10 July 2018

New professor will investigate quality of nursery classes, among other things

From the World Bank to Utrecht University

He spent years in Kenya, the United States and Canada. Among other things, he investigated slums and the living conditions of the Roma in Eastern Europe. Now, the developmental economist Joost de Laat (1976) is back in his native Netherlands. As of 1 April, he occupies the Utrecht University chair of Global Economic Challenges. “Of course, we're looking for multidisciplinary collaboration. For instance, we want to work with research focus area ELS to improve the quality of pre-school education for pre-schoolers from poor families.”

Joost de Laat

De Laat's chair is a part of the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges, the centre of Utrecht University that unites academics from various disciplines to work on issues such as climate change and the fight against poverty.


The Utrecht-based professor has already been working on the latter issue for years. A few years after completing his PhD research in the slums of Nairobi, he went to work at the World Bank. “Over there, I occupied myself with the biggest ethnic minority in Europe: the Roma. I knew close to nothing about the Roma when I started. It was confronting to experience how their living conditions, spread across countries in Eastern Europe, turned out to be. Education, income, access to basic facilities such as water and electricity: in those regards, the situation of the Roma in some Eastern European countries is comparable to people in Nairobi who lived in the slums.”

Finishing school

De Laat ascertained that only one in five Roma children finished secondary school, which significantly reduces their odds on the job market. “We wanted to know why that was, of course, and how we could improve Roma-children's school careers.” For this purpose, De Laat and colleagues started at the beginning: the nursery school. “Our survey showed that nursery-school participation among Roma was already particularly low. In a big experiment after that, we investigated how we could improve access to the nursery school. What are the barriers for Roma parents that keep them from sending their children to nursery school?”

Was the usefulness and necessity of the nursery class not clear?

Pencils and toilet paper

That experiment by the World Bank was set up in Bulgaria, in close collaboration with several NGO’s, the Trust for Social Achievement and the Bulgarian government. “We looked at various factors that could influence parents' decisions to send or not send their children to nursery school. Was the usefulness and necessity of the nursery class not clear and would that mean that they need better information? Or were parents held back from letting their children participate because Bulgarian schools charge additional costs in order to buy supplies, such as pencils and toilet paper? We also set up two additional interventions, in which a financial incentive was provided for letting children attend nursery class regularly.”

The Bulgarian ombudsman

The additional costs turned out to be the biggest barrier that Roma parents experienced. “It's about relatively small sums that the schools charged the parents, but these can be a big barrier for the poor. Once those were cancelled, participation skyrocketed. Those other factors, that is to say more information and an additional financial incentive, had no significant increase in participation.” The results of this survey absolutely did not end up in some bureaucrat's drawer. “The Bulgarian ombudsman recently started a campaign to convince municipalities, who are responsible for those additional tuition charges, to stop passing those costs on to the parents.”