Provision of free-of-charge prescription medicines for all under-four-year old children, a full pregnancy and childbirth service package to each woman regardless of her health insurance status, abolition of kindergarten fees for all children of preschool age as well as removal of nursery fees at least for the poorest families. These are some of the recommendations made to the Bulgarian government to mitigate the financial barriers to access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) presented in the Roma Early Childhood Inclusion+ (RECI+) Bulgaria Report.
The report was prepared by Open Society Institute – Sofia and it focuses on the current state of education and care, health and social services for Bulgarian Roma children aged between 0 and 8. The report was initiated and developed with the support of the Open Society Foundations, Roma Education Fund and UNICEF and it is part of a series of research reports from Central and Eastern Europe. The presented study was carried out in 2019 and early 2020 prior to the Covid-19 crisis. The study included a document analysis and qualitative and quantitative field work in the local communities of Kyustendil, Montana, Rozino, Shoumen, Sliven and Tundja.
The authors of the report referred to studies showing that by the age of 5, 90% of a human’s brain development has already occurred. Foundations built during this period underlie critical social, emotional, and cognitive skills that are more difficult to change later in life. In the short and long term, provision of quality early childhood care has clear, positive impacts on educational outcomes, labour market outcomes, poverty and social exclusion. Nobel Laureate James Heckman has calculated the quantifiable return on investment in early childhood development to be much higher than investments targeting later phases of the life cycle.
Investment in early childhood development in Bulgaria is lagging behind from the one in Europe. In 2016, spending on pre-school education in Bulgaria accounted for 0,7% of the GDP, which is less than half the 1,5% EU average. At present Bulgaria does not have an integrated political framework for early childhood development which can ensure a holistic approach to the children’s needs in early childhood and it is essential that the future framework takes into account the needs of all children, including young Roma children. While parenting programs, home-visiting services and inclusive, quality ECEC benefit all children, these investments in early childhood are particularly beneficial for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including Roma children.
In Bulgaria, the ability of Roma children to benefit from early care and preschool education is limited by systemic, structural, and practical barriers, including poor housing conditions, hindered access to health care services and manifestations of negative attitude and discrimination.
Out-of-pocket payments for health care in Bulgaria, including payments for specialist visits, prescription medication, travel costs, etc., are among the highest in the EU (46.6%, compared with the 15.8% EU average in 2017). These high payments disproportionately affect Roma families due to their poverty, high unemployment rate and the related lack of health insurance. The latter has a particularly adverse impact on Roma women because the extremely limited services for health uninsured pregnant women further compromise the health of many Roma mothers and children. Child mortality among the Roma is twice as high as the rest of the population and life expectancy is 10 years shorter.
“Children in smaller settlements grow up in exceptional absence of access to health, education, and social services. They don’t have any access to a speech therapist, a rehabilitator, medical treatment, etc.”, a municipal official, interviewed by RECI+s says. According to another quote from the interviews carried out, Roma parents first mention the lack of money as a reason for not sending their children to school: ‘we do not have clothes for them, we do not have shoes for them, we cannot afford to pay for a kindergarten.’
Data by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights for 2014, referred to in the report, shows that 86% of Roma families in Bulgaria were at risk of poverty while only 22% of Bulgarian families faced the same risk. Poverty and material deprivations do not allow Roma parents to pay the fees and other hidden costs related to nursery or kindergarten attendance. The latter coupled with the chronic shortage of kindergarten places are some of the reasons why a considerably lower number of Roma children attend nurseries and kindergartens compared to the average rate for the country. Other barriers to quality early childhood education and care for Roma children are the insufficient training of teachers in areas such as inclusive education and ethnic diversity, lack of engagement of Roma parents as equal partners in the educational process as well discrimination and negative attitudes from educational practitioners and non-Roma parents as well. As a result, many Roma children are left segregated in kindergartens with lower standards. Another problem are education curricula that have not been adapted to children whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian. No supplementary Bulgarian language classes are offered to children prior to the beginning of the compulsory preschool education and at that point many Roma children already lag behind their peers considerably with regard to command of Bulgarian which further hampers their integration and performance in the education system.
Another conclusion of the report is that the social care system providing support to vulnerable families in Bulgaria is plagued by weak infrastructure and systematic shortage of funds and cannot meet the needs of vulnerable Roma families and their children.
The report points out that despite some promising intentions visible in the national Roma integration plans and despite the declared goal of the state to increase the participation of Roma children in preschool education, many of the existing initiatives and good practices are based on EU-financed programmes with limited duration and thus are not institutionalized at national level as firm, sustainable state policies.
The report recommends that a comprehensive early childhood development strategy be developed and that the early childhood development is established as a national policy priority, which is supported including by measures to improve housing, fight prejudices and discrimination and expand access of Roma children to nurseries and kindergartens. The report also recommends that a national healthcare strategy be urgently adopted to address the issues of appalling child mortality rates in the Roma communities in Bulgaria and to ensure access to healthcare of pregnant women regardless of their health insurance status. The report recommends that public budget funds should be used to guarantee the sustainability of high-impact services developed with the financial support of EU or other donors after their quality and efficiency are assessed. It is also recommended that the government uses research to develop evidence-based policies and inform the public about the need of important reforms in early childhood development, as well as justify the need to boost investment in early childhood development in Bulgaria up to the average level of EU investment in this area.
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