Roma youth in the UK: 'burning down the library'

"We are really going back a few steps. . . . just lost expertise, data, everything . . . for me, it’s almost like burning down a library". Elizabeth Kennedy reports on the severe impact funding cuts are having on Roma youth in the UK
Elizabeth Kennedy
22 July 2011

Amidst increasing cuts to social services, vulnerable groups are gravely affected. As documented with asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors Roma similarly deal with significant language barriers and prior discrimination and traumatic experiences in home countries upon arrival to the UK.

Declared the most vulnerable, socially disadvantaged, and discriminated against group in the EU by the UNDP, CoE and World Bank, many continue to live in extreme poverty and exploitive home and work environments upon fleeing or migrating here. Such conditions negatively impact Roma youths’ educational performance and attainment.

Since 1967, when Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) pupils were shown to have the lowest educational achievement of all ethnic groups in the UK, various Romany, Gypsy and Traveller Councils formed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These laid the foundation for local authority services, Traveller Education Support Services (TESS) and Ethnic Minority Achievement Services (EMAS) teams, operating for over two decades. Drawing upon many years of experience, their goal was to ensure GRT children an appropriate and mainstream education. They served as liaisons between the GRT community, service providers and schools to assist with uniform and transport costs, perform home visits to enroll students, raise awareness in schools and facilitate voluntary sector service provision.

Nonetheless, in April 2011, TESS and EMAS ceased to exist in most boroughs. They took with them the expertise, data and relationships hard won over 40 years.

Interviews performed in Newham provided particular insight to the challenges currently facing the GRT population. The East London borough is incredibly diverse. 61 percent of its 246,000 inhabitants are non-white ethnic minorities, and it has arguably the largest residential concentration of Roma in the UK. Nevertheless, Newham’s TESS, one of the nation’s oldest, was still closed in April.

All interviewed believed the UK government has failed to create targeted policies to alleviate the disadvantages faced by Roma, ignoring such calls in reports which the government itself had commissioned in 1983, 1996, 1999 and 2003. The closings were just another example. One service provider additionally wondered if local authority cuts from Newham’s TESS were diverted to fund construction projects required for the approaching 2012 Olympics.

The diverse borough is also an economically depressed area. The same attribute that made it attractive for Olympic development projects is responsible for its under-resourced schools, in which teacher burnout and violence are high. While there are a few great schools in Newham, many Roma youth do not gain admission to these: ‘There tend to be more issues with secondary school, because they don’t always get the school they want. . . . They only get the schools with places, . . . And they tend to have bad reputations, and no one wants to go there’. As such, these schools especially benefitted from TESS support and voluntary service provision.

To fill these funding and resource gaps, Newham’s TESS partnered with two additional organizations to serve Roma youth for over a decade. The Roma Support Group is the only Roma-led organization in the UK and serves upward of 870 Roma and non-Roma families (4350 individuals) in London. The Children’s Society New Londoners Project has over 470 young people participate in their activities and works with approximately 240 Roma and refugee children yearly through a mentoring scheme, trainings for self-expression, and educational advising.

All three organizations sought to not only serve the educational needs of the Roma community but also to combat prejudice in schools through curriculum development, awareness workshops and teacher training initiatives. They could explain to school staff and teachers that what is often perceived as a lack of motivation among Roma youth in the UK stems from ‘historical baggage . . . they carry from before’, where there were limited opportunities, leading to a ‘legacy of disengagement with education, high levels of illiteracy as well as suspicion and mistrust of state authority’.

Furthermore, racism and discrimination prevalent in home countries prevented many Roma parents from obtaining an education, thus preventing them from helping with their children’s’ schoolwork in the UK . . . not to mention the detrimental impact on Roma families’ current attitudes and expectations. As an RSG worker summarized: ‘They carry the burden of their history . . . education is a purely negative experience. So this is a very complex situation’.

In addition to raising awareness, facilitating dialogue and serving as translators for Roma families, RSG and New Londoners provide opportunities for Roma youth to meet each other and those from other communities. RSG further provides four extracurricular activities – art, karate, music and football – on a weekly basis. Three of the activities are led by Roma adults who experienced discrimination when growing up and share how involvement in sport and the arts allowed them to develop character, perseverance and pride. In so doing, Roma youth benefit from positive role models in the community. As one youth affirmed: ‘we see him as a Roma person, and what he does, we can do too’.

Under the direction of UK national team consultant, karate black belt and Roma from Poland, Stan Kierpacz, the karate program regularly takes home top awards at local, regional and national competitions. The music program, directed by Polish Roma Marek Czureja, similarly possesses numerous accolades and passes on hundreds of songs from the international Roma community. In Czureja’s words: ‘In the music, you hear the heart. We take the heart of all the world’s cultures, the best, and we make it our own’. Essentially, these programs educate Roma youth and the public about the many positive attributes of the GRT population that are often overlooked.

Through the combined efforts of TESS, RSG and New Londoners, school attendance, service provision, and dissemination and sharing of information improved. However, TESS’s closing has RSG and New Londoners worried. Their own future funding is uncertain, and they have been forced to scale back activities and reduce staff. Critically, though, TESS being cut completely has already negatively impacted their work. Their ability to operate within schools is in question: ‘as a kind of voluntary service, we were struggling because statutory services don’t see us as an equal partner’. This threatens service provision in other areas, including interagency collaboration in healthcare, social welfare, language training, and neighborhood organizing.

Thus in addition to losing the vouchers for school uniforms and transport – stated as primary reasons for low attendance among Roma children by Roma parents – that TESS provided, Roma youth and parents could be denied assistance in schools. While educational performance of Roma is historically low, Roma youth are incredibly talented. They often speak three or more languages, are highly creative and can communicate effectively with people from many different backgrounds. Their formal education is sometimes stifled by language barriers and uncaring school environments; but their formal attainment and talents can be fostered by culturally aware organizations, such as those highlighted, who address barriers such as: discrimination, high absenteeism, low retention through secondary school, and differential values of what constitutes an ideal education. Indeed, TESS/EMAS, RSG and New Londoners are highlighted as best practices for education of not just Roma students but all students. Their approaches to assist Roma students could more broadly benefit other vulnerable groups in the education system.

That is, if the library is not burned to the ground.

With thanks to Robyn Plasterer and Nina Perskowski who assisted with research for this article



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