Toward an Equal Start: Closing the Early Learning Gap for Roma Children in Eastern Europe: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Bulgaria

October 3, 2016

Inequalities in development begin early in life. Children growing up in poor households often don’t get the nutrition and early stimulation they need for healthy development. Good preschool programs can help poor children catch up, but many children are unable to enroll or attend regularly. Preschools may simply be too costly, poor children may lack transport, parents may not be aware of the importance of early stimulation for later life development, or poor parents may feel that preschools are not very welcoming to their children. This evaluation will study whether addressing financial and non-financial barriers can be effective for promoting preschool access among poor, mainly Roma children in Bulgaria and promote greater Roma inclusion in European society more broadly.

Research area: Early Childhood Nutrition, Development, and Health

Country: Bulgaria

Evaluation Sample: 6,000 poor families in 236 settlements

Timeline: Completed

Intervention: Preschool, Tuition Waivers, Conditional Cash Transfers, Community Outreach, Information

Researchers: Professor Elise Huillery, Sciences Po; Professor Paul Gertler, University of California Berkeley; Joost de Laat, World Bank

Partners: America for Bulgaria FoundationTrust for Social AchievementOpen Society Institute, Sofia; Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science, Central Committee on Research Ethics 



Bulgaria’s population of 7.3 million includes some 700,000 to 800,000 Roma, the majority of whom are poor and live in vulnerable conditions. Roma children in particular suffer multiple disadvantages: the vast majority live in poverty, many live in settlements with bad housing conditions, and few complete secondary school. The education gap between Roma and other children starts early; while more than 75 percent of all Bulgarian children aged three to six attend preschool, the majority of Bulgarian Roma children don’t go to preschool and they often live in homes without books or toys. Bulgaria recently passed a law making preschool compulsory for all children, but preschool in many municipalities is not free, and given the cost, it remains unaffordable for many. This evaluation will help policymakers in Bulgaria and other countries with Roma communities understand how to craft effective policies to encourage preschool enrollment.

Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Intervention and Evaluation Details


The intervention is financed and managed by the Sofia-based Trust for Social Achievement, and implemented through 20 civil society organizations. The intervention has a financial and a community outreach component. Specifically, communities have been randomly assigned to one of four groups: (1) status quo; (2) removal of preschool tuition fees; (3) removal of preschool tuition fees and a monthly family food voucher of 7 Bulgarian Leva (about US $5) for regular preschool attendance; or, (4) removal of preschool tuition fees and a monthly family food voucher of 20 Bulgarian Leva (about US $13) for regular preschool attendance. The same communities are also randomly assigned to one of two outreach components: (1) status quo; or, (2) five community sessions discussing preschool and early stimulation with parents and teachers. All the interventions are scalable.


The Open Society Institute in Sofia established a list of 750 settlements (towns, villages or cities) that each had at least one neighbourhood inhabited by a majority of Roma. The study takes place in 236 settlements that have at least 25 households with children of preschool ages three to six.  While all households with preschool age children were eligible to receive the intervention, 25 were randomly sampled in each settlement to be part of the study, for a sample size of nearly 6,000 households. At a public meeting organized in Sofia in June 2014, the 236 communities were randomly assigned to one of four financial treatment groups described above, and to one of two outreach groups.

Prior to this public lottery, a baseline survey was conducted among all the households and kindergartens. Over the course of the 2014-2015, the Open Society Institute is carrying out unannounced attendance checks. At the end of the school year, with the support of Save the Children, the Open Society Institute will conduct the International Development and Early Learning Assessment test of cognitive and socio-emotional development among the children as well as a follow-up questionnaire with parents and preschools. School administrative data will be reviewed as well. Researchers will also ask about social interactions between Roma and non-Roma, as well as general attitudes about inclusion.

Policy Impacts

Working with the local non-governmental organizations to collect cost information for each intervention, researchers will also make recommendations to the Government of Bulgaria about the cost-effectiveness of the various programs. Roma exclusion is among the most critical human development challenges facing Europe today and the results will be useful to policy makers across Europe, where some 10-12 million Roma live—the vast majority in poverty.  This evaluation will also be relevant for other low-income countries addressing preschool gaps for poor and excluded groups.