Learning from the Roma: sometimes communities themselves can tell us more than statistics

Roma women

David Mallows of the NRDC on working with communities to understand and meet their needs.

At the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) we are working with colleagues in Dolný Kubín, Slovakia to develop and evaluate family literacy schemes with the Roma community as part of a project called Literacy Cubed.

The data on the Roma in Europe are poor, but the EU estimates that 6m Roma live within its borders, the majority in Eastern Europe. Often described as Europe’s biggest ethnic minority, the Roma, of course, are not one people. Instead, Roma is a commonly used term, encompassing diverse groups.

Recent years have seen migration of many Roma to Western Europe as they flee discrimination  and violence, only to be faced with prejudice and social exclusion in those countries as well. The export of “the Roma problem” to the West, and the increase in reporting of the sometimes appalling treatment of Roma in the East, has raised awareness. In response, we have had many statements of intent – often initiated by the European Union.

Literacy Cubed, funded by the European Commission, begins as we approach the last year of the EU’s Decade of Roma Inclusion. The European Council adopted a recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in December 2013 and each member state has produced a Roma strategy. So, we are not lacking in policy initiatives.

However, implementation is another matter. In developing responses to “the Roma problem” we need to think carefully about the assumptions that underpin our planning and the evidence that we draw on to ensure that the programmes we devise meet participants’ and society’s needs and can be implemented successfully. So, what evidence do we have? I will look briefly at two sources: PIAAC and a local needs analysis carried out with our partners.

Of the three countries involved in Literacy Cubed, only Slovakia took part in PIAAC. From PIAAC we learn that 3.3% of respondents use Roma at home and 3.7 % give Roma as the first language they learned as a child and still understand. In Slovakia, respondents only had the choice of taking the survey in Slovak or Hungarian. We do not know what impact this had on the participation or the performance of Slovakian Roma in the survey. The sample size of the Roma speakers is too small for any meaningful analysis and, we know little about whether this group is representative of the country’s overall Roma population. In fact, through the needs analysis we carried out with local partners it became clear that there are few reliable figures on the Roma population in Slovakia.

Therefore, we learn very little about the Roma in Slovakia from PIAAC. From other data on the inclusion of Roma in the national education system we can probably surmise that they would not be among the high performing groups, but that is of little use in developing programs that might meet local needs or build on their strengths. Sub-groups can disappear in large-scale surveys and we only learn about the mean, which is a very blunt tool to use to inform local policy development.

Our early work with our local partners in Slovakia was designed to provide data to inform the Literacy Cubed programmes. We carried out analysis of needs, strengths and interests, using focus groups and interviews with the local Roma community, and those who work with them. We learnt many things.

For instance, multilingualism is the norm among the Roma. All local Roma children speak Slovak as well as Romani. At school they also learn Russian or English. Parents and grandparents tend to speak Slovak, but also speak Romani. As in many areas, the law is thorough and well-intentioned, but implementation is weak. Children have the right to be educated in their mother tongue, but there are no Roma staff at the local school.

According to community workers, parents generally do not believe that education leads to a better life. However, the parents interviewed said that they do believe education will lead to better employment and an improved life. Many of the parents have poor literacy skills and lack the confidence and cultural knowledge required to help their children achieve their ambitions.

If we did have a detailed picture of the skills of the Roma community in Dolný Kubín from PIAAC, it would likely suggest that we should focus on improving their literacy and numeracy skills. This, after all, is what surveys such as PIAAC measure. However, maybe it is their confidence and sense of agency that most require a boost if they are to support their children in breaking the cycle of poverty and social exclusion in which they find themselves.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that I will take from this exercise is that we should always be aware that we know very little about “other” communities and that our starting point should always be to learn from them first before trying to teach them what we think they need to know.

David Mallows

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