‘Sheffield is welcoming - but not for young Roma Slovaks’

View overlooking Page Hall, Sheffield. Photo by Dan Hobson.
View overlooking Page Hall, Sheffield. Photo by Dan Hobson.

In the mid-1980s, former Sheffield headteacher Chris Searle was appointed as an adviser for multicultural education in the city.

Almost immediately, the self-proclaimed ‘radical educationalist’, now aged 72, says he was faced with the ‘indignation of activists’ from the Sheffield and District African Caribbean Association, and their belief that disproportionate exclusions affecting their children were happening in Sheffield secondary schools.

He persuaded the local education authority to organise a survey, and, he claims, the parents and activists were proved to be correct - there was a distortion.

A support team of experienced African Caribbean teachers was brought in to directly help students using Home Office funding.

The same method was then used to create an entirely new structure, the Sheffield Unified Multicultural Education Service, encompassing an array of schemes, from language lessons to a resource centre offering anti-racist literature for all schools.

But by the time the Slovak Roma community settled in Page Hall and Darnall in 2004, when Slovakia became part of the European Union, these facilities were ‘far gone’, says Mr Searle, who was head at Earl Marshal School in Fir Vale from 1990 to 1995.

And the problem of disproportionate exclusions has risen again, he says, in an area where in 2013 the former Home Secretary and then local MP David Blunkett warned of race riots amid rising tensions over Roma migrants.

In a paper for the Institute of Race Relations, he cites Department for Education figures which show that, in 2015, there were 567 pupils in Sheffield schools described as ‘white Gypsy/Roma’.

Of these, in the same year, 148 pupils had been excluded from school - more than a quarter of the total number.

The statistics come after the council last year called for more Government funding to deal with a rapid increase in Roma and Eastern European children in the city ‘putting pressure’ on schools.

Mr Searle says in his paper: “I had no idea that exclusions would ever reach such a grotesque level that now exists against the Slovak Roma community in Sheffield, who live in the very same catchment area of Earl Marshal where our school in the 1990s operated a non-permanent exclusion policy.

“When I read the exclusion statistics concerning the mass exclusions of the Slovak Roma children, I had to admit that in 50 years working as teacher, headteacher, educationalist and teacher trainer in Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Mozambique, East London, Grenada, Sheffield and Manchester I had never encountered such outright, blatant and unacknowledged institutional racism in education.

“And it is happening in my home city, Sheffield, which has named itself the ‘City of Sanctuary’ and a place of welcome for all arrivant peoples, asylum seekers and refugees from all over the world – except, it seems, if you are a young Roma and you come from Slovakia.”

Mr Searle says Roma Slovak people in Sheffield are the victims of ‘xeno-racism’ - a ‘form of non-colour-coded racism with a simplistic ideology of our own people first’ - and draws parallels with the methods of the Leave campaign ahead of the Brexit vote last June.

The excluded children have been sent to an LEA centre, while more than 30 have been given lessons at an ‘inclusion centre’ set up by the Yemeni community in Attercliffe.

“Attendance is good, the students speak warmly of its staff and no student has been excluded since its inception two years ago,” says Mr Searle. “Even so, the centre has been told that only two of its cohort of students can be considered for re-integration into mainstream school every school year.”

In his paper Mr Searle, who taught English part-time at the centre for a spell, includes comments illustrating the frustration of the excluded pupils.

One 15-year-old girl, Sophia, told him: “Some girls at school – English, Pakistani and Arab – pushed me and swore at me. Even though there are cameras everywhere in that school and every day they were provoking me calling me a smelly Slovak and telling me they didn’t want me in their country, the teachers didn’t stop them.

“But how can I ignore them? So I had a fight with them. One of the boys bruised me in the ear. He’s still in the school and I’m here.”

Sheffield Council has expressed concern about the number of exclusions among Roma Slovak school pupils - but said it was taking action to make sure the rate falls this year.

Dawn Walton, acting director for children and families, said: “We do everything we can to ensure all children and young people are in education every day and that every school welcomes and nurtures students whatever their background.

“We are concerned about the numbers of exclusions of Roma schoolchildren and we work in close partnership with our primary and secondary schools to continually improve provision for all children to prevent exclusion. We do understand some schoolchildren need extra support and we are working closely to achieve this.

“Many Roma children have spent a limited amount of time in school when they arrive in the UK and so struggle to get to grips with our formal education system. We are developing ways to help them adapt to our schools. An example of this is that we are working with small groups of children to develop their self-esteem, social skills and language skills so that they find it easier settling into a classroom setting.

“We are confident the work we are developing will see many of these pupils making stronger progress in their education, and exclusion rates for the 2016-17 school year will show a significant reduction.”

Mr Searle says: “One of the most serious and dire consequences of their exclusion is that these children rarely meet and befriend, on a day-to-day basis, young people from any other community but their own, as they would do if they were still at a mainstream school.

“This situation is not so different to their segregated experience in Slovakia, where many of them were educated in separate Romany schools.

“Now they find themselves in a virtual apartheid educational zone in Sheffield. School exclusion has meant their lives have become dangerously ghettoised and restricted solely to companions of their own community.

“For mainstream schools to permanently exclude children is frequently to do them irreparable harm. How does a community recover its pride, ambition and momentum when over a quarter of its children are excluded from its local schools?”