On Friday I saw public service at its very best. I was in Leicester to see how the city coped with newly arrived communities from across the globe, and in particular the Roma community, some of the most recent arrivals.
Like many conurbations, Leicester has dealt with migration from all parts of the world for decades. Since 1945, this city of just over 300,000 people has seen new arrivals from Poland, Ireland, the Caribbean, East Africa, the Indian sub-continent. More recently we have seen asylum seekers and refugees from Somalia and other parts of the world, as well as internal EU migration from Poland and other Eastern European countries, which has included the Roma.
In Leicester, diversity is seen as a strength, yet it is also complex, and ever changing. Each new community poses its own challenges, and a wide range of services, almost entirely in the public sector, are key to ensuring – not just a welcome – but that community cohesion is maintained and enhanced.
On Friday, along with newly elected Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, I met council officers working in policy, in welfare, in young people’s services, in housing. I saw police officers, health workers and teachers. I talked to community representatives and members of the Leicester Council of Faiths.
The professional expertise was impressive, with a clear commitment to maintaining community cohesion and building relationships between the new arrivals and those who have been here for some time. Above all, I saw people committed to making things work, to make our city a better place for all communities.
In the afternoon. a visit to Babington College gave me a glimpse of what it’s like at the sharp end for one community – the Roma – and for those who work with them.
There is an estimated 1000-1500 members of the Roma community now living in Leicester. They are mostly from Slovakia as well as some from the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria, and as EU citizens are legal migrants. They have a long history of persecution, social exclusion and deprivation, and this experience of officialdom, their lack of a history of education and associated factors have made integration a real issue.
Of the 400 or so Roma children in Leicester schools, many of the secondary age group are at Babington College. It was there that I talked to Roma children, to their teachers and to their parents. There was an invigorating display of Roma dance and music.
It was an exhilarating afternoon. Not just because of the liveliness, and obvious delight shown by the Roma children in their surroundings, but also because it was a testament to the hard work and commitment of the teachers there. They were going the extra mile for these children, not for financial reward but because they thought it was right.
Babington is just one school in Leicester. Leicester is just one city in the Region. Neither are unique, though I think both have things to teach us. Above all, I wish that the British media, so adept at knocking public servants, could have seen what I saw last week.