If We Were Roma, We Wouldn’t Come Back From Britain

If We Were Roma, We Wouldn’t Come Back From Britain

Two Slovak journalists traveled to the UK to meet members of the Slovak Roma minority who had left their homeland, and found success stories. What is it that the British do so differently? From the Slovak weekly Tyzden.

by Denisa Gdovinova and Filip Olsovsky 25 March 2019

A classic brown-brick building, a street scene very typical for England. In the background, there is one of the famous concrete cooling towers of Tinsley, a district in the northern English city of Sheffield. In one of these houses, an important day is just beginning. It is the first day in a new kindergarten for four-year-old Galina, who is dressed in her best coat, ready to have her entire day filmed by Slovak documentarian Hannah Skrinar.

Once at school, Galina is nervous at first, hiding behind every corner. After a few hours, though, she plucks up courage, and by the time it comes to sing the song about a little rabbit, she is one of the liveliest in the class. All of this despite the fact that even much more experienced English speakers would have trouble understanding her teacher’s accent.

Galina is from the Roma community. At home she speaks almost exclusively Romani and barely understands any Slovak or English. With such language skills, she wouldn’t last long in the Slovak education system. Sooner or later, probably within the first four years of primary education, she would end up in a special school [for those with disabilities]. Here in the UK, though, she is in a group full of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Somalian children, and her own language barrier is of almost no concern. So what if she doesn’t speak English? They’ll teach her.

Karol Bobek is in the UK’s Year 10. Next year, he will take the GCSE exams, which will help determine his future career. In Slovakia, he would not be able to take such a test at all. According to his teachers back in Slovakia, Karol is “stupid.” Yet when he moved to Leicester with his parents, his new English school found out that he was not stupid; he just has a visual impairment that makes it hard for him to read small print and to see the blackboard. Although his British school is helping him in every way possible, not everything can be fixed. Thanks to the lack of early intervention – in Slovakia – Karol will lose his sight completely in the next couple of years.

However, you will not see any sadness in him. On the contrary, he is almost constantly smiling and talking about his future as a businessman – he likes math.

He admits it was tough in the beginning. He did not know a single word of English, and was sometimes in tears. Then he discovered his father’s dictionary and decided to learn five new English words a day, and now he is able to engage in any conversation in class.

Karol gets a huge amount of support from school. If there is a book with numbers too small for him to read, the teachers make an enlargement, or send Karol to the library with his teaching assistant, where they can use the powerful reading light. Assistance like that was what helped him recently in putting together a PowerPoint presentation about the Spanish footballer Sergio Ramos. On the eve of the football World Cup, Leicester was a city alive with football mania. Also, as another Slovak Roma boy in the class wittily remarks, Ramos is also a “gypsy” so he was an obvious choice for Karol.

Ondrej Olah now works as a teaching assistant at Babington Academy in Leicester. His story is perhaps one of the most emblematic for the small community of Slovak Roma people in the UK.

Ondrej came to England with his parents and siblings when he was 11 years old. In Slovakia, he attended primary school near Rimavska Sobota, a town in southern Slovakia, where his brother failed his grade. The school immediately told their parents that it would be best to move Ondrej’s brother to a special school – and that Ondrej should go with him, too.

“I wasn’t the best student but at least I knew what I was doing in school,” Ondrej says, recalling the situation eight years ago. “I spoke Slovak and didn’t have any trouble with learning. It made no sense.” At that point, Ondrej’s father made the final call that their lives could not continue like this: they were moving to England.

Ondrej Olah

Like the majority of others in his situation, Ondrej barely spoke any English. However, it became clear during the entrance exams that he was good at math, so only a couple of months later, the school moved him into the group of the best math students, where he could also continue improving his English. After several years, Ondrej was one of the best students, and passed the dreaded GCSE exams [generally taken at 16 years old] with nine A grades, one B, and one C (in French). His school advised him to go to a college and then on to university.

UK teachers have been surprised at the number of Slovak students arriving at their doors with similar stories to Ondrej’s. In a survey of 61 Slovak and Czech students in UK schools, the NGO Equality uncovered the shameful result that 85 percent of these children had been attending a special school in their home country. In the UK, only 4 percent of these children were placed in a special school.

Today, Ondrej is 19 years old and guides visitors from Slovakia around his school in Leicester. He translates from English into Slovak, and sometimes also into Romani. If needed, he can also translate into Hungarian and French. His main role is as a teaching assistant, and is just starting on a major Council of Europe project focused on inclusive education in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

After the summer, there will be another huge step for Ondrej – his first year at university, where he will be studying psychology. Although he still dreams of becoming a pilot, he realized on a recent visit to his old primary school in Slovakia – where he was once told he would have to go to a special school – how far he had already come. Being a pilot can wait.

… Me, My Brother, and Then My Cousin

There are thousands of other stories about Slovak Roma children in the UK, similar to Galina’s, Karol’s, and Ondrej’s. Some of them arrived with the great expansion of the EU in 2004, when the UK opened its labor market, and the first wave of current Roma migration began.

A couple of months before that moment, Czech sociologist Marketa Hajska was conducting research in the Roma community near the Slovak city of Presov. Following several rigorous interviews, she came to a conclusion that turned out to be wrong – that there was no sign that Roma people would be moving to the UK. Hajska found no evidence of interest in moving to the UK among the people of the Roma community. On the contrary, she identified huge language and financial barriers in the way of travel abroad.

Yet only a few months later, upon the accession of the new EU member states, the first pioneers decided to overcome the language barrier. Those who were able to find a job and rent a house in the UK paid for travel for a brother or cousin, then accommodated them until they found their own house. This was an implied duty for anyone who came, and it is therefore almost impossible to trace who was the first brave soul to make their way to the UK. Everyone has their own answer, and the truth has become a sort of legend. One can only assume that the first to settle in the UK were Roma people who migrated in the 1990s to countries like Belgium, and were able to establish themselves in the UK, as well. Or maybe it was those who sought asylum in the UK in the 1990s, or even before the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

“We absolutely underestimated the large amount of spontaneity in Roma migration, as well as their ability to react quickly and organize a migration process on the level of family networks,” Hajska concluded in her work – eventually published in 2017.

Miloslav, who is now in his 60s, had a similar experience. Coming from Bystrany, a small village in eastern Slovakia, he also decided to travel to the UK in 2004. His aunt had lived there since the early 1990s. He arrived first in Peterborough [in eastern England] but was not able to find a job until he came across a Pakistani employer who was picking up men in Peterborough and driving them by minibus to factory work in Sheffield [a journey of over 150 kilometers (93 miles)], where Miloslav and his family later moved.

He ended up working in a factory for many years, just like many other Slovak Roma scattered around the UK, in cities like Sheffield, Leicester, Peterborough, Le, Glasgow, and Manchester. In some areas, a majority of Roma come from Romania, while in others, they mostly come from the Czech Republic. In Sheffield, as a result of so-called chain migration, a majority of Roma come from the Slovak villages of Bystrany and Zehra. The exact number is unknown, but is estimated at 6,000.

A grocery shop with Slovak products, in the heart of Sheffield‘s Page Hall area.

With the arrival of Slovak Roma, the UK authorities, teachers, and doctors experienced culture shock even though they were already used to migrants from Africa or Europe. “At first, I thought they were Pakistani or Indian,” recalls Dr. Mark Payne, of the University of Sheffield, who trains future teachers. “Later, one school heard they were coming from Eastern Europe so they hired a Polish translator – because Eastern Europe still means Poland to the majority of people in England. You can imagine what a waste of money that was!”

It was Mark’s students who first told him about a strange new group of pupils coming to schools in Sheffield. They were not Polish and were different from Roma people in the UK. They did not behave like Pakistanis nor like people from the Caribbean, who had arrived in the UK after World War II. 

Payne stresses one important factor: earlier waves of migrants were literally slower. People arrived by sea, in smaller groups, and were mainly men, who were only later followed by their families. By contrast, the speed and efficiency of the Slovak Roma chain migration was astonishing, even for the Brits.

The first go-betweens, connecting UK services with Roma people, were translators, usually arriving from Slovakia at the same time. Often, they were pursuing their studies at the University of Sheffield, and were themselves looking for part-time jobs. In this way, both communities – equally new to the UK – got a chance to help each other.

Filipa Donaldson worked as a translator from 2008, when she began her studies in political science at Sheffield. She was present during the initial contact of many Slovak Roma with the UK system: the task of applying for their National Insurance [social security] number. Having translated during interviews and the form-filling, Filipa says: “The English couldn’t understand them. The Roma people were supposed to specify who brought them to England and what their relationship with this person was. And they always said the same thing – my cousin.”

Describing the situation of dozens of Slovak Roma, coming with a short note in hand giving the same permanent address in Sheffield, Filipa says, “The English were immediately worried the Roma were the victims of human trafficking.”

Two years after that, in 2010, Petra Schwarczova came to Sheffield. Working as a translator, she made the same observations as Filipa, about miscommunication and misunderstanding between the two communities. On both sides, they were tapping their foreheads. “We know them [the Roma], and we are used to them standing out on the streets during the evening and talking to each other. The English were frightened by the big men standing outside their windows. They considered it antisocial behavior,” Petra explains.

It was this term – antisocial behavior – that led to an increased number of visits by police to the Page Hall area of Sheffield where a large portion of Slovak Roma settled. The local residents were not used to seeing children running in the streets and playing football on the road. People were irritated by open doors, litter on the streets and fast cars playing loud music. Locals could not understand why a Roma family would not invite visitors inside instead of talking to them loudly out on the street. The answer to the last puzzle – as Petra Schwarczova points out – could have been the houses, which Slovak Roma rented from Pakistani landlords, who had allowed the properties to become run-down.

Just as there is no real answer to the question as to why the Slovak Roma picked Sheffield, there is no particular reason why they chose Page Hall. It is a small neighborhood in the north of the city, made up of several streets forming a small grid. “Even before the Roma came here, this neighborhood was not the nicest one. The north [of Sheffield] has always been poorer. First it was the Pakistanis that forced the English out of here, now it is the Roma forcing out the Pakistanis,” explains Petra.

Since there are almost no white British left in Page Hall, anti-social behavior became a concern mainly for the Pakistani communities. The clash with the restrained Muslim culture was even greater than with the white British. The first years of Slovak Roma in Sheffield were therefore marked by perpetual conflict, including fights in the streets and in schools. “The cultural differences [have] persisted until today. The Muslims visit mosques, don’t go to pubs, don’t drink, and their attitude toward women is very different. One of the challenges that sometimes causes problems with Roma is lots of street drinking late into the night – not necessarily aggressive, but it is there, and they are loud and noisy,” says Clive Betts, the parliamentary member for Sheffield South East.

Betts states, on the record, what many government officials also told us: that the Roma people do not engage. That is why it took the UK authorities so long to understand and enter into some form of contact with the community. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone from the Slovak Roma community come to me as an MP [member of parliament] and say: ‘I have a problem, can you help me?’ I regularly get people coming from the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Somali community. [But] I’ve been to events where they [Roma] have been present, and they are very, very suspicious of officials in general,” explains Betts.

Then he adds a very striking observation. “Perhaps the problem might be in the way they’ve been treated in Slovakia. They come here from a situation where they are a minority and feel very separate within Slovakia. So they move here and they continue to be separate and don’t find it as natural to involve in any way.”

It took a long time for the UK system to understand that it would have to take the first step if it wanted to integrate the Roma people. This first step was taken by women, never afraid to see things with their own eyes, according to Betts. These were the “health visitors” (Often midwives or nurses themselves, health visitors work with midwives, general practitioners, and other health professionals to be a point of contact for families of newborn to pre-school children. They make house calls and also run clinics offering services including weighing, weaning, and diet advice, and helping to get referrals for early health concerns such as eyesight or hearing). The health visitors spread the message of a new community living in Page Hall – a community very different from any other.

Difference No. 1: Send a Nurse into Every Household

If we return to our initial question – what is so different about the UK approach – the health visitor system is one of the top three reasons. It was the health visitors of Sheffield’s districts of Tinsley and Ivy Lodge who first came across a new community of people who were hanging around the streets until the late hours, listening to loud music, and who were excessively suspicious of the authorities. Their distrust included the health visitors; people hid from them inside their houses.

Although the early period of contact was tough for the health visitors, today they sing the praises of the Slovak Roma. “We’ve liked working with this community the most. It’s very rewarding. The families are very child-focused, and there are many positives about their family structure,” said one health visitor in Ivy Lodge, the district with the biggest community of Slovak Roma people in Sheffield. “They help each other in the community,” said another. (For example, the community might help newcomers apply for a National Insurance Number for tax purposes and a pension, find a job, and, if necessary, accommodate them in one of their own houses.) “We think it’s us who should learn something from them” was another comment.

According to the health visitors, the key was to set priorities. The nurses quickly found out that there was no point in forcing through their own agenda. On the contrary, they had to learn to listen and understand the mindset of the Roma people arriving from Slovakia. “For example, they weren’t used to using bottled milk. They didn’t know much about sterilization. That’s why we make sure they understand the instructions when they use baby formula, since probably no one in their family has used it before. We don’t want to judge them, just help them,” say the health visitors.

Another big topic among the health visitors is the so-called perinka – a thick, swaddling blanket commonly used in Slovakia with small children. It doesn’t translate well to the UK, where Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (“cot death”) guidelines call for babies and small children to be cooler as they sleep. However, nowadays, instead of dictating to parents, health visitors simply explain that it is not the best idea to dress a baby in another layer of clothes under the perinka.

“I don’t think we do anything differently,” says Clare Hawes, in answer to our repeated questioning about how the UK system works so well compared to the Slovak system. Clare works as a health visitor in Darnall, another Sheffield district with a Slovak Roma community. She has been working with Slovak Roma for a couple of years and has the same answer as her colleagues: one should listen to their ne and slowly encourage them to raise their ambitions. “And besides that, we are patient – very patient. For example, when I remind them they should come for a check-up. I call it ‘Roma time.’ Because there’s normal time and then there’s Roma time. They suddenly appear in my office at four and shout: ‘We’re here!’ and I say – that’s great but you were supposed to come at one!” laughs Clare.

Clare Hawes works as a health visitor in areas with a Slovak Roma population.

That is probably the biggest difference. The Sheffield health visitors are persisting – over several years – with something that most of us would give up on. At first, they just tried to get inside the households and gain the basic trust of suspicious patients. Later, they worked on changing their language. “When I spoke to them about the relationship between mother and child, I was using a vocabulary full of words describing emotions. Only later did I find out [that] there are no such words in Romani. Therefore I changed the way I talk to them so they could understand me,” says Clare. Don’t ask her where she gets the energy for this. Like all the other health visitors, she would only reply, uncomprehendingly, that this is her job.

That job is described in lengthy manuals, which experienced health visitors know almost by heart. The key part is the Common Assessment Framework, which Clare Hawes describes as a triangle. In the center there is the child, who is surrounded by three sets of questions. First, are the parents able to parent the child? Do they have the knowledge [to do so]? Is their mental health good? Then: what is their housing situation like? Finally: is the mother well-supported by her family? These are all serious matters: this is no ordinary paperwork.

“After so many years my brain works as a filter. I am always scanning, looking around. I am speaking to the mother and at the same time I am watching her body language and other people in the house,” says Clare, describing her almost detective-like daily routine. “If the woman says the man who abused her no longer lives with her, I ask her about the shoes in the hallway. ‘Whose are those? Why is there a vodka bottle under the sofa?’” Each newborn baby is visited five times by a health visitor, who can therefore observe problems that might have remained hidden from nurses and doctors in Slovakia. If there is a substantial suspicion that the life of the child or the parent might be in danger, the health visitors can pass their findings further – to the social services or to the police.

After almost 15 years of experience with Slovak Roma people, British nurses still have some basic problems, such as vaccination. The Roma remember they were vaccinated back in Slovakia, but they have no idea against which diseases. The health visitors then have to guess, or type into Google Translate the random letters that they find on pieces of paper vaguely resembling vaccination cards. By contrast, each child born in the UK receives a so-called red book, which contains all the important information [birth statistics, stamps of all vaccinations, and charts to record growth up to the age of five]. The problem is that the doctors in Slovakia have no equivalent.

That does not mean the UK medical professionals have no connection with their Slovak counterparts. On the contrary, the first channels of communication were established soon after 2004. And these channels are the second significant answer to the question about what the UK does differently.

Difference No. 2: Find Out About Slovak Roma Settlements

Every new health visitor at Ivy Lodge clinic is shown the same presentation, which was created 10 years ago by a woman named Gillian Gill. A health visitor, Gillian was the first to come up with the idea of traveling to Slovakia and finding out more about the conditions Roma people had come from. She made her first journey in 2004. She met with mayors in eastern Slovakia, saw Roma settlements with her own eyes, and came back astounded by what she had seen.

Gillian created a document based on several journeys she made to Slovakia. It described four main factors that have the biggest impact on the health conditions of Roma people in Slovakia – poverty, bad housing, inadequate access to health services, and insufficient care for mothers and their children. The document is still often quoted by various health visitors who follow it in their practice.

Health visitors from Ivy Lodge Clinic, which operates in the area of Page Hall.

However, it is not only the health visitors and others in the health system trying to understand the conditions in Slovakia. It is also individuals like Mark Payne of the University of Sheffield, mentioned above, who travels to Slovakia every year. Although he initially worked as a language teacher and had never been interested in anthropology or Roma studies, the topic of the Slovak Roma interested him immediately. First he started visiting the Slovak Roma community in Sheffield. Asking where people came from, he kept getting the same answer, so he made contact with Presov University. Since then, he has been spending eight weeks a year in eastern Slovakia, and works on a long-term project comparing the children from Bystrany and Zehra. Why do so many more children from Bystrany go to school? How is money earned in the UK helping villages in Slovakia? And are there any lessons that teachers in Sheffield can learn?

Similar journeys to Slovakia were also organized by schools. For example, the Queen Katharine Academy (QKA) in Peterborough sent teachers to Slovakia with the help of the Erasmus Programme, the EU’s university student exchange scheme.

One very engaged teacher wanted to know more about a country that was sending more and more children to her classes.

“I was shocked. I mean, we also have homeless and poor people in England, but this? I saw wooden cottages and small girls with bare feet walking around the settlement,” recounts Jane Driver, assistant principal at QKA, describing her impressions of a Roma settlement in the Slovak village of Jarovnice.

Another big discovery for the UK delegation was the pervasive unemployment – a term that hardly resonates in the UK. “People kept telling us: ‘what use is any education to us if no one gives us a job?’” says Jane, echoing a question we are pretty familiar with in Slovakia. For the British, however, it was new information, which influenced their attitude toward the children from Slovakia. They realized they had to offer Roma children role models – Roma people with interesting life stories, whom they do not necessarily hear about in their community.

“When Jane and her colleagues returned from Slovakia, they brought with them a lot of useful information. We have to take this into consideration when we work with them and build relationships,” says Scott Hudson, who was principal of the school at the time of our visit. He has since been promoted to director of secondary education at the trust that operates QKA. When asked if such foreign trips were common in the UK, he answers in a calm voice: “Yes.” However, this is no centralized program, but rather – just as in the case of the health visitors – driven by individuals’ willingness to understand.

All three of the UK schools we visited undertook similar journeys. Even Sheffield City Council sent a delegation to Slovakia a couple of years ago. And in answer to our simple question – “Why do you do it?” – they all give the same puzzled answer: “Because they want to know how to be of greater help to this new and still slightly exotic community.”

Difference No. 3: At Least Come to School

If you ask Roma adults in the UK if they want to come back to Slovakia, they would almost definitely nod in agreement. Slovakia is where they were born, where their family is, and – despite the racism they suffered – where their home is.

Now try asking their children. And do it in English or Romani, since they no longer understand Slovak. You will find that an overwhelming majority of them do not want to come back, and if they do, then only for a couple of weeks, for a holiday. This generation of Roma growing up in the UK is completely different from their parents. A huge of responsibility for that lies with UK schools, which are able to provide what the schools in Slovakia cannot: inclusion.

We visited three schools with a high proportion of Slovak Roma pupils. This is where we found the third and probably the most significant answer to our question about what the British do differently. Actually, there were several answers. But if we were to pick one that amazed us the most, it was their focus on attendance.

The UK government expects school attendance of at least 90 percent from each school and each pupil. There is a logic behind this strict rule. As the teachers and head teachers repeatedly emphasized to us, why would you invest money in a school without any pupils?

The rule is supported by a robust and strict system. A pupil can skip school only under special circumstances, and a parent’s spontaneous decision definitely does not fit into this category. If a child cannot give a reason for his or her absence, the fine can reach 60 pounds sterling ($78.60) per child, per parent. The total fine can reach up to 2,500 pounds or, even worse, the family‘s situation can come under scrutiny by the social services.

Schools know that strict rules without a purpose are pointless. Before appealing to any higher authorities, they focus on their own methods to motivate pupils to attend. Even in Slovakia, too many missed classes can be considered a criminal offence, and a school is obliged to inform its local municipal authority. However, in the UK, the school inspection authority Ofsted has done its best to make attendance one of the main factors in evaluating a school. Only a school with attendance of more than 95 percent can be given a high score. Therefore, every UK school tries very hard to engage its pupils.

“Excuse me, it’s a parent,” says Emil for at least the third time. His phone has been ringing all morning. Emil is holding his main work tool – a list of all the school’s pupils.

Emil works in Sheffield’s Hinde House Secondary School as an attendance officer. His responsibility is to make sure all pupils arrive at school before 8:30 a.m., even though school doesn’t begin until 9:00 a.m. Each school uses this half hour in its own way, to check school uniforms, deliver notices about school trips, or organize larger meetings of the teaching staff. For Emil, the time between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. is his time for calling parents of pupils who have not shown up at school. And, if necessary, this is also his time for getting into a car and driving these pupils to school himself.

An important point here is that Emil is a Rom. He came directly from Bystrany and lives near Page Hall. He knows everyone in the community, has the trust of parents, and can explain the importance of sending a child to school. He says that seven years ago, the school‘s attendance rate was on the level of 60 percent. Now, he proudly declares, it is around 91 percent.

Anne Robson, the deputy head teacher of Hinde House, confirms Emil’s words. “I support the parents to always come to school and meet us. There is always someone here who speaks Slovak. And this job never ends with the last class. Emil and Miro [Miroslav Sandor] work in the evening and even during weekends, when they speak to the families. Therefore they also have a [clear idea] of the family situation of our pupils,” she explains.

Miroslav is another Rom from Slovakia employed at the school. Although he works as a teaching assistant for the Roma community, sometimes he also drives the school minivan.

It is a quarter past eight in the morning when Miroslav parks in the center of the Page Hall district. There is already a small group of Year 11 students standing on the corner, looking unenthusiastic. Today is the day of their GCSEs, which is one of the reasons Miroslav came to drive them to school in person – so that everyone will arrive on time. He will wait five more minutes, but when the last one does not appear, he decides to knock on his door.

Miroslav Sandor works as a TA but from time to time he also drives the school minivan.

There is a similar school attendance “policeman” at Leicester’s Babington Academy. However, the school tries to come up with other original ways of getting pupils to school. Mark Penfold, a teacher responsible for inclusive education, explains some of them. For example, girls with 100 percent attendance can attend a beauty session each Friday after school. For boys, there is a football session – but, again, only for those with 100 percent attendance during the previous week.

When the problem of the attendance of Slovak Roma was at its peak, Mark put together postcards with religious pictures from the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, Czech Republic. If a pupil had 100 percent attendance for the previous week, Mark would send a postcard to the parents, with a note such as: “Dear parents, Diana had 100 percent attendance. Thank you very much for your support.” In the beginning, Mark was writing approximately 30 such postcards each week, and the number later increased to 60. Just as he was starting to get tired of writing such a huge number of postcards each Friday after work, one visit to a Roma family convinced him to persevere: dozens of his postcards were displayed, in pride of place, in the family‘s living room.

Mark Penfold is pretty much in the picture with regards to the Slovak school system. He has visited Slovakia several times for different projects, trying to improve the level of inclusion in Slovak schools. Whenever he speaks of Slovakia, he quickly loses his temper and begins talking about a country with a culture of excuses. “I remember one school inspector in Slovakia showing me statistics of the low school attendance rate of Roma pupils. He asked me: ‘How do you want to work with them when they don’t come to school?’ I told him: ‘If we had such data in our country, we would have a think. What should we change so that the children would come to school? Because when they don’t go to your school, it’s your responsibility. Adjust the school in such a way that they will come,” he says angrily.

Peter, left, during his class in the New Start center in Hinde House Secondary School.

UK schools are able to get a majority of children to come to school. But what next? Key is also the attitude toward the children of migrants who spend their first days at school with fear in their eyes.

In each one of the three schools we visited in the UK, the majority of pupils come from abroad. They are called EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils. The school gets extra support for such students from the government, and school inspections take provisions made for these children into account. Such a system of integrating children who don’t speak the primary language could offer great inspiration for schools back home, in Slovakia. After all, a large number of Roma children arrive at school in Slovakia with the same problem: Slovak is not their first language.

Peter is also an EAL student. He is in Year 8 at Hinde House. It’s only been a couple of weeks since he and his mother moved to Sheffield from Trebisov. Peter did not speak any English. Now he is sitting in a class called the New Start Centre. With another 20 pupils, he is learning basic English vocabulary and pronunciation.

The New Start center is also Miroslav Sandor’s main workplace. In addition to his work as a minibus driver, he is a teaching assistant who helps the pupils understand English words. Once pupils graduate from this class, they rejoin their classmates in the mainstream. It will take a couple more weeks of intensive English for Peter, but at least he has already found some friends.

“He’s popular. He brought a [music] speaker to the class and played some music during the break. Some 300 children danced around it,” says Miroslav. Peter responds with a smile.

Even after Peter does learn some English, he will not be able to understand the specific vocabulary of subjects such as chemistry or physics. Therefore, Hinde House offers a special continuing class with a focus on the English language. Lucy Fox is a science teacher with a specialization in EAL students. She highlights two crucial elements: keywords and visual tools. Each specific term has to be described or translated into another mother tongue.

“I always repeat to myself that EAL students have to translate my English sentences into their own language. That is another process going through their heads. It’s like they are doing two classes at the same time,” she explains.

A similar system, called the accelerated curriculum, is used by Queen Katharine Academy in Peterborough. EAL students divide their first months in school into two parts. Fifteen classes are spent in the mainstream, and the other half in classes with a focus on English. “We have come up with this system only recently. We used to integrate children into normal classes right away, which was sometimes hard for them. This works better; the children learn English faster and are more active in the classes,” says Jane Driver.

Babington Academy in Leicester chose a different approach. Just ask Debbie Harris, or, as everyone calls her, Miss Debbie. “It was the Roma children who started to call me this. Debbie was much easier for them to pronounce than Miss Harris,” smiles Debbie, a teacher whose main responsibility is to welcome new children into the school.

She spends three or four days with every newcomer, mainly talking. She not only examines a pupil’s level of English but also the level of knowledge of different subjects. When the right class is chosen for the pupil, Debbie shows them around and explains the rules of Babington. After this period of a few days, the child goes directly into normal classes, usually accompanied by a teaching assistant. There is one more helping hand ready for each newcomer, a network called guardian angels, originally established by Debbie. It is a group of pupils who help any new pupils in their class. “Fortunately, I no longer have to choose them. The children already know they have to take care of a newbie. The whole guardian angels thing grew into a large network of pupils,” says Debbie.

Difference No. 4: Provide Role Models. Real Role Models

The fourth formula for working with the Roma community is well-known in Slovakia: young Roma benefit from successful role models out of the Roma community. However, it usually starts and ends with Rytmus, a popular Slovak hip-hopper with Roma ancestry.

These role models should show them – but mainly their parents – that it is possible to live in a different way and that a good life is not necessarily connected to earning money as soon after school as possible.

That is an attitude that young Roma come across pretty often. Going to high school or university is considered too “gadza” (un-Roma) and makes no sense. There is no income from going to school.

Ondrej Olah confirms this reality. Although he was one of the luckier ones – at least his father understood the importance of education – his mother only finished primary education and did not understand why her son kept talking about universities, instead of factories where he could find a job. She only understood after Mark Penfold came to their house and patiently explained to the parents how much more Ondrej could earn after finishing university.

Olga Fuseini has similar stories to tell. Being Roma, she had to explain to her mother why she did not go straight into work after high school. She has had a taste of this attitude from the other side, too. While working as a volunteer in Sheffield, helping Roma people with translation and navigating the state administration, she often came across a familiar situation: young Roma boys with their priorities set on money, cars, and girls. “So I asked one of them: ‘How are you going to get all of that?’ He said: ‘I am going to find a job and earn money.’ ‘What kind of job are you going to find?’ ‘Doesn’t matter, I’ll find something.’ ‘What does your father do?’ ‘He works in a factory.’ ‘And does he have money, cars, and girls?’ After that, they stay silent and think about it for a while,” says Olga, describing a typical conversation with young Roma.

Olga Fuseini has just successfully passed her first undergraduate year at the University of Sheffield.

She fought this battle herself and with a great deal of stubbornness. Although she only finished vocational school back in the Czech Republic, she has just successfully passed her first undergraduate year at the University of Sheffield. Her mother keeps on asking her if it’s just some kind of workshop she attends, but each time Olga replies with the same sentence: “No, Mom, I really became a university student in England.”

Alongside her own determination, one more important thing helped Olga, and that is the attitude of the university, which seems completely beyond belief for every Slovak.

“I visited the university’s open day, and they were literally fighting for me. They’ve never had a Roma student before. The message even got back to me via my friends: ‘Have you heard there was some Roma girl at the university today?’” laughs Olga. It was a matter of prestige for the university, and a useful demonstration of what role models really mean.

Speaking of prestige, you will not find a bigger celebrity in the UK’s Czech and Slovak Roma communities than Petr Torak. For his work as a policeman in Peterborough, he was awarded an honorary MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

When you meet him in person, with his mischievous eyes and unbelievably calm presence, he looks the complete opposite of the policemen you are used to in Slovakia. But one should not be mistaken: this is Petr Torak, the person who once proclaimed he wanted to be Czech president, and who has been pursuing that goal ever since.

Petr came to England from the Czech city of Liberec in 1999, shortly after skinheads threatened his father. His mother and brother had already been attacked, and when Petr himself was assaulted, he was fresh out of high school and already wanted to be a policeman. However, when he went to the police station in Liberec to report the attack, and the local policemen picked on him, he changed his mind. Not about his future occupation – the image of being a superhero was rooted deep in his mind – just about the country in which he was going to pursue his dream. He decided to move to the UK along with his family.

It was 2002 when he first visited the police station in Peterborough. Unfortunately, he was given incorrect information by the receptionist – that he would have to be British to be a policeman. Petr therefore changed his plan and decided to try politics. In 2006, he came in third in his local elections. In addition to the useful experience of running for office, he received a life-changing piece of advice from a friend, who told him that the police in Peterborough were looking for new officers, and that they definitely did not need to be British. So Petr tried again, and quickly became a policeman.

Petr built himself a great reputation in Peterborough, where he mainly focused on networks of human traffickers, who were also present in the Roma community. As he points out, human trafficking is similar to drug trafficking in at least one way – you catch one dealer and two more will appear.

Although he managed to clear Peterborough of almost all human traffickers, he recently decided to leave his job in the police. “I feel that if I really wanted to stay here I would be able to gradually move toward being the MP for Peterborough. But I feel the time is coming for me to return to the Czech Republic,” says Petr, with a mixture of self-confidence and humility. He was recently elected a member of the Human Rights Council of the Czech Republic, and has been focusing more and more on the politics of his home country. Fortunately, this does not mean his story loses any of its appeal to the Roma community in the UK.

Peter Pacan is about to become a British policeman.

We come across our next respondent in front of his house in Sheffield’s Page Hall. In contrast to the other teenagers around, he seems much calmer, and the silence is broken only after we mention we are going to visit Petr Torak next week. That piece of information immediately attracts his interest. Because, as Peter Pacan later confirms, he also wants to be a policeman, partly because he once heard there was a Czech Roma policeman somewhere in Peterborough.

Peter Pacan is 18 years old. He moved to the UK in 2004. He understands a bit of Slovak but mostly speaks English, with the most authentic Yorkshire accent around. It is hard for him to recall anything from Slovakia – only brief memories of summer trips when he had to go with his parents, although he did not want to.

This summer, though, will be different. He will not have to travel to Slovakia; he will be serving as a voluntary police cadet and earning some money in an IT company. The test that will bring him nearer to the police job costs 200 pounds sterling ($265), and the driver’s certificate is even more expensive. But Peter is certain he will manage it this summer. Then he will pass the 100-question test, and he will finally be able to join the police in Sheffield [part of the South Yorkshire Police].

Meanwhile, for Denisa Gannon, the period of endless exams and demanding internships is finally over. She has become a sort of a celebrity in the Roma community – not on the Petr Torak level, though that may change soon – but as a lawyer. The city of Leicester has already promised her city center premises when she returns from maternity leave, so that she can be closer to her clients. Those clients usually come from socially disadvantaged conditions and are seeking legal advice. Often they are Roma, just like Denisa.

Denisa arrived in the UK as a single mother with a four-year-old son. Although she had successfully finished high school, she had been unable to find a job back in the Czech Republic. In the UK, she quickly found work as a cleaner in a restaurant. Later, she also worked as a waitress. However, Denisa soon realized that if she did not improve her education, she would remain stuck in a vicious circle of zero-hour contracts [which do not guarantee a minimum number of hours]. That is why, in 2009, she decided to go to university.

She decided to study law, since she already had experience with how hard a life in a new country can be, without any knowledge of one’s own rights. “They throw you out of the house and take your money without any reason. England really is about money. It’s not a country you can just live in without knowing what you are doing,” says Denisa, recalling her main motivation for pursuing the demanding study of law.

During her studies, she worked as a teaching assistant at Babington Academy and sometimes even drove the van picking up the pupils who had decided not to come to school on time. She successfully graduated and got a two-year internship, after which she could finally become a lawyer.

“Today, for example, I met a guy who was working but then fell ill. Since he was on a zero-hour contract, he had to ask for a special social benefit. However, the office decided he couldn’t claim it, so I was helping with the appeal,” says Denisa, explaining a typical workday.

At the same time, she swears, today was her last day in work before her maternity leave. She’s expecting her baby in a couple of weeks, and she wants to enjoy it. She feels that this time, in a happy marriage, and with a stable job, it might be nicer than when she became a mother for the first time.

Very British Problems

When speaking about the main differences between the UK and Slovak systems, two more things should be taken into consideration, besides the four major factors mentioned earlier. The first one is best described by Andy Shallice, a policy and information worker at a charity called Roma Support Group. However, it has nothing to do with the Roma.

“On 11 September 2001, I was handing out flyers on a street in Sheffield,” recalls Shallice. “Just when I heard what had happened, a woman walked by. She leaned toward me and said: ‘it’s good news. There will be a World War III, and steel will once again be in demand.’”

The story may sound absurd to most readers, but in a steel city like Sheffield, which is still proud of its heritage, it makes more sense.

The problem was – from the perspective of the people in Sheffield – that when World War III did not come, the decay of the city could not be stopped, and the decline created the conditions for the type of environment that influenced the “Brexit” decision [Sheffield voted 51 percent to leave the EU]. At that time, it really was not the ideal atmosphere for Slovak Roma to try their luck in Sheffield and its neighborhoods.

“By around 2006-2007, the level of resentment against migration started growing quite significantly,” says Angela Smith, an MP for Sheffield’s Stocksbridge district. “We were getting a significant backlash against Eastern Europeans. The perception grew that the Poles, the Romanians, and the Slovak Roma were taking British worker’s jobs.” Although there are almost no Slovak Roma in Stocksbridge, they still influence the politics of her constituency.

For locals – mainly the older, white British voters – Slovak Roma and other Eastern Europeans serve as a symbol of something they wish to avoid. “They want to live in areas that resemble much more the kinds of areas that they grew up in. Very white, with a very certain type of culture. And this is a district they move to, to run from these changing demographics in the city,” admits Smith, although she does not seem very happy about this.

A much bigger concern for her is the second factor. The thing that is present in any story about UK integration [of foreigners or economically deprived people]: budget cuts. This is a term you come across sooner or later in every conversation, whether you are in Sheffield, Leicester, or Peterborough.

If there ever was a city that Margaret Thatcher hated, it was working-class Sheffield. Since the times of the Iron Lady, the chance of any Conservative Party candidate being elected has been pretty low. It is not much different in Leicester or Peterborough. Now put this together with the fact that the UK has been governed by the Conservatives (with a short period of coalition with the Liberal Democrats) since 2010, and you’ll realize that, as far as integration is concerned, England is, in fact, doing disastrously.

Sheffield’s council has lost 40 percent of its budget in the last eight years. Angela Smith’s constituency has no warranted police. If there is an incident, such as the armed robbery that took place recently, officers must be brought in from outside the constituency.

Petr Torak says the budget cuts were one of the reasons he decided to leave the police. When he started out in the force, he had enough time for community policing – walking around his area and talking to people. After the budget cuts, such an approach was no longer possible. “I’d not finished one job, and I’d be sent to do another one. I was sitting with a victim of domestic violence and wasn’t even in the middle of the testimony when I got a phone call asking where I was. For such testimony, you need time. However, I had people shouting in my ear [that] they need backup because there’s been a burglar locked inside some shop for 20 minutes already,” says Petr.

Colin Havard speaks in a similar vein. He works for Sheffield City Council as a community development coordinator, and operates mainly in Page Hall. He admits Roma people have problems with understanding the UK system, but he also speaks of the responsibility of the other side.

“Our system is simply not flexible enough. We used to be better when we had people coming, in previous migration waves. Now everything is about not having enough money. And although as a society we like to claim prevention is better than cure, we don’t act like it,” says Havard.

The implications of budget cuts can be seen in various fields. There should be more teaching assistants, more leisure centers, more legal advisors. However, the sphere in which the lack of funding is most obvious, at least according to people we spoke to in the UK, is the school system.

Chris Searle was the head teacher of Page Hall’s Earl Marshall School in the 1980s.

Chris Searle likes to call himself an old geezer. He used to teach children in Africa, Canada, and even in Grenada during the revolution [1979-1983]. More relevantly, during the late 1980s he became the head teacher of Earl Marshall School, the biggest school in Page Hall. At that time, no one had even heard of Slovak Roma. Nevertheless, the school was already full of migrants and children of migrants, deriving from Pakistan and the Caribbean.

When he arrived at the school, Searle came across a big problem. The poorest children were often excluded and sent into the so-called inclusion centers. They were still learning, but considerably less than in mainstream school. The aim was to “make these kids better” and send them back to the mainstream. However, this often failed to happen, and usually a child would end up stuck in the inclusion center until the end of their school days. When they left the center, they did not have enough education to find a good job.

That is why Searle decided to ban any exclusions from Earl Marshall School. He was trying to keep even the naughtiest children inside the school. His ambition was successful and was even backed by the local police, who appreciated that it was school, not the streets, that worked with children. The main factor behind Searle’s success was, however, the funding. “There was a special law providing extra money for each working place created for those working with the new minorities. If the local government hired one person to work with them, central government would pay for another three,” explains Searle.

Over the years, this law has changed. There was not enough money for new minorities, and their inclusion has therefore been significantly slower and more difficult. The most visible statistic supporting this observation is the rate of school exclusions. Not so long ago, the group that topped every statistic about school exclusions was the Slovak Roma.

“It was around 2014 or 2015 when I read about the mass exclusion of Slovak Roma children from schools in Sheffield. I went to take a look at one of the inclusion centers near Page Hall that is run by the Yemenis. And there they were – around 30 children, and all of them Slovak Roma. Had it not been for the Yemenis, they would just be strolling around the town without any education. It was a sort of apartheid,” says Searle quite sharply.

It is a strange feeling, sitting in front of a man that compares the UK “inclusion” system to apartheid. It is hard to counter him, but even harder to nod in approval – mostly when he asks if we don’t mind that all of this is happening to our people. Of course we mind. However, it is hard to explain Slovak reality to a 70-year-old with a completely different set of experiences. How can we sketch even an outline of what we are comparing the UK system to? How can we explain that the system he criticizes so much is at least a thousand times better than what we have in Slovakia? We have no idea. Then, suddenly, the opportunity to illustrate this gap appears, completely out of the blue.

Why Are They Better Off Here?

During our stay in Leicester, a delegation from the Slovak Ministry of Education paid a visit to Babington Academy. The delegation included the head teacher (principal) of a primary school in the town of Roznava (in southern Slovakia) and a Slovak delegate in the Roma and Travellers Team of the Council of Europe, as well as Secretary of State for Education Peter Krajnak. They accepted an invitation from Mark Penfold after Krajnak attended a lecture by the latter, in Presov.

Penfold is the perfect person to explain the differences between the UK and Slovak mentalities regarding inclusion. He spent several months in Slovakia and was even helping one school with the implementation of its inclusion program. Yet today, Penfold does not want to name the school. “We were successful. More and more Roma children started to go to school. But one day the head teacher came to me and told me we’re done with the project. Why? Because the parents began taking their white children out of the school. It is a big issue in Slovakia,” says Penfold, bitterly.

He admits there are racists in England as well – Brexit is a good example. However, the level of racism he came across in Slovakia shocked him. “We were in a restaurant in Slovakia. Me and my colleague were served by the waitress. Right next to us sat a group of Roma people, and the waitress just shouted at them to get their food from the counter. When they left, she started spraying the place with air freshener. And then she threw the glasses they drank from into the bin,” he says. He has a whole collection of such stories that make us look away in shame.

Finally, Penfold adds the observation that irritates him the most when he is talking to Slovak or Czech teachers. “In 2012, some of them were telling me: ‘Mr. Penfold, you have to understand the Roma have lower IQs; they’re susceptible to mental retardation and have serious problems with hygiene. There is nothing we can do for them,’” says Penfold, outraged. “I remember something broke inside me. I was really angry. I told them: ‘Come to my school and try saying that to my Roma pupils face to face.’”

The Slovak delegation was greeted at Babington Academy not only by Penfold but also by Babington’s head teacher. However, the main speaker at the event was Denise Newsome, the school‘s chief executive officer, who has been in charge of the school for almost 10 years. It was she who managed to turn a school with a bad reputation into one of the best schools in the UK. “We found out Roma pupils are among the brightest ones. They are the ones wearing uniforms and being all dressed up,” explained Newsome, in a presentation for the Slovak visit.

Slovakia‘s secretary of state for education, being welcomed to Babington Academy

After a short introduction about Babington, there is time for Krajnak’s questions. “In Slovakia, we have a problem with special schools. They are attended by 6 percent of pupils. What is the percentage in Britain?” he asks. The answer comes: 1 percent. Newsome explains that the decision to establish such a school is one for the city to make. There were more pupils in special schools in Leicester in the past, so the city diverted money into mainstream schools to create places for children with special ne. At Babington, they used to have 10 such children. Nowadays, they have approximately 40. One of them is a Slovak Roma girl with cerebral palsy. Back in Slovakia, she also went to school, but only for one lesson a week. When she came to Babington, she was expecting a similar timetable. Not a chance! She was put into a mainstream class with a normal timetable, accompanied by a teaching assistant.

Krajnak has more questions. He wants to know why the majority of Roma pupils back in Slovakia do badly in school, whereas they do much better in England. “The first thing is that we expect them to have good results. Why do you think they cannot learn?” asks Newsome rhetorically. Finally, Krajnak poses his third and most important question: How is it possible that (Babington’s) attendance is so good? Newsome answers: “We are looking for barriers that keep children from attending school, and we are trying to get rid of them. Is the bus to school too expensive? We bought a thousand bus tickets, got a bulk discount, and sold them to the children at half price. Do they stay at home in the winter because they cannot afford a coat? Compare the money you spend on keeping the school running and on buying one coat. Then buy the coat,” explains Babington’s CEO.

During the tour of the classes, Mark Penfold whispers something to us. “When we were in Presov, I told your secretary of state and his colleagues that he would not be able to tell which students are Roma and which are not. Now watch him.” And he was right. During the math class, one member of the delegation asks Penfold why there is only one Roma pupil in the classroom. Penfold tells him the truth – there are seven of them, you just cannot recognize them. Partly owing to the fact they wear uniforms and partly because of the multi-ethnic nature of the school. Only when the teacher pronounces a Slovak name like “Simonka” are we able to tell where the girl comes from.

After a couple of weeks, we meet Krajnak again, this time in his office at the Slovak Ministry of Education. The experience at Babington has only confirmed for him that the migration of Slovak Roma to the UK can no longer be ignored. He says the primary goal should be to revise the system for children coming back to Slovakia after years spent in the UK school system. “For example, when refugees from Syria arrive in Slovakia, they are immediately enrolled on a language course. However, when our children return from abroad, we send them directly to school. We must be able to provide language courses for them as well,” says Krajnak.

He also admits there is a problem with attendance in Slovakia. However, he cannot imagine a solution as strict as in the UK. “They have a strong, repressive system. No one has regard for not coming to school. They will simply cut your social benefits. This is the point where the Slovak system fails,” he admits. However, he adds, we should not be too harsh on ourselves. Slovakia is not a developing country, and thanks to quite a dense network of schools, each child has the right to attend a school. According to Krajnak, poor attendance is mainly the result of poverty, which is significantly lower in the UK, where Slovak Roma have more opportunities to find a job.

“After the visit to Britain, I feel much more reassured that all the Roma kids in England come from considerably better families. I have to stress that the families moving abroad are mainly young parents coming from cities. In British schools, there are no poor children from settlements without any running water and with lice,” says Krajnak, with confidence.

Maybe he is right – he knows quite a lot about the reality of Slovak Roma settlements and their citizens. However, if you stroll around Page Hall, you will come across Roma that are not only from Presov but also from settlements in Bystrany. Unfortunately, there are no statistics supporting either side of the argument. Let’s suppose that it is only the Roma from better backgrounds moving to the UK; nevertheless, the key question remains unanswered – why? Because if we are not able to provide help for the “better ones,” and if we send their children to special schools, it only makes the shame more unbearable.

Let us paint a last picture symbolizing the state of things in Slovakia. It begins with Julia Curillova, the head teacher of a primary school in Bystrany, shouting to us from the driveway. She is insisting we tell “her” Roma in the UK that they should not come back.

This looks pretty bad on paper, but she does not mean it that way. She only wants us to tell the parents of Roma pupils studying in the UK that they should do everything in their power for their children to pursue their education in the UK. Nothing good awaits them at home, even if the head teacher tries her best – and, believe us, she does.


It’s June 2018, and there is a family of four waiting for us in front of the church in Bystrany. Without much hesitation, they get into our car and direct us toward their humble house in the middle of the Roma settlement in Bystrany. First, they ask if we have the movie – the one Slovak documentary maker Hannah Skrinar shot 10 years ago.

Galina and her family

We find it online, and instead of talking we spend the first 10 minutes of our visit watching. There are the brown-brick buildings, then the concrete cooling tower, and then there’s the scene with four-year-old Galina preparing for her first day of kindergarten, in Sheffield.

Fourteen-year-old Galina smiles. She does not remember much from that day, only that her parents told her some Slovak documentary maker filmed her that day, and later presented the movie at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

When the movie ends, Galina’s father, Roman, starts to talk. They returned from the UK only a couple of weeks ago. There was not enough work in Sheffield. The family is worried – they would rather have stayed in the UK, and they are already thinking about where to go next. They definitely do not want to stay in the settlement. It is noisy, dirty, and no work can be found.

Galina was in Year 9. She would have been choosing her GCSE subjects for next year. She wanted to become a nurse. Her father says she had the grades to pursue that dream – she had an excellent attendance record, and her parents received a number of congratulatory letters from the school. However, unlike her peers, she had no one to stay with in Sheffield. She had to come back with her parents.

Galina went back to school in Bystrany but did not pass the so-called differential exams [for entry into secondary school]. She does not speak much Slovak, and you cannot do those tests in English or Romani. So now Galina has gone into the fifth grade (the equivalent of the UK’s Year 7), with children who are two or three years younger than her. If she stays in Bystrany, she will probably not be able to finish her primary education. She will not become a nurse in Slovakia.