Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romanian Schooling Crisis

Hundreds of thousands of Romanian children are simply too poor to go to school
By Marian Chiriac

Sixteen-year-old Petrisor Lazar looks 40. His face is tired and drawn, his eyes sunken and empty from working days and nights.


Petrisor has washed cars in a cold and filthy Bucharest garage since the age of 13. "I have to do it," he told me, " my father died, my mother is paralysed and I have to help take care of our family."


Petrisor is just one of an estimated 400,000 Romanian youngsters driven out of the state education system into the workplace by poverty.


Latest official statistics show that around a third of the 22 million population lives under the poverty line - an eightfold increase since 1989. And the poverty line is drawn at just $30 income a month.


Low incomes means children have to work, or are kept home to help run the household or babysit for absent parents. Sometimes they're prevented from going to school simply because parents haven't the money for books, pens and pencils, lunches or winter boots


The number of school drop-outs has increased in line with the growth in impoverished families. According to the Ministry of Education, since 1989, over 30 per cent of pupils under the age of 15 quit school. Some 27,000 children left primary and secondary school last year alone.


Rural areas have been hit the hardest, as parents often keep their children out of school to help with harvesting and other seasonal work. The quality of education is often of a lower standard as most teachers are reluctant to work in the countryside where their wages fall way below the $80 per month average.


"This is a very serious situation as a child who leaves school has very little chance to get a well-paid job," said Liliana Preoteasa, from the Romanian education ministry. "But the school is not only an institution moulding members of the workforce, it plays an important role in a child's development."


Successive governments have lacked the resources and the will to remedy the situation. Throughout the nineties, national programmes for young people who have abandoned compulsory schooling have been launched. These projects especially targetted the at- risk categories (in rural and remote communities, urban slums and ethnic minority areas). But slow or no progress was registered.


"It's hard to cope with the school drop-out phenomenon as there are very limited resources for education," Preoteasa said.


At present, Romania allocates only around 4 per cent of its budget to education, half the European average. This includes a $4- a-month benefit offered to the poorest parents -hardly a sum likely to provide a child with basic necessities for school.


" It's the failure to meet school costs which is the major reason why children of all age groups are not in the classrooms," said Dorin Zapada, the director of School no. 131, in the down-at-heel Bucharest neighbourhood of Ferenari.


Twenty-two pupils have left it since the beginning of the last school year. "Many bright youngsters join the ranks of the unemployed, misfits and even criminals," said Zapada.


In the face of present governmental impotence in dealing with the issue, one foundation, at least, is hoping to show that there's light at the end of the tunnel. Sorin Gheorghe, a former social worker, co-started the Back to School project four years ago.


As the name implies, the foundation caters to the needs of children excluded from the state system. According to Romanian Law, this applies to those who have been absent from education for over two years.


"We are offering 85 children an education from grades one through eight - most of them come from shelters or centres for street children as well as from very poor families," said Gheorghe.


Back to School bears the costs parents can't afford. Apart from employing 14 teachers, the foundation provides students with books, pens and food.


In the foundation's classrooms, children attend courses in line with the official curriculum. Exam pass rates easily exceed the national average. Those gaining their high school certificate will have the chance to dodge the unemployment queues and forge some sort of future.


Eighteen-year-old Ionut Maier is typical of many of the students here. Ionut left formal education after he was arrested for robbery and sent to a reform school. Now in seventh grade, he said, "I really want to finish my primary studies, even though I also have to work during the day in order to take care of my younger brother."


For many others like him there is no such second chance.


Eleven years after the overthrow of the communist regime, Romania is still searching for a way to reform its ailing education system.


Facing a shortage of financial and human resources, Romania desperately needs to update and improve all aspects of primary and secondary education before the dole queues and prisons are filled with even more school drop-outs.


Marian Chiriac is a regular IWPR contributor


More IWPR's Global Voices