Influx of Roma pupils calls for a unique approach

21st December 2012 at 00:00

Teachers find it hard enough when new pupils arrive with scant English and troubled histories - but what if those children's families doubt the worth of school in the first place?

What if parents believe five is too young for children to be separated from their mothers? What if there is only one translator for an entire city? What if education is thought to have little purpose for girls?

And what if, having fled a country where violent discrimination is rife, families have a deep distrust of any form of authority?

Three schools in Glasgow faced unprecedented challenges following an influx of Roma families. A city council report published earlier this year showed that one primary, with a roll of 216, had unspecified but "significant" numbers of Roma children from Slovakia and Romania, but only 2 per cent of "white Scottish" pupils.

"A unique solution is required for a unique problem," states the paper on attendance issues within the Govanhill area. Based on interviews with the three schools, it provides a stark account of the task facing staff.

Language difficulties abound. Parents frequently have little English. There is only one Roma translator in Glasgow, and pupils often act as interpreters, perhaps taking a whole day off school to help with visits to the doctor and other appointments.

There are profound cultural differences. With school tending to start at six in eastern Europe, parents are reluctant to let their children enter P1. Parents, who may have had bad experiences of school as children, are suspicious of education professionals. It takes a long time to gain trust, and schools have found parents to be aggressive when approached on issues such as school attendance. An education liaison officer refused to do home visits because of personal safety issues.

At the secondary school, average attendance was 91.4 per cent but 74.2 per cent among Roma pupils. The school reported that Roma parents considered 60 per cent a good attendance rate.

The school devised a rewards system to increase attendance, but the pupils often do not wish to take part in trips away because of family responsibilities. There have been cases of children supporting the family by selling roses on the street late at night, or working as manual labourers when they should be at school.

Schools have reported a number of parents using "inappropriate" methods of discipline, and the effects can "frequently be seen within the playground of the schools, where violence is predominately the method used by pupils in order to resolve peer conflict".

Other cultural issues include Roma families having their main meal at lunchtime, then not sending children back to school because they are "too tired and too full".

The role of the school nurse is "vital" owing to a number of medical issues within the Roma community, and has helped to reduce unnecessary absence, as in the case of a girl who was off for one week every month - because, it transpired, of her menstrual cycle. Sometimes children arrive with medical needs which have not been addressed, as in the case of two pupils at one school: one had suspected cerebral palsy, the other a visual impairment.

There has been concern among council officials that Glasgow was not receiving the financial help it needed. Many parents are not entitled to claim benefits - usually related to the length of time they have been in the country and because they must be registered to work to be eligible - despite widespread poverty among Roma families, so they are not counted when resources are allocated.

"The families tend to live within very close proximity to each other and do not tend to travel around the city regularly," the report states. "The Roma community have often fled their previous home following instances of extreme discrimination so they are often reluctant to move outside their own community."

Schools frequently find that children are living in "very poor" conditions. In one case, 18 people were living in a one-bedroom flat; in another, 32 people were living in a two-bedroom flat. This often leads to hygiene problems, such as cockroaches being brought into school on children's clothing.

Schools deal with a "constantly changing" population. As soon as one group has settled, staff reported, another arrives; in the school with 216 pupils, 20 new pupils arrived in the fortnight before interviews. Some pupils arrive at secondary having never previously been in formal education.

The schools, while clearly committed to helping Roma pupils, were concerned about statistics being skewed and unfairly representing their achievements.

There has been progress: a "significant" proportion of school-leavers are in full-time employment and there have been "highly successful" English workshops with parents. But as the report states: "Building trustful relationships with the families is a slow process and takes intense effort of all the staff."

The EIS union has visited six schools in Govanhill to talk to staff. It aims to publish a report early in 2013, but Glasgow local secretary Hugh Donnelly told TESS that inadequate funding was already clear. He highlighs the closure of the EAL unit in Shawlands, but says it alone could not have resolved matters.

There also needed to be a strategy for supporting schools, teachers and communities, with a commitment to dedicated professional development, improved psychological assessment, dedicated classroom support, smaller class sizes and administrative support, among other issues.

"We do not believe that the status quo is sustainable, and certainly not for those teachers who are facing the challenges on a daily basis," Mr Donnelly says.


Enrolments of foreign children in Glasgow schools, 2005-06 to 2011-12

8,708 - All foreign children

1,202 - Polish (most numerous group)

888 - Slovakians

261 - Romanians

Source: Glasgow City Council.

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