Romani families lived, it resulted in the children primarily attending the schools in these neighbourhoods.

Support during the school year

Ensuring that the children remained in school during the year was another challenge. One of the primary problems encountered by the Romani children was that a number of those children entering the first grade were older (sometimes 12 or 13) than the regular age for entering the first grade (6 or 7). It was not considered feasible for these children to be placed in the first or second grade because they would not fit into an environment with much younger classmates. However, these children could not join the grade appropriate for their age group because they would not be able to do the schoolwork.

Consequently, as a temporary – and the only feasible – solution, a separate class was set-up within the school for those children above the age of 10. An arrangement was made with the school authorities for testing when the children reach 15 in order to provide them with a primary school certificate because in BiH there is no legal obligation for them to remain in school or for the school to retain them after the age of 15.

Suedost arranged a comprehensive programme to continue to support the children's education during the school year and also to support the development of the Romani community. This programme addressed 6 areas: 1. Assisting families in registering the birth of their children; 2. Assisting families in registering their children in school and liaising with local schools; 3. Providing extra tutorial classes for the Romani children in their communities; 4. Holding workshops on subjects such as Romani culture, children's rights and non-violent communication; 5. Provision of necessary school materials; and 6. Holding regular meetings with Romani parents.

Despite all of these efforts, some children did drop-out of school. Suedost noted several factors that contributed to this, including widespread poverty, the participation of children in securing family income, discrimination and the lack of self-confidence. Additionally, some Romani families migrated during the year, sometimes abroad, making the children's school attendance sporadic meaning that they could not be noted to have completed the school year. It should also be noted that although there were improvements at record keeping related to the school registration of Romani children, municipal and academic records were still not complete and thus there were difficulties in determining the exact number of children enrolled in school.

There was also a practise amongst some Romani families of children marrying young, and this contributed to school drop out for the children concerned. Notably, however, figures show that the drop-out rate for girls was not worse than it was for boys. Nonetheless, there was somewhat of a problem with gender discrimination, with more boys being enrolled than girls, due to the attitude of some Roma which do not recognise a female's academic and career potential. However, this attitude is also prevalent in larger BiH society and the IOs attempted to counter this by insisting with guardians – mothers, fathers and grandparents – that they send all of their children to school.

Although in the earlier project in Brčko money was given to the parents to ensure they sent their children to school, this was not repeated in the project in Bijeljina. Instead, textbooks and some school materials were provided. Other items which supported the children's education were provided to the families during the summer school and school year, such as the occasional provision of shoes and clothes, in accordance with the project funds. The reasons for not giving money were that the provision of funds to the parents would set an incorrect precedent, it would make the project prohibitively expensive, and it was considered paramount that the obligation for children to attend school be de-linked from any incentive.

Programme evaluation

The process of having Romani children attend both summer school and regular school in September had somewhat of a cumulative effect. The more children that attended the summer school and enrolled in school for the regular school year and parents that supported their children to attend both, the more children that wanted to participate, and the easier it was to convince sceptical families to send their children to school. The intention was that as more Romani children were enrolled in school, it would soon become normal practice for education authorities to accommodate Romani children in schools and for Romani families to send their children to school. The specific goal was to encourage all parents to enrol their children at the age required by law, between 6 and 7, so that they entered the first grade with other children. However, it was found that although the process did develop some momentum of its own, it was still necessary to regularly meet the Romani community to encourage them to send their children to school.

Since the first summer school in Bijeljina in 2002, Suedost, with increased cooperation from the local education authorities, has operated a summer school each summer and continued to provide support throughout the year. The table below provides figures broken down by gender for the number of children enrolled from the previous year, the number enrolled following attendance at the summer school and the number of children completing the school year. The enrolment figures show the success of the programme: That of the summer school in assisting children to enrol in school, and that of the support provided and arrangements made during the school year to enable the children to complete the year and enrol again the following year.

Suedost has indicated that the programme's limits are the same as those that originally obstructed Romani children from accessing education – insufficient government support, discrimination, some Romani cultural practices and poverty among the Romani community. It must also be noted that this project has been implemented in the difficult post-conflict political environment of BiH. However, many of these constraints are beyond the scope of a local education programme, and this being the case it can be claimed that the programme is a success.

However, the approach taken in the programme was in contrast to the position of some IOs that advocated for a less interventionist approach and claimed that it was more appropriate to support what the Romani community set as their priority, and not necessarily specifically education for Romani children. The main concern raised over such interventions being too direct was that they would not produce sustainable results and that instead a broader programme dealing with the entire Romani community was required to ensure that children continued to attend school in the long term.

This argument highlights an important caveat to the sucess of the programme; although although initial enrolment after the summer school was high, approximately 40% of the children dropped out during the year, though this percentage dropped to 25% for the years from 2003 to 2006 (see table above). However, given the limited resources available and the pressing need for children to enrol in school as soon as possible (because with each passing year more children lost the chance for education), it was decided that the somewhat limited benefits of the more interventionist approach were preferable to not having any programme and/or one that could not deliver short term results.

Additionally, the more interventionist approach was taken because education is a legal right and children are de facto not able to advocate for their own education. Therefore, in order to protect the rights of children it might be necessary to support education above other interests of the community. Without a fairly robust and somewhat interventionist approach, the programme would not likely have overcome the factors that had so far prevented Romani children from attending school. Moreover, to accept the perception of a portion of larger society, and some Roma, that education is not necessarily a priority for Roma, perpetuates the belief that Roma do not have the same basic rights as other groups. Thus, in order for Roma to support both their broader community rights as well as their individual rights, it must be ensured that Romani children attend school.

In February 2004, the '˜Action Plan on the Educational Needs of Roma and Other National Minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina' was adopted by BiH education ministers and promoted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is mandated to support education in BiH. The plan brings government resources to the issue, and,

"[…] proposes concrete measures to address the social and economic barriers BiH's largest minority, the Roma, often face by calling on authorities to provide financial assistance for textbooks and transport as well as to raise awareness among Roma parents and communities about the importance of schooling. The Action Plan also proposes steps to ensure that the language and culture of all national minorities is respected within BiH schools and that Ministries incorporate aspects of the culture, history and literature of national minorities into the existing curricula."3

However, it must be noted that, thus far, the increase in the number of Romani children enrolled in school has largely been the result of locally implemented programmes, such as the one in Bijeljina. The summer school project was also replicated by the OSCE in a few select towns in the summer of 2003. Thus, it is argued that effective local level programme design and implementation should continue until policy changes are able to notably increase enrolment.

There were also other broader, positive outcomes associated with the project. Dialogue was initiated between the Romani community and the government. As a result, the former became more assertive of their rights and the latter became more supportive of Romani education (for instance providing in-school meals for Romani children), although greater dialogue and proactive involvement is still required from both parties. The success of the programme also shows that if communities and institutions are treated as partners and assisted to succeed, then they will often contribute effectively. The programme's results also indicate that seemingly entrenched divisions, such as those along ethnic lines, can be overcome as efforts are made to achieve greater shared values, such as the right of all children to education.



  1. Meredoc McMinn was a UNHCR Associate Protection/Field Officer in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2001 to 2004 and worked on Roma education projects. He currently works for the UN in South Sudan. Mr McMinn can be reached at Danijela Colakovic is the director of the Bijeljina office of the international non-governmental organisation Suedost and implements Roma education projects in North-Eastern BiH. Ms Colakovic can be reached at
  2. Number estimated by the authors based on their own research and data collection in 2003.
  3. OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. 20 July 2005. All Children have access to quality education. Available at:



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