Telegraph Voices: Special debate on Sheffield’s Roma community

View overlooking Page Hall, Sheffield. Photo by Dan Hobson.
View overlooking Page Hall, Sheffield. Photo by Dan Hobson.
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Have your say

The Sheffield Telegraph asks: ‘How can the Roma community be helped to integrate with the city?’

Dr Mark Payne, lecturer in language education, Sheffield University

Consider for a moment the home lives for many Roma in Slovakia and it is obvious that they have already come far on a journey of integration in Sheffield.

In Slovakia there is a Roma unemployment rate of up to 100 per cent.

Seventeen per cent of the Roma live in segregated settlements, 30 per cent of homes use water from wells, 11 per cent use non-standard water sources such as rivers, and schools are often (unofficially) segregated.

The Roma speak Romani as a first language and Slovak as a second, so they are already at a disadvantage when engaging with Slovak society, and children can struggle at school (which is conducted in Slovak, not Romani).

Added to this, the Roma are subjected to widespread discrimination and outright racism.

Recently, the Slovak parliament intervened to stop far-right vigilante patrols targeting Roma people on trains.

Contrast that with the situation for the average Roma family now living in Page Hall.

The father is able to look for work without being denied a job because of his surname or skin colour.

The mother often tends the house and looks after the younger children at home, where basic utilities such as gas and water are readily available.

Older siblings are integrated into primary or secondary school where they are progressing in English, which is often their third language, as well as their other subjects.

So I would say that the Roma are definitely integrating into our Sheffield way of life, but more, obviously, could be done.

It is clear that many of the Roma are now staying in Sheffield.

This is their new home and we should all aim to accept them and get to know them better as people.

What the Roma need is what everyone in Sheffield needs: access to decent jobs, decent homes and excellent schools.

A final thought on learning the English language.

The children are already learning English or are very proficient in it, and the adults are catching up.

It will all come good in time, perhaps slowly, but it will.

Simon Murch, Joint Division Secretary, Sheffield NUT

Sadly migrants in our communities are blamed for a range of social ills. As educators we recognise migrants have not run down our public services and sought to isolate both the North and the poor. These are the results of political choices made by governments and big corporations.

How can we expect Slovak Roma to successfully integrate when 25 per cent of their children are excluded from Sheffield schools? If a quarter of any cohort of pupils were excluded from mainstream education then questions would be asked. It harms not only individual children but damages families and tarnishes an entire community.

Academisation has led to fragmentation of education and complete marginalisation of local education authorities. One consequence is a lack of oversight in the system so this kind of situation can arise. Just wearing a Teachers Say Stand Up To Racism badge on my lanyard sparks discussion with pupils asking what racism is and how we should oppose it. In my view schools need to be doing more to include all pupils and stamp out all forms of racism.

My union, the National Union of Teachers, works closely with Stand Up To Racism both nationally and locally. We have developed ‘Welcoming Refugee Children to Your School’ teaching resources in response to the refugee crisis.

Our collective power and creativity can be enhanced by the free movement of people in the face of attempts by the super-rich to turn the world into a gigantic marketplace – isolated individuals pitted against one another.

Fear and hate further drives this isolation and undermines our ability to cooperate. It allows ‘elites’ who have done so much damage to our country to win.

Fran Belbin, pitsmoor adventure playground

The Roma families I work with have experienced horrific discrimination in their home countries, forced to live on the margins of society without access to basic services. Sadly their experience in the UK is too often of exclusion as well, facing frequent incidents of racism and negative stereotypes in the media.

According to 2016’s review by Dame Louise Casey, the onus should be on incoming communities to integrate via loyalty oaths and lessons in British values. But our experience at the playground is that integration is not a one-way street.

Our young people – from all backgrounds – have learned about British values by getting involved in community life. They have created lanterns for the local festival, taken part in a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme and visited the Lord Mayor’s parlour. They regularly clean up litter at the playground and on surrounding streets. Along the way we have celebrated each other’s cultures and traditions, cooking and sharing food at events such as International Roma Day, Chinese New Year and Eid as well as St George’s Day, Christmas and Halloween.

Through the trust we have built with children and their families, other services have been able to engage with the Roma community.

We have broadened the horizons and aspirations of young people by inviting university students, artists, performers, sports and business people to work with them.

Education at all levels is crucial – our Slovakian- speaking apprentice has completed her NVQ and we are running a class at the playground to help parents improve their English.

This is not a one-size-fits-all solution to integration, but with education and frontline services cut to the bone it has been left to community organisations such as ourselves to carry out wider community work in areas that are mired in poverty and inequality.

What we really need is investment in our communities and the spaces we share together and a more equal distribution of the economic benefits of globalisation.

Maxine Bowler, Stand Up To Racism

It is unacceptable that over a quarter of Roma children are excluded in Sheffield.

When Chris Searle, who has been a long-standing head teacher and educationalist says ‘I had never encountered such outright, blatant and unacknowledged institutional racism in education’, he is right. It is shocking.

The Roma as a group have a long history of persecution back to the 9th century when they first arrived in Europe from northern India. They were explicitly targeted by Hitler’s regime and were sent to concentration camps, subjected to medical experiments and forcibly sterilised. An estimated half a million Roma were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

I remember the virtual hysteria in the British media and from prominent politicians in 2013 where the Roma were blamed and attacked for being dirty, loud and for drinking and congregating on street corners.

I have to say I remember the same thing being said about Asian people when they arrived in Leicester where I was born which is why I have no truck with the argument.

The same media and politicians who attack the Roma in 2013 are attacking all Muslims today, or attacking the behaviour of white working class people.

Ultimately, the blatant use of divide and rule and scapegoating is about maintaining the poverty which exists, particularly in areas like Page Hall and Burngreave, which is one of the poorest wards in the country.

Some people will remember a book called Tell It Like It Is about how schools fail black children because they were 15 times more likely to be excluded.

I was shocked and appalled by this and am equally shocked at the stats about Roma children.

Instead of blaming each other we need to campaign for more houses, more resources in schools and health and against austerity which is destroying all our lives.