Ensuring Readiness and Success for Primary School in Croatia – Integration in Medimurje County

Full membership in the European Union entails many responsibilities, among them respecting minority rights and improving opportunities for disadvantaged groups. For Croatia, the EU’s newest member that is home to some 22 minority national groups, it is not different: nominally, equal opportunities for quality, inclusive education are embedded in its legislation governing its school system.

However, reality can be different for some minorities. For instance, while the government has invested in social development in a few key policy areas, more comprehensive development work has been avoided, in particular when applied to Roma, who make up 16,975 individuals according to the 2011 Census, with other estimates hovering around 40,000. For example, many Roma children are taught in segregated classes and they do not automatically qualify for free textbooks. Less than 30 Roma attend university in a country of 4.3 million, meaning there is less than one Roma university student for every 100,000 Croats.

While some policies are in place to promote better educational outcomes for Roma pupils, much more can be done to improve educational and life outcomes for Croatia’s Roma population. REF has worked together with Croatian education officials for years to address the problem of school segregation. For instance, in 2015 Croatia made a positive step by legislating that all children must attend one year of preschool free of charge before enrolling in primary school. However, not all Roma children have benefited from this significant change. Some local governments do not provide transportation from Roma settlements to institutions organizing preschool – that is mandated to local governments – and transportation is very problematic for Roma communities often physically segregated from the majority population.

An outstanding example of how individuals can make a difference in this struggle is the case of Mursko Sredisce, a small locality with almost 7,000 residents in Medimurje County and where 300 Roma live in Sitnice, a segregated neighborhood. It was not always the case that children from the Roma settlement enrolled in the town’s Maslacak kindergarten where they attend a full-day, integrated, quality program organized by Miljenka Zupan, a teacher and pedagogue, and Spomenka Cilar, principal of the kindergarten.

When Miljenka began to enroll Roma children in the kindergarten, she – with the help of kindergarten principal, Spomenka Cilar, local government representative Dolores Vrtlaric and Roma representative Milorad Mihanoivic – managed to persuade the local and regional government to find a way to provide free transportation for Sitnice’s residents. With REF’s support she then could focus on providing Roma children the building blocks of numeracy and literacy in an integrated school setting. A later evaluation showed that Roma and non-Roma children were better prepared for school. Miljenka’s commitment made a huge difference to what was achieved and paved the way for a change in local attitudes toward Roma children. After seven years of REF paying transport costs, all stakeholders saw the need to find a permanent solution for transportation if they wanted to give a chance to future generations of children coming from Sitnica.

Something important happened when the impending decision to discontinue bussing was made public: Miljenka was no longer alone to argue with the local, regional and national government. Roma parents also played an important role. Some, for the first time, voiced their worries, fearing that the transportation would stop and their children would be left behind.

As REF’s facilitator in the field in Croatia, this evolution was extremely rewarding to witness. Roma parents were fighting for their children’s right to education. Some parents even declared they would find a way to transport their children from Sitnice to the kindergarten if need be. (Many Roma parents are social benefit recipients, and according to Croatian law, if you possess a car – the value of the car is unimportant – you are disqualified from social benefits.)

REF was alerted to the situation and scrambled to arrange a meeting among representatives of Medimurje County, the mayor of Mursko Sredisce and a representative of Government Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities to find a solution to finance the transportation. After a round of advocacy, the decision was made: REF, together with the Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities and the town of Mursko Sredisce, would find the money to finance transportation until the autumn 2016, but only with the condition that Medimurje County take over this expense from October 2016 and integrate it into the county’s regular budget.

Today, Mursko Sredisce organizes free-of-charge transport to and from kindergarten and this expense is covered from the Medimurje County’s budget. Children from Maslacak have better results in primary education than those who did not attend the kindergarten.

Written by REF Country Facilitator for Croatia Sinisa Senad Music for the REF 2016 Annual Report