School sets example after race-hate incidents rise

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The Independent Online

Dalena, a Slovakian girl with an ear-to-ear grin, sat reciting numbers yesterday in heavily-accented English with a British classmate at the special needs unit in Chatham's Luton Junior School.

After successfully counting to 20 together, the two nine-year-olds smiled at each other and then walked holding hands back to their classroom to join an excited gaggle heading off on a visit to the school's allotment backing on to a row of tatty terraced houses.

In any other school, such a scene would have been unremarkable. But at Luton Junior, it served as a symbolic rebuff to the ugly events – and subsequent hysteria – that have forced the stationing of police at the gates to the school and made the north Kent community it serves the latest focus of the debate about race relations in Britain.

Tony Goulden, a local Labour councillor and the chairman of governors at the school, said: "If you believed what you read, this school has spent the last week in the grip of some kind of race riot. That could not be further from the truth. This is a school where the children learn to count in each other's languages, learn to say hello in each other's languages. This school is the cure, not the problem."

The "problem" is Britain's response to one of its latest waves of immigration – the 70,000 Slovakians who have come to the UK to work since 2004.

Dalena is one of 32 Slovakian children, some from a Roma gypsy background, who have arrived at the Luton Junior School in recent months after their parents arrived to meet local demand for agricultural labour. Together, the Slovakian children make up just 8 per cent of the school's roll of about 400 pupils.

But Slovakian integration in Chatham has not gone smoothly of late.

For the past fortnight, the neighbourhood of Luton, a faded and deprived corner of the Medway town, has been racked by tensions over a series of claimed racially-aggravated assaults and verbal clashes between the established population and a recent influx of Slovakian migrant workers and their families. In the past six months, police have recorded 13 racist incidents.

Matters came to a head 13 days ago when Jake Stedman, a 10-year-old pupil at Luton Junior, was found by his mother outside the family home with two black eyes and a bleeding head after allegedly being chased into an alleyway by a Slovakian mother and beaten, reportedly with a metal bar.

The incident came a day after the boy had confronted another Slovakian woman outside a convenience store, thrown a blackberry at her and punched her on the arm, allegedly shouting "go back to your own country".

The clash made national headlines this week. The Daily Mail proclaimed: "Boy, 10, 'battered by woman in race row at his school'". The Times stated: "Schoolboy, 10, 'is beaten by migrant'." Further oil was poured on the fire with reports that police were considering criminal charges against the boy.

The reality is somewhat different. Kent Police said yesterday a 10-year-old boy had been given an official reprimand after admitting common assault and that a 36-year-old Slovakian woman arrested in connection with the attack on Jake has been released on police bail. It is understood there is no evidence that a metal bar was used and all incidents took place some distance from the school.

Nonetheless, the result has been an uncomfortable week in the spotlight for Luton Junior and its 410 pupils in an area where social deprivation has created strains. The British National Party regularly gains 15 per cent of the vote and unemployment runs above the national average. About 10 per cent of the population are immigrants, many from Eastern Europe.

In the fevered atmosphere of recent days, a small number of parents verbally abused members of staff after rumours – unfounded – circulated that an allegation of bullying against a Slovakian pupil had been ignored. Other parents showed their support by showering the school with gifts of flowers and cards.

But mutual suspicion and incomprehension still hung around the school gates yesterday. Clare, a 32-year-old parent, said: "It's the fault of the Slovakians. They don't make any effort to mix, they hang around in big groups. I understand they have a different culture but people around here don't want them to have a free ride. They are taking jobs, using our schools but not giving back."

Most Slovakian parents are reluctant to talk, preferring to pick up their children and rush away.

But Dagmar, a mother of two children, who arrived in Chatham in 2005, said: "It is very hard not to conclude there is some racism behind this. We do the same work that everyone else does – picking crops, working in pack houses. But Slovakians have darker skin than other Eastern Europeans. I don't hear of Poles being abused in the street. But often I hear of it from my Slovakian friends."

Bit inside the classrooms of Luton Junior, such turmoil is ignored. At playtime, Slovakian children can be seen teaching clapping games to their English classmates.

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