A BORING NOTE FOR STICKLERS: In this article I use the term ‘Roma’ to describe a wide variety of people, nationalities and cultures. By using Roma, I mean to refer to traditional traveller communities known as ‘Romani’ such as Tsiganes, Manouches etc. but I also want to talk about new immigrants from Eastern Europe who have found themselves living in precarious conditions. I’ve grouped them together not only for ease of writing but also because the media discourse tends not to differentiate between communities, and I want to talk about our treatment of all the groups encompassed under what we term as ‘traveller’. The children I mention in this article were of Manouche origin.
In the playground of a rural French Catholic school there is a group of four children who are visibly separated from the rest. It is easy to spot them; not only because they are standing in a huddle in the corner, watching the others rush around, but they are also the only nine children in the whole playground who are not white. In the harsh December air, the other children wear coats and hats but these four wear only jumpers and are shivering from the cold. But the real reason why these nine children are so noticeable is because they are Roma children, and the only Roma children in a school of roughly 500. The bell rings and kids begin filing up to re-enter the classrooms. But the nine are led back into a separate classroom, reluctantly trailing after me
“Ready to continue lessons?” I ask.
One of the girls, a 13 year old, says, “I hate school.”
This sullen remark stops me in my tracks. Many children- myself included-have uttered the same sentiments at least once in their lives, normally when the alarm rings on a Monday morning at 7am. But this seemed different; it was not a moan or a whine, it was a cold, hard fact.
There has been much media attention across the whole of Europe over the issue of Roma communities. Last year, the case of a young girl known as ‘Maria’ suspected of being kidnapped by a Roma family in Greece made international headlines. The tensions in Sheffield over ‘gangs’ of Roma children out late at night has been in the BBC’s limelight for some time now. It can’t be denied that much of this publicity is negative and it seems much of the blame is being placed with the Roma people themselves. In France, the interior minister Manuel Valls has told Romas to return to their country” because they do not respect the customs of French life. In England, Nick Clegg has argued that Romas must be “sensitive” to the English culture. David Blunkett has also argued that there must be a change in “behaviour and culture of the incoming community” before the situation implodes.
What strikes me as bizarre is, despite the numerous calls for Roma people to make the effort to integrate themselves, there has been little attention what can be done concerning our behaviour and our culture in Western Europe. How can we call for Romas to be integrated into our society, when we bar them at every step of the way? At the school I work at, the nine Roma children are subject to constant scrutiny. Parents have written in to the Headmaster, stopping the children attending class with the others. Now they must spend all day with me and a specialist teacher. My job has turned from assistant teacher to constant bodyguard, who must stay close to them at all times – even when they go to the toilet. In the playground, the other children do not talk to them. One of the older kids did some work experience earlier in the year with the school kitchen; when parents learnt a Roma would be handling their children’s meals, there were a multitude of complaints and some children refused to eat the food.
Across the whole of Western Europe there seems to be a similar pattern. Roma communities are being systematically raided and forcibly deported by French police. Earlier this year in Lyon, a group of Roma children were stopped attending their school by protesting parents and instead had to have lessons at the local police station. In Greece, Romas have accused the media of vilifying their communities and the case of ‘Maria’ demonstrated the international prejudices against Roma communities. In Germany, there is a deep concern over the supposed wave of Roma communities that will flood Europe in the near future.
And we in England are in danger of heading the same way. The inflammatory comments of former home secretary David Blunkett and the sensationalist stories released in the press over the Sheffield case ignore much of the excellent progress that is occurring within England. Recent reports from the pilot project ‘from segregation to inclusion: Roma children in the UK’ and the Romani project in Manchester have demonstrated that the biggest problem concerning the education of Roma children is the discrimination they face in school – not a bad attitude or high absences as many would have thought. When we look at Spain, as well, it is clear that the problem does not just lie with new immigrants. Spain’s Roma integration policy has been startling successful, and its no surprise that much of it focusses on education.
When I think of all this, it is not much wonder that my 13 year pupil doesn’t want to attend an 8 hour day where she is institutionally ostracised by the very people who are meant to be giving her a basic right of education. In a school where no other child talks or plays with her, and she must spend the whole day with a foreign white 22 year old teacher, it’s not a surprise that it is an effort to get her to engage in her lessons and relish her education. If we’re not ensuring that Romas are integrated into our schools in Europe, how will they ever become integrated into our society? Can we legitimately expect Roma communities to even want to be part of our culture when they face such racism and discrimination from every facet of our society? I am sure that if my pupils were allowed to integrate with their classmates, learn a variety of topics and be trusted as other students are, then they would not ‘hate’ school. And I’m sure that many Roma communities would be more willing and able to access our lifestyle and culture if they were given the same opportunities as someone who lives between four walls of brick.
Many Roma peoples come here to find work, and find a better life. Yes, their customs are different from ours and, yes, this will lead to certain tensions. But in order to integrate Roma communities into our life, we must make the first step. And that first step can be in our schools.