Features | Published in TES Magazine on 1 April, 2011 | By: Ciara Leeming
Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, Cedar Mount High in Manchester’s Gorton suburb has seen an influx of Roma children. Socially and economically marginalised, many are attending school for the first time - but a targeted approach is raising aspirations
The crimson badge on Samuel Filipache’s blazer is a source of tremendous pride. Like most 16-year-olds, he is full of ambition - GCSEs, college and, he hopes, a future in business or teaching. But this school prefect is on a mission to prove not just himself, but also his community.
Filipache has lived in the UK on and off for a decade, but has only been at high school for two years. His family are among up to 2,000 Romanian Roma who have settled in the terraced streets of south-east Manchester over recent years.
Now a Year 11 pupil at Gorton’s Cedar Mount High School, he begins his studies after midnight, when his parents and seven younger siblings are asleep.
“If my family had stayed in Romania, I don’t think I’d even be in education because teachers are racist against Gypsies and often don’t give us school places,” he says.
“Coming to the UK has changed my life - it’s opened my mind. I feel different from all the Roma in my community. I feel part of the UK.”
Samuel is one of around 140 Roma children who have joined his school over the past three years. About 100 of them - one in nine pupils at Cedar Mount - are Romanian. A nearby primary school has experienced a similar influx, with smaller numbers enrolled at 20 other schools around the city.
At Cedar Mount, this rapid demographic shift has posed a considerable challenge for staff. The Roma are socially and economically marginalised, and Romanians in particular face strict work restrictions in the UK.
Many parents - including Samuel’s - rely on selling The Big Issue in the North to survive, with the rest getting by in other ways such as collecting scrap metal or cleaning.
While some pupils are now coming up from junior school, few speak much English and many have never been in education before. Meeting the needs of pupils who have never held a pen is a new experience for many secondary teachers.
“We’re starting from ABC, not from any point we’ve seen in a secondary school before,” says assistant head Tracey Bishop, who has taken responsibility for the Roma pupils at Cedar Mount.
“Because they haven’t been to school before, they find routines difficult - timetables, remembering PE kit - all those things we’ve instilled in our children from age four and five. So expecting them to fit in is a huge issue.”
While schools such as Cedar Mount receive some additional funding towards these pupils, they miss out in other ways.
Money from the Government’s ethnic minority achievement grant is being put towards EAL (English as an additional language) teachers, with crucial short-term support coming via a Manchester City Council team that works with travellers and international arrivals and its voluntary sector partner, the Black Health Agency, a charity that works with ethnic minorities and marginalised communities.
But many children from Romania - which joined the European Union in 2007 - do not qualify for free school meals since their parents are severely limited in the benefits they can claim. In such cases, schools miss out on extra funding allocated on the basis of this measure of need.
There are thought to be about 10 million Roma worldwide. Last year, France hit the headlines for deporting Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria. Continental Roma have arrived in the UK over the past decade - coming first as refugees and later as economic migrants following EU expansion.
Ms Bishop is in regular contact with colleagues at schools in Wigan and Bury which have also grappled with influxes of Roma, in their cases mainly from Hungary and the Czech Republic.
She says some issues are common to all these schools, such as whether to aim for full integration or provide a discreet area for Roma children. The schools have to look at the content as well as the location of classes. “We are developing the curriculum for them, but it all takes time,” she adds.
Most of Cedar Mount’s Roma children start off in EAL classes, with the intention that they gradually move on to the full curriculum. The school employs two Romanian EAL teachers to ease this process and to communicate with their parents, who are often illiterate.
The approach is starting to yield results. Roma children are beginning to mix with other pupils and more girls are staying on at school. This is significant in a community where early marriage remains common.
Year 9 pupil Tabita Dumitru, 14, hopes to sit her GCSEs and thinks she might like to work with computers. The eldest of nine, she came to the UK in 2007 and spent some time at primary school before joining Cedar Mount.
“My parents came here to give us opportunities. Some of the Roma girls don’t have English friends, but I do,” she says. “I love school - PE, English, maths and science are my favourite subjects. My dad may leave Manchester if he needs work, but I’d like to complete my education.”
The sudden arrival of so many Roma children at Cedar Mount has, at times, led to friction with other pupils. And any support offered to them must be played down so as not to add to ill-feeling in the neighbourhood.
Until last year, EAL teaching took place in a single space at the heart of the school, but this began to cause problems.
“The Roma pupils started seeing it as their territory and to the rest of the pupils it looked as though they had a special room,” explains Ms Bishop. “Actually, it was an EAL room and wasn’t just for the Roma children, but it became a bit of a monster. It became clear that we needed to do away with that and spread teaching across the school.”
Given their numbers, it is perhaps inevitable that the Romanian Roma pupils tend to congregate together at school. Small incidents - a shove, for example, or insults being traded - can quickly turn into fights as children crowd around.
Special assemblies and events celebrating Roma culture are used to counter negative attitudes held by some pupils’ families - as they are for other communities within the school.
“We’ve taken a massive step in integrating Roma into this community and our children can only be commended for accepting them - not that we would expect anything different,” says Ms Bishop.
But she does not underplay the problems. “It’s been really difficult, and a year ago it did frighten us,” she adds. “We knew the Romanian children were safe at school, but we weren’t sure they were safe walking home. There was tension in the community and there were fights between Roma and non-Roma pupils, but I think we’re more settled with it all now.”
School is playing a key role in the integration of the community in Gorton. It acts as a communication channel for families, as well as giving the Roma an idea of British culture and expectations.
This is important in this deprived corner of Manchester, where anti-social behaviour is widely - and often unfairly - blamed on the Roma. These issues have led to the creation of a multi-agency strategy focusing on Roma children and the wider community. Family workers based in the city council and the Black Health Agency connect with new families and deal with immediate needs, including finding school places.
As a prefect, Samuel is unusual, but there are hopes that in time more Roma young people will aim high. And small but significant achievements take place every week.
The city’s schools have celebrated Roma culture via drama and art workshops led by Roma artists, and last year saw the first Gypsy Roma Traveller achievement event, where teachers in Salford and Manchester were invited to enter pupils for awards.
As a senior member of staff with responsibility for Roma pupils, Ms Bishop ensures they remain on the agenda at Cedar Mount. She includes them in everything, from the newsletter to the school council.
Last year, the school won funding to send 24 pupils, 12 Roma and 12 non- Roma, on a week-long residential aimed at promoting cohesion, which had a huge impact on the children involved.
Some Roma children were put in for Spanish GCSE last summer, despite it not being on the curriculum at the school, because teachers knew they could pass. And a small number of the most conscientious Roma pupils were recently made peer mentors to give them more responsibility.
This attentiveness is paying off. Cedar Mount’s Roma pupils now have an attendance rate of 91 per cent - beating the school average of 90 per cent. In 2007/08, the national average attendance for Roma secondary school pupils was 74 per cent, according to a Department for Education report, Improving the Outcomes for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Pupils.
But there is a snag. UK law restricts the work eastern Europeans can do, even if they have been educated here. Romanians, along with Bulgarians, are largely limited to self-employment.
This term, Cedar Mount’s Roma Year 10s will go out on work experience in a programme designed especially for them by the school and the city council, in conjunction with partners such as the police.
In addition, before the Year 11s leave this summer, an outreach worker will visit their families to ensure they have the correct paperwork. If funding is approved, there could also be a short course aimed at helping them eliminate barriers to work, such as basic literacy.
“A lot of the Roma children have aspirations, but we found they were talking about leaving school and selling The Big Issue, which isn’t a sustainable income,” explains Julie Davies, an education development officer with the council and also director of healthy communities with the Black Health Agency.
“We thought they should explore other avenues, so, in consultation with them, we found areas we could help them develop.”
In parallel, a handful of young Roma people are benefitting from a project aimed at creating positive role models, run in conjunction with The Big Issue in the North, Manchester University and Connexions. Participants are found work in roles such as interpreting.
Two young bilingual support workers, recruited from within the Roma community by the council, have started working with new pupils in schools across the city. One, Vasile Dumitru, sold The Big Issue for his first 18 months in the UK but now spends every Friday at Cedar Mount.
“The Roma kids have more chances in this country because they are getting an education,” he says. “I was lucky - I went to school for eight years in Romania before coming to Manchester, but most didn’t.
“I’m very fortunate to have this experience of helping the Roma kids get on and understand what’s happening in the classroom. I hope to develop my own skills in time and be a positive example to the children.”
Since the project began, teachers have reported a huge impact on the Roma children, simply from having an adult who knows their culture in the classroom.
“We want these colleagues to look Roma and to dress how they do because they are role models for those young people,” says Ms Davies. “Now others are starting to look at them and see that they could do it if they had skills.”
Attitudes also appear to be changing within the Roma community. Ambivalence towards formal education among some families has now been replaced by an expectation that their children will go to school and stay on until Year 11.
Experience has shown that in order to win the support of Roma parents, they must be personally informed of what is happening and why, while young people going on trips often have to be picked up and dropped off at home. This is what will happen before Cedar Mount’s work placement pilot - staff will invite the parents into school and explain the British system and its value.
“This is just the amount of effort you have to put in,” explains Ms Davies. “People misunderstand and think we’re not empowering people but, actually, we are, it’s just what is needed because so much of this is alien to these communities.”
It remains unclear how the impending cuts will affect this work. The ethnic minority achievement grant will continue for just one more year and there may be no ring-fenced funding for minority ethnic pupils beyond 2012. Ms Davies and her colleagues are working to keep up the momentum and find ways to support this vulnerable community.
“These are uncertain times,” she says. “From here, it’s about working together, building on current partnerships, being flexible and looking for ways to develop the work, as well as seeking funding from new sources, such as grants. This is cutting-edge work and we don’t want it to end, because Manchester has come so far.”
Back at Cedar Mount, Ms Bishop’s high hopes for Samuel are mixed with concerns for his future.
“Samuel Filipache is our star Roma pupil and is an inspiration to the others,” she says. “I look at him sometimes and wonder what will become of him - will there be the right opportunities? I hope there will.”
The prefect himself is determined to succeed and hopes that by doing so he will help raise the aspirations of other young people in his community.
“I want to start a business but I also really hope when I grow up to become a really good teacher,” he says. “I want to take part in community organisations for Roma because I don’t think I’m the only one who can do this. Most of all, I want to show the world what a Romanian Gypsy is capable of achieving.”