`It's enough for us that children are accepted'

12th December 2014 at 00:00
Attendance and attainment among Glasgow's school-age Roma population remain poor, but schools are slowly improving lives with warmth and encouragement, as Henry Hepburn discovers

One particular group of young people in Glasgow is well below the average in educational attainment and school attendance. Yet hidden within these gloomy statistics is a genuine success story.

Up to 4,000 Roma people, mostly from Slovakia and Romania, are thought to live in Govanhill, a part of Glasgow where the 15,000-strong population includes 52 ethnicities.

A 2012 report by the city council highlighted the litany of problems this presented for schools. The city had only one Roma translator; cultural differences led some children to resolve arguments through violence; medical conditions such as cerebral palsy were not necessarily being identified; parents could become aggressive if poor attendance was addressed; some children sold roses on the street or did manual labour; and people were often crowded into accommodation - in one instance, 32 in a two-bedroom flat.

But since this grim picture was painted, things have improved - as University of Strathclyde researchers Dr Daniela Sime and Dr Giovanna Fassetta found when they began interviewing Roma families, and staff and practitioners from eight organisations, for a study of Roma children's experiences of schooling and other services in Glasgow.

Eight-year-old Klaudia and 11-year-old Veronika* revealed the main reason why. When asked what was the best thing about Scotland, they gave the same answer: "school".

Many children see their Scottish school as a happy place where they can forge friendships and feel valued for the first time. "The teachers are nicer here. They treat you with more respect, even if you are Roma," says Martina, 14, who moved from Slovakia when she was 8.

"For us it's good enough that children are accepted as they are, not put into special schools as happens back home, just because you are Gypsy," says Greta, a Slovak Roma mother. "I was concerned they will do this to my child and I was at the school every day, checking, not trusting them, but now I'm more relaxed."

The unconditional acceptance of families by staff - rather than focusing on parents' perceived inadequacies - is key to this positive view of school. The research reveals that many Roma families are becoming more aspirational for their children, thanks to Scotland's supportive environment.

Mary, an early years practitioner, is "blown away" to find that some Roma people truly appreciate the benefits of education, despite their historical suspicion of schools. "But unfortunately, the majority don't even dream of their children doing well," she adds.

"I don't think I would go back to Slovakia," says Ilona, a Slovak Roma mother. "My daughter is now attending a good school here, she wants to get qualifications, and it's a good place here for children. She keeps saying that she wants be a teacher, hairdresser, or.I don't know. Back home is difficult, because they are choosing people by the colour of their skin, but not here."

Old problems

School is the gateway to a great deal of assistance, Roma families soon discover. A key finding of the study is that families rely on school to provide access to, and information on, activities and services.

This is important, because with their language difficulties and fear of discrimination and violence, Roma families may rarely venture out of Govanhill. Children might never go swimming or to the cinema if school does not take them.

Far from conforming to the stereotype of the benefits tourist, parents often do not claim what they are entitled to. The number of children in receipt of free school meals, too, is far below the Glasgow average. Only 15.7 per cent of Roma pupils are in receipt of FSM, compared with 35 per cent of pupils generally.

And for all schools' good work, many Roma families still find themselves living in abject poverty, with their children doing poorly at school.

Only 37.5 per cent of S4 Roma pupils gain basic English and maths qualifications, compared with 94 per cent of the general school population in the Glasgow area. At home, children may still find themselves living in large groups crammed into small flats, and scavenging through bins for food and clothes. Some turn up at school in winter wearing inadequate clothes.

Lack of awareness about their rights leaves Roma people vulnerable to loan sharks and unscrupulous landlords. Children are sometimes forced to sell items or play music on the streets, or undertake manual work, to boost the family income.

Women and children are at risk of abuse, domestic violence and exploitation, partly because of their lack of education but also because of their distrust of public services and fear of repercussions from male family members. Poor communication between UK and foreign authorities means that girls in particular may be unknown to schools - leaving them vulnerable to trafficking.

The key is for the education system to get involved as early as possible. Persuading families to send their children to nursery is deemed crucial by education and health services, but Roma parents view it as unusual for children to be in formal education at such a young age. In any case, there is a dearth of places.

Alison, a health practitioner, says waiting lists may have 100 names on them, with many four-year-olds still not having set foot in a nursery - a situation she describes as "scandalous".

A warm welcome

Roma families' commitment to living in Scotland is "unwavering", Sime and Fassetta's report finds. But families must be encouraged out of their isolated, self-contained groups - and schools can provide the catalyst.

Some 74 per cent of Annette Street Primary School's 207 pupils are Roma. The report accurately reflects what staff have discovered, headteacher Shirley Taylor says.

Roma families are wary of education but generally aspire for their children to progress further in life than they could, Taylor says. But she believes it is crucial for them to feel welcome from the moment they walk through the school gates. Parents are encouraged to spend a few days alongside their children in class to help them settle, for example.

Taylor describes the highlights of her time at Annette Street as joining the school's pupils - almost all born beyond Scottish shores - in a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland, and watching the emotional reaction of parents, some of whom may never have stepped inside a leisure centre, when their children took part in a mini-Commonwealth Games at Glasgow's spectacular new Emirates Arena.

"When they see that their children are being included, in a way that they didn't experience themselves, that's very powerful," Taylor says.

*The names in the study have been changed

The `forgotten Holocaust'

Most people know that the Nazis killed 6 million Jewish people in concentration camps. But how many know anything about what has been called "the forgotten Holocaust"?

The Roma, referred to in some countries as Gypsies, were also targeted for extermination. Up to half the Roma population of Europe is thought to have been killed in the Second World War - estimates vary between 220,000 and 1.5 million, depending on which scholar's view you accept.

Even excluding the Holocaust, Roma have endured centuries of persecution. In 2014, the "vast majority continue to live in severe poverty, suffer from poor health and be victims of racism and systematic exclusion", say University of Strathclyde researchers Dr Daniela Sime and Dr Giovanna Fassetta.

Roma often live on the margins of societies. Research suggests this is exacerbated by limited access to education, systematic exclusion from schools, low qualifications and a tendency to drop out, especially among girls.

In education, Roma are among the lowest achievers of all ethnicities in Europe. Many Roma children remain illiterate and do not attend school.

Even those in formal education are often segregated into special needs schools, despite not having any disabilities. A study of Roma children who migrated to the UK showed that 85 per cent of them had previously been in a special school or class. In the UK, however, only around 4 per cent were found to need extra support.

Poverty, limited parental education and perceived racism in schools limit their opportunities. Roma pupils, say Sime and Fassetta, are let down by teachers, who may treat them differently, fail to intervene in racist attacks or punish them physically.

Scottish teachers hoping to make a difference must be aware of a vicious circle. Roma parents' own negative experiences of schooling, as well as poor literacy and language skills, are barriers to improving relationships with schools.

The historic marginalisation of the Roma, meanwhile, gives families very low expectations of what formal education can do for their children.

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