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A new Scout Group is helping to connect the diverse community around Page Hall in South Yorkshire, which once found itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons...

You may remember the media coverage Page Hall attracted a couple of years ago. The headlines focused on this small area of Sheffield, where scenes of vigilante patrols, police vans and gangs of youths on street corners suggested it was the scene of some sort of societal breakdown. 

Indeed, a quick Google search on Page Hall today still reveals stories of multinational conflict: potential riots, gang warfare, burglaries and alarmist quotes from former MP David Blunkett, pleading for something to be done to prevent potential catastrophe. Apparently, the problems really started when the Roma immigrants arrived a few years back (though many will identify themselves as Slovak, not Roma). 

Though a diverse community beforehand, the melting pot began to seriously overflow when families from Slovakia fled conflict and discrimination in their own country for a better way of life in the north of England. Slovak children spilled onto the streets of Sheffield and tensions rose between them and Muslim, Afro Caribbean and British communities, leading to some seriously bad press. 

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Walking around Page Hall today, there are still a disconcerting number of children on the streets – and not just teenagers on street corners. You might spot the odd six-year-old meandering at dusk, or a group of junior school kids out on their bikes. But while concerns for safety naturally arise, there are at least a handful of these children making their way to a local church where Scouting takes place each week.

'That’s why we get kids just wandering in – they hear the noise and turn up. Scouting is just what they need – structured fun.’ 

‘The children around the Page Hall area are generally at a loose end,’ says Sian Bagshaw, a Regional Development Officer based in South Yorkshire, who is using funding from the Youth United Foundation (YUF) to develop Scouting in the area. ‘They hang out and see what’s going on; they might see some Scouts having fun outside and they’ll wander over and ask what’s going on. That’s why we get kids just wandering in – they hear the noise and turn up. Scouting is just what they need – structured fun.’ 

Scouting here is easier said than done, though. ‘There are so many communities from all over the world here,’ Sian continues. ‘There are different religions, cultures and attitudes; the Slovak kids will occasionally heckle the kids going to the mosque and the young people from Slovakia will get shouted at by another group. Scouts gives them something to be a part of together – a sense of belonging – somewhere to do activities and make friends.’ 

The Scout Association teamed up with The Development for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the YUF to identify UK communities in need of support. The lack of community cohesion in Page Hall made this area an obvious contender. ‘There were a lot of kids on the streets at all hours and that problem remains. Sheffield now has the biggest Roma community in the UK,’ explains Sian. 

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To reach out into the community and see how Scouts could help, Sian got to know the area and its people. She networked at local council meetings and attended conferences and coffee mornings. She also attended forums for immigrants in the community, visited local schools and searched youth clubs, building up contacts and becoming a familiar face in the community. 

'You’d meet a certain community champion and they’d be up for trying something.’ 

Unfortunately, not everyone was as enthused as Sian. ‘The main comment I would get was “you’re fighting a losing battle”, especially from youth workers. Engaging a multi-national community and instilling cohesion seemed an impossible task. But then you’d meet a certain community champion and they’d be up for trying something.’ 

Sian met the District Commissioner and the team, and was eventually pointed towards the only Scout Group in the area that still existed – 76th Sheffield (St Peters). It was struggling, with about four members per section and a leadership team that had their work cut out for them and needed support. This Group was the way in – a starting point for developing community cohesion in the area. 

With the help of passionate leaders, the Group was re-launched. A local building that belonged to the church was lent to the Scouts for free and the leadership team did an induction for new volunteers. Will, now a Beaver Scout Leader, was a familiar face in the community whom the Scout leaders went to for help. ‘I heard about Scouts through a neighbour so I brought my kids, who are aged five, eight and 10,’ he explains. ‘One of the leaders spotted me with my kids and asked me if I wanted to volunteer. When I arrived the group literally just rebooted.’ 

‘People move in from another country and other people think it’s the end of the world. It’s not a problem on my street though.’ 

Will now shares his street with many Slovakian families, and has become the go-to guy for fixing the locals’ bikes. ‘Some of the Roma children saw me fixing my own kids’ bikes and they asked if I could fix theirs, so I got to know quite a few that way,’ he continues. ‘People move in from another country and other people think it’s the end of the world. It’s not a problem on my street though.’ 

Will ended up bringing some of the Slovakian young people to Scouts, along with his own kids, helping to show the young people what they have in common. ‘Some of the Cubs don’t get on with other Cubs; some have come to loggerheads but there haven’t been major issues,’ Will says. ‘The Beavers are more likely to just get on with it. Young people tend to pick up things from the media or their parents about different cultures, but then they’ll come to Cubs and see kids from different backgrounds and realise they’re not so bad. Unfortunately, we don’t have so much parent involvement.’ 

When we visited the Scout group on a Wednesday evening, it was a peculiar picture. There was barely a single parent dropping off or picking up their children – just Beavers and Cubs wandering into the Scout meeting  at various times before disappearing into the night. 

Nico, Group Scout Leader and a key figure in keeping Scouting alive in the area, has been involved with the group for a few years now and has witnessed all kinds of challenges, including the lack of interest from adults. ‘We rarely see the parents – the young people around here don’t tend to get dropped off by adults. Five or six year-olds will just wander in on their own. They just follow other kids. So it’s really hard to engage with adults and get them involved if we don’t see them.’ 

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The age-old problem of adult volunteers is one of the many obstacles that continue to hinder the Group’s development and the plan to address the  disconnect in its community. Aside from the challenges of working with a multi-national community, the general danger and deprivation certainly hasn’t helped matters either.  ‘It’s not been easy working in this area,’ admits Nico. ‘Things are a lot calmer than they used to be; the area was quite notorious for shootings and stabbings in the past. I’ve had to contact safeguarding for a number of reasons – we had a kid that came in and had been beaten up by some older kids. They tried to steal a mobile from our Scout Leader, but it was an old brick so they decided to give it back to him! We’ve also had issues when we’ve had to call the police – it’s quite normal but you get used to it.’ 

'Money isn’t the biggest challenge; you can always do things without money. It’s the lack of help from volunteers. We need adult support.’

Nico also reveals that lack of money can be an issue. The Group has a uniform bank so the young people can borrow neckers, jumpers, polo shirts etc (the leaders then take the uniforms home to wash) and not have to worry about purchasing clothing. The group also doesn’t bother with subs for the younger sections: ‘We get £1 a week from Scouts but that’s it,’ says Nico. ‘But money isn’t the biggest challenge; you can always do things without money. It’s the lack of help from volunteers. We need adult support.’  

In the months and years ahead, changing perceptions and getting regular attendance from the young people and adult volunteers are the main self-imposed goals that have been set by the team at Page Hall. ‘I’ve met a couple of the parents who are really enthused. Getting them to help is tricky, but there is potential,’ says Sian. ‘It’s going to take a while to get there. These guys will need a hell of a lot more support than your ‘standard’ Scout Group does. We need more consistency – in kids and volunteers and a regular camp perhaps. It takes a lot of people to try and keep this going.’ 

Sian summarises: ‘but this is the next generation. If we can change attitudes about the community, about people from other backgrounds and how these people can live in the same community together, then we really will have achieved something. I’d love more adults to engage with the community so we can really make a long-lasting change here…’

How does your Scout Group make lasting change in the community? Share your stories here.

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