How schools can reverse Gypsy and Roma under-achievement

MPs are investigating why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have the worst exclusion and attainment rates

MPs are investigating why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have the worst exclusion and attainment rates

25 Jan 2022, 5:00

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Roma parents used to ask Petr Torak for help taking children out of Peterborough’s Queen Katharine Academy.

Now they ask the chief executive of the local migrant charity Compas how to enrol in the school that recently won a Pearson Teaching Award for its Roma inclusion work.

With the education select committee recently announcing an inquiry into challenges faced by Gypsy and Roma pupils, we asked the academy and other schools and experts how to tackle under-achievement.

Understand and build links with communities

The “turning point” for Queen Katharine (QKA) came after it sought Torak’s help in 2016 to tackle the disproportionately poor behaviour amongst Roma pupils.

Petr Torak

Torak, a governor and also Roma, helped deputy principal Jane Driver and principal Lynn Mayes visit Slovakia, the birthplace of many pupils. They saw “harrowing” living conditions, children in special schools without good reason, and a general acceptance that Roma education ended at primary level, according to Driver.

Torak said such marginalisation was behind the decision of many European Roma to move to Britain.

“We came back determined to give these young people aspiration and a sense they deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody else,” Driver said.

Leaders then educated staff about pupils’ likely backstories and how behaviour was a “response to lived experiences”, as well as about Roma history, culture and values.

Compas also sent Roma workers to visit families of absent children.

When Paula Strachan became head of St Teresa’s Catholic Primary in Darlington, she visited a nearby site where many Roma pupils lived. 

Paula Strachan

“I wasn’t afraid to ask honest questions,” she says. “If heads don’t understand the groups we’re serving, we can’t do our jobs.”

She saw how common illiteracy was, and now telephones parents who cannot read letters and stands outside her school each morning so parents can flag concerns in person. 

Driver says schools must be brave trying new approaches – like QKA’s “accelerated curriculum”. 

Realising many Roma pupils’ poor English and frequent spells away make traditional teaching unviable, leaders cram most of the curriculum into half the time. Classes are smaller and language-learning is weaved throughout all subjects. 

Roma Progress 8 performance and attendance have both improved. The school also runs a Roma gifted and talented scheme, and staff receive training to make all lessons accessible to pupils with English as a second language.

St Teresa’s similarly offers tailored support, from learning packs for parents who home educate or travel for long spells, to videos of authors reading stories for parents who are illiterate.

But QKA does not bend its attendance rules; Roma parents who take their children out of school in term-time still face fines.

Promote GRT culture and history

Many agree teaching Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) culture can help pupils and parents feel welcome and tackle wider prejudice.

Gypsy leader Billy Welch shows St Teresa's pupils traditional and new caravans.
Gypsy leader Billy Welch shows St Teresas pupils traditional and new caravans

Emma Nuttall, policy manager at the charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT), says the Department for Education should encourage all schools to promote GRT history month. 

Strachan takes her pupils to visit a local caravan site, letting them ask questions and showing them traditional vardo wagons and new caravans.

QKA has held exhibitions and brings in slam poets to get pupils writing about their identity. Driver said it also seeks to build “belonging and hometown links” in Peterborough that unite all pupils.

FFT argues GRT history should be in the curriculum too. A survey it carried out in 2019 found that most UK adults did not know 500,000 Roma and Sinti people died in the Holocaust.

Tackle racism 

Another poll found GRT children highlighted racism and bullying as their main problems at school, which campaigners say explains the high GRT drop-out rates and poor outcomes 

Nuttall urges schools to use the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s GRT audit tool online, record incidents as “racist” and analyse data annually. Charities such as Compas help schools to teach pupils how to spot and report hate crime.

Academic Margaret Greenfield said her research found pupils beaten unconscious, teachers “reiterating negative stereotypes” and prejudice taken less seriously than other racism.

Strachan says she has been rung by schools “irritated” that a Gypsy pupil has arrived before SATs  

Experts say tackling bullying can also help pupils to disclose a GRT heritage they often hide, enabling targeted support and monitoring. QKA estimates Roma numbers are twice what families declare. Charities say the same of UK census data. 

Prioritise funding

Schools and campaigners agree they cannot overcome challenges alone, however. 

A call for evidence from the education select committee to inform its inquiry into the challenges facing GRT pupils closes this week.

Demands MPs are likely to hear include ring-fenced catch-up funds for GRT children, and the release of a cross-government GRT strategy promised in 2019. A government spokesperson said publication would come “in due course”.

It followed a similar inquiry from the women and equalities committee that concluded GRT communities had been “comprehensively failed” by policymakers. 

GRT pupils are almost four times as likely to be permanently excluded and around six times as likely to score below grade 5 in English or maths as white British pupils – a group labelled “forgotten” by MPs.

Brian Foster, of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, says the £200,000 allocated to six GRT pilot projects across government in 2019 is “insulting”, and doubts national schemes will follow. 

Cuts to council outreach services also need reversing, he says, as focusing on attainment misses that many GRT children have left schooling altogether.

A DfE spokesperson said it was investing £5 billion in tutoring, teacher training and extra school funding. “This support is especially focused on helping the most disadvantaged, vulnerable or those with least time left in education – whatever their background.”

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