Czech Roma social worker gets prestigious UK teaching award

Petr Torák

Czech Romani social worker Petr Torák, who is based in the English town of Peterborough, has received the prestigious Silver Pearson National Teaching Award, handed out by UK’s Teaching Award Trust. Mr Torák received the prize along with Lynn Mayes, principal of the local Queen Katherine Academy, for their joint project called The Roma – Narrowing the Gap Team.

I asked Mr Torák about the project:

“The main idea came from a project called ROGA. We started this project back in 2010. It’s a mentoring project for Roma pupils and young people and the aim of this project is to motivate them to higher education but also to take up mainstream roles, such as police officers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on.

“So we have been working with young people at schools but also outside the schools, as well as with their parents, to steer them towards those goals and to raise aspirations among those students. And then from ROGA that we have implemented at the local school we developed it into the Narrowing the Gap project.

What kind of support do you provide to Romani pupils? What kind of help do they most need?

“It’s very holistic. On one hand we work with the Roma pupils, so we go pretty much every day to the Academy. We have got three members of our charity who are supplying the services to Queen Catherine Academy.

“We work with the students on improving their attendance, improving their behaviour, introducing them to positive Roma role models. We regularly bring Roma lawyers, filmmakers and police officers to the school to show the pupils what is possible to achieve.

“Our staff also works with the parents, that’s the second strand of our work. We are in contact with the parents on a weekly basis. Because of the language barrier but also because of the lack of understanding of the UK educational system, parents are often left without any information about their child’s progress or behaviour.

“So this way, we give the parents some information, so that they are able them to work with their child. And then we also work with local community, so we work with local Roma churches and local NGOs, all the stakeholders, and connect them with the school.”

How big is the local Romani community?

“Our estimate is that there are about five to six thousand Czech and Slovak Roma, but also seven to ten thousand Romanian Roma, and we work with all three nationalities.”

How important is it for you receiving this award, known as the ‘Oscar’ of the teaching profession?

“It’s very important. On the one hand it’s important because it shows that the project has been successful. It also shows that it has been notices and it is outstanding in some way, because it has been chosen by the judges and the Pearsons organization out of all the projects and schools in the UK, this being the most successful one.

“So it’s obviously a great feedback and it shows us that we are on the right track. It is also an absolutely amazing opportunity to offer the methodology that we are using to other school.

“Straight away, I have been contacted by schools in Kent, Cardiff, Sheffield and lots of other places, where they would like to implement a similar strategy.”