How they reduced Sheffield’s ‘boiling pot of racial tension’ to a simmer

Reaching out: Support and Behaviour teacher David Hamburg with Robert Ziga and Ladislav Dunks. (Picture: Scott Merrylees).
Reaching out: Support and Behaviour teacher David Hamburg with Robert Ziga and Ladislav Dunks. (Picture: Scott Merrylees).
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Three years ago the Page Hall area of Sheffield was described as a ‘boiling pot’ of racial tension. Sarah Freeman returns to the area to find out what happened next.

Even the most optimistic of estate agents would struggle to describe the Page Hall area of Sheffield as up and coming. Alongside the mostly rented terrace houses, there’s a mix of discount food and clothing shops and on most corners there’s a group of teenagers looking for diversion and struggling to find it.

Class with some Roma pupils at Firth Park Academy, in Sheffield.

Class with some Roma pupils at Firth Park Academy, in Sheffield.

Streets like this, ones that will never feature in any glossy city living brochure, are the kind found in most big urban sprawls, but Page Hall comes with its own unique demographic. A few years after Slovakia’s entrance to the European Union in 2004, Sheffield found itself becoming home to a wave of Roma families desperate to escape the high unemployment and racism of home. Their arrival took the city by surprise.

So the story goes, one man from the Slovakian settlement of Brystany was the first to arrive and having reported good things the rest of the village followed. Most headed to Page Hall. By the time the authorities got a handle on the situation, tensions between the new Roma community and their neighbours were already strained.

David Blunkett didn’t help. The former Home Secretary accused the Government of burying its head in the sand over the Roma issue and said he feared a repeat of the race riots that hit northern towns in 2001. Then an article in the Guardian repeated claims from other Page Hall residents of washing having been stolen from the line, prostitution and a catalogue of other unsavoury accusations.

Both were seen as stoking rather than quelling the fire, but there is no doubt there were problems. “There had been fighting and there was an incredible amount of rubbish in the streets,” says Dr Mark Payne, an expert in the Roma community who works in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Educational Studies. “No one was really prepared. Page Hall is made up of two up, two down houses and there were far more people living in some properties than perhaps there should have been.

“The number coming over to Sheffield from Slovakia really mushroomed in 2011/2012 and it was perhaps inevitable there were problems because they were coming here from a very different country. In Slovakia the Roma people are subject to a great deal of racism and they often end up living in the very worst slums. Often the only brush they have had with authority has not been a particularly good experience. They are suspicious of officialdom and that has been a big barrier to overcome.”

Three years on, while some Roma families have returned home having not found the work they were hoping for, many have remained. The best estimates put the number living in Sheffield at anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000. Certainly it’s enough that Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport now runs regular flights to Kosice. The area has also been the focus of a Channel 4 series – Keeping Up with the Khans – which followed some Roma Slovakians as they tried to settle in South Yorkshire. But whatever tensions there were in Page Hall have also largely calmed.

It was helped in part by the introduction of a selective licensing programme in the area. It means landlords can only rent out property if they have paid £725 for a licence, which also triggers an assessment to determine what maintenance work needs to be done. Crucially, each house is also limited to one family unit. Elsewhere there has also been a concerted effort to reach out to the city’s newest community.

At Firth Park Academy, a mile or so away, Roma children now account for 10 per cent of its 1,000 or so pupils. In a school were 38 different languages are spoken and where many arrive on their first day without one word of English, it has been a steep learning curve for many of the teaching staff. “I had one Roma girl who burst into tears whenever I talked to her,” says Emma Hammond, Firth Park’s director of languages. “I’d try to have the happiest, most smiling face, but it made no difference. She was clearly scared at being in a place where she just couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.

“Because Roma isn’t a written language, while many of them are quick to pick up the speech, they still find difficulty with reading and writing. We have been acutely aware that we need their parents on board. Sometimes it has been difficult to get the children to come into school with the correct uniforms and with the right equipment, but we are getting there.”

Firth Park now sends a minibus out to Page Hall on parents’ evenings to encourage better attendance and the school employs four Roma speaking staff who can act as a bridge between the classroom and home. “We are conscious of improving integration. Until now we have run three streams of English classes and for some that has meant being pulled out of most other lessons. However, we are looking to change that. As soon as they can read their timetable and know how to speak politely to staff then they will go back into regular classes earlier than they might have previously.

“If you have 30 Roma children in one class, it’s natural that they revert to speaking their own language, so we are working hard on making sure they mix with other pupils. A little while ago we held our own football world cup where each team had to be made up of different nationalities. Those small things can make a big difference.”

Across the corridor, a group of Roma children are midway through a double session of what the schools call future skills. As well as making sure they are proficient at reading and writing English, there is also an emphasis on preparing them for life outside the classroom.

The Roma children are still often suspicious of outsiders. A trio of pupils who have been happily chatting away to their teacher fall silent when asked of their own plans for the future. After a little cajoling from Emma they do eventually oblige. “I don’t know what the word is,” says one. “I want to work in the court. I want to be the person who talks to the judge.” “You mean a lawyer?”, says Emma. “Yes, yes, that’s it. That’s what I want to be.”

Another wants to become a mechanic or possibly a translator. All three say they want to stay in Sheffield.

David Hamburg also has no plans to return. He arrived in Sheffield from Slovakia as a 17-year-old and is now on the pastoral staff at Firth Park. “Everything is very different in Slovakia and it can take people some time to adjust when they come over here,” he says. “There are many families where the parents haven’t been to school so they sometime struggle to stick to the rules.

“When I came to the UK, I don’t think I knew what to expect. It hasn’t always been easy, but there is more opportunity here for me. In Britain there is the chance to be anything you want. People ask if I will go home in the future. I don’t know, but I think not. There is too much for me here. My life is here.”

Roma on the move across Europe

Romani people are an ethnic group originating from India. Migrating around 1,000 years ago they have suffered regular persecution. Enslaved in the Balkans until 1851, up to 500,000 are also estimate to have lost their lives in the holocaust.

The term Roma has been in use in the EU since 1971. A generic name it is used to describe people with similar cultural characteristics. Across Yorkshire and the Humber the Roma population is believed to be between 25,000 and 30,000. The majority of Roma in Sheffield originate from Slovakia with most living in the Fir Vale and Page Hall area of the city.

Page Hall was the focus of a recent Channel 4 series – Keeping Up with the Khans – which looked at the impact Roma migrants had on the local area.