Ghent project eases Roma children into classroom learning


A caravan site for traveller communities in Ghent has set up a container classroom to teach children basic reading and writing skills

Should the city of Ghent be backing a project to educate Roma children on their caravan site?

Children and parents enthusiastic

It’s unusually calm at the caravan terrain for traveller communities on the outskirts of Ghent, one of four such sites in Flanders. While the 25 available spots are typically full year-round, only six families have currently set up camp.

But the Ghent site has one facility that none of the other Flemish caravan grounds do: a container classroom where children go to school.

The idea for the educational project came from site supervisors Agnes Van Camp and Ken Paeleman, but Ghent alderman for equal opportunities, Resul Tapmaz, has backed the project, and subsidies were offered by the federal Impulsfonds voor het Migrantenbeleid (Impuls Fund for Migrant Policies)

Van Camp, who has extensive teaching experience, had already been giving children at the Ghent site impromptu lessons in a small office for years before the container classroom was installed last September.

“When I started working here, I immediately noticed that the children often seemed bored,” she explains. “By offering lessons, I wanted to give them something to do and teach them basic skills they mostly lacked – writing, reading and counting.”

For complicated historical, cultural and political reasons, a large part of the Roma population in Europe live on the margins of society. This outsider position impacts the educational opportunities of Roma children, regardless of whether they are part of traveller or settled families.

A number of Flemish initiatives have been launched in recent years to offer these children more chances, but experts say more efforts are needed.

A daunting challenge

Van Camp teaches groups of up to 15 children in English and French in the small, makeshift classroom. She receives regular help from three students from the primary education teacher-training department of Artevelde University College as well as one student in the sports teachers’ programme at University College Ghent.

The children can help their parents to understand signs and letters

- Agnes Van Camp

Still, even with that kind of support, the past months have been trying. “Many of the children have never had schooling before so they have very limited knowledge and concentration problems,” Van Camp explains. “The group is also very diverse: they are of different ages, have different skill levels and speak different languages.”

Because families can only stay at the site for a maximum of three weeks, sustained progress is extremely difficult. That’s why flexibility is key. “We have to adapt to the different profiles of the children and make sure the lessons contain enough variation and fun games to keep their attention,” she says. The lessons do not take place according to a particular schedule, but are instead organised in an impromptu manner.

The first exercise for newcomers is always the same: to write their own names. Putting her puzzle aside for a moment, seven-year-old Loren proudly shows me that she has mastered this challenge. When I ask her whether she likes the lessons and whether she will miss them when she leaves, she nods without hesitation.

Moving ahead

Van Camp and her colleagues have never had any problem attracting children who are staying at the site. As for the parents, they have generally applauded the initiative. Billy, Loren’s father, emphasises how important it is that the children learn how to read, while Virginie, the girl’s mother, says they often discuss the lessons at home.

“Most parents are happy that their children are receiving opportunities that they never got themselves,” explains Van Camp. “It is also useful that the children can help their parents to understand signs and letters.”

In the future, Van Camp hopes to provide lessons to toddlers, older teenagers and even adults. Right now, the second group has mostly stayed away from the classroom because they feel awkward being taught together with the younger children. “To reach everyone, we need more space and support,” says Van Camp.

The Ghent team is also trying to spread the message to the other traveller sites in Flanders. “Families often go from one Flemish site to the other,” Van Camp explains. “If there were similar projects at all sites, we could provide more continuous education.”

The Roma families that typically stay at the Ghent site belong to three communities: “Rom” from Western Europe, French “voyageurs” and Irish “travellers”. That does not mean that all Roma families continuously travel around.

Roma from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia, for instance, tend to settle down in one place. Since the late 1990s, large groups from these communities have migrated to Flanders in search of a better life. This trend was reinforced when Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia joined the European Union in the mid-2000s. 

A stark divide

A 2013 PhD research project completed at Ghent University showed that children in these migrant communities, those from Slovakia especially, struggle to integrate into the mainstream education system. They often end up in the special education system for students with disabilities.

The Flemish school system is not adapted to the needs of Roma children

- Education policy adviser Elias Hemelsoet

As part of his research, Elias Hemelsoet discovered that 19% of Slovakian children in Ghent’s primary education system take special-education classes, compared to 7% of Flemish children. In Ghent’s secondary education system, the difference is even starker – 33% of Slovakian students compared to 5% of native Flemish.

“Many of the Roma children had little schooling in their country of origin and Flanders’ regular school system is not adapted to their needs,” explains Hemelsoet, who now works as a policy adviser to the Flemish Community’s GO! school network. Because Roma are often severely discriminated against in Slovakia, parents are often suspicious of civil society in general and tend to not encourage children to go to school.

Meanwhile, the city of Ghent has been exploring new approaches to integrate Roma children into the regular school system. The city has backed a project that has experts acting as a go-between between schools and Roma families. “They try to develop the confidence of Roma families in the school system and assist the school staff in working with the students and parents,” Hemelsoet explains.

He thinks that targeted reception classes should also be organised to prepare teenagers without previous schooling, like many Roma youngsters, for mainstream education. He says that the general reception classes for newcomers in Flanders struggle to mainstream these youths.

Finally, Hemelsoet also points to the responsibility of the European Union, which he says should invest in more support for Roma communities.

Photo by Marlies De Boeck