Christian Johnson portrait

Written by Christian Johnson

Christian works as a tutor with GRT (Gypsy, Roma and Traveller) students for Open Doors Education and Training, and is also a Policy and Campaigns Officer for The Traveller Movement.

I’m a tutor working for Open Doors Education and Training (ODET), a community interest company and educational provider offering funded and tailored education to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and young people. Having worked for ODET for over two years, one of the things we often hear from schools and other referral bodies, be that local authorities or youth service providers, is that they don’t know how to engage with different communities from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds.  

This is something which is unfortunately reflected in the data. When it comes to education, GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) communities have the lowest attainment rates of any ethnic group in the UK as well as some of the highest fixed term exclusion rates (21.26% for Gypsy/Roma in 2018-19 and 14.63% for Irish Travellers vs. 5.36% of all pupils) from UK schools. These figures are compounded by the well-known correlation between low educational attainment and exposure to the criminal justice system, often referred to as the ‘School to Prison Pipeline’, which extends to the GRT population. Almost 10% of children in the youth estate identified as GRT, which is extremely concerning when we consider GRT only constitute between 0.5 – 1% of the UK population.  

In trying to address these widening disparities, we recently released an evaluation of one of educational programs, ‘Tutors for Young GRT’, in partnership with Leeds Beckett University titled ‘Building Trust, Stepping Together’. Through stories, poems and songs, researchers captured the voices and thoughts of a large cohort of GRT students studying with Open Doors Education across the country, distilling their findings into cogent and concise reflections on what works and what doesn’t. These conclusions represent fertile ground for other teachers and those working within education to develop their own approaches to engaging with young GRT.  

Tutors for Young Gypsy, Roma and Travellers 

In the wake of the pandemic and in response to the data available, ODET’s ‘Tutors for Young GRT’ program was created to provide the support needed to reduce the attainment gap between young Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students and their peers. Each student receives an hour a week of one-to-one lessons from their tutor over the course of a school year, focused on topics best suited to their needs and delivered remotely via Zoom. In designing the program, ODET was keen to ensure that digital access didn’t become a barrier to education – as it was for many students during the pandemic. With this in mind, the digital needs for each student are assessed upon joining the program and, if required, are provided with a suitable device to attend their lessons free of charge.  

The tutoring itself is, paradoxically, both generalised but also tailored; encompassing all ages (provided they’re in full time education) and across all subjects. This broader scope gives us as tutors a greater flexibility to tailor our lessons to the needs and interests of the child. While we place an onus on core subjects, if a child is a particularly talented artist then we’ll try to help them cultivate their ability by assigning them a relevantly experienced tutor. The same goes for other subjects; it’s primarily about nurturing a passion for learning among the students and giving them the support they need to succeed, regardless of the subject.  

Building Trust, Stepping Together 

Compiling the voices and experiences of 135 students, alongside reports published by the tutors at the end of each lesson, the evaluation found the program to be successful in helping to address the educational inequalities faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young children and young people. These findings were broken down into several sections, each tackling a component of what helped the program’s delivery, and summarising the voices of the students.  

Valuing learning despite school – There was an overwhelming sense from the students that learning was important. Many students recognised the importance of the core subjects but also expressed interests in the humanities, arts and music. The report found that despite a desire to learn, many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people leave school due to poor experiences in education, often stemming from issues such as bullying, instances of discrimination and racism, bureaucracy and digital exclusion. One student commented that ‘I prefer this (online tutoring through ODET) to learning in class because sometimes it can get a little tricky in class with other people, who can sometimes make it hard to concentrate’. This willingness to learn was reflected in the attendance figures from the program, which, on average hovered at a consistent 70%.  

Quality Tutors  – The report found that the one-to-one structure of the program was positively received. Consistent across the experiences shared by students, were mentions of the importance of tutors having confidence in their pupils’ ability and building productive and supportive relationships. Another point of emphasis was that students didn’t feel judged or pressured during their learning. One student mentioned that they liked that the tutors are not too “pushy”. I think it helps me learn faster because they never put pressure on us so we are able to focus more.  

ODET’s tuition – Research has shown us that GRT communities are more likely to have poor experiences within the education system. Another key takeaway of the report was that the program helped students build confidence with learning, which then carried into mainstream learning. One student reported that ‘school has been so much easier since tutoring with [tutor’s name]. School feels like so much better and all the support I’ve been getting… I really hope our lessons can continue’. This was reflected in data aggregated from the tutors’ reports, which found that roughly 90% of students displayed a commitment level ‘at or above the expected level’. 

My experiences working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Young People  

The term ‘GRT’ itself is a broad umbrella, encompassing three varied groups (Gypsy, Roma and Traveller); each with their own distinct identities, variations and regional specificities. While there might be one broad term, the experiences of each student I’ve taught on the program have been resoundingly diverse. I’ve taught students who’ve left mainstream education in year 8 to be home-educated with their siblings, others who raise horses in their spare time; one young man who competes nationally for his age group in golf, and another who was awarded ‘student of the year’ in their school – the list goes on. In my experience, young people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds are, more often than not, high attainers, just not always in the context of mainstream education.  

In a way, it’s a refreshing process to go through as an educator, for each lesson prompts you to reconsider and adjust your approach in order to better meet the needs of the child. Whether that’s through brushing up on your knowledge of golf terminology to teach spelling, or helping a student learn maths by designing a treehouse with them. This is where the format of the program, being one-to-one, really shines. It allows us as tutors, to tailor the lessons to the individual needs and experiences of the student, going at their pace while using material they’re passionate about. I realise it is a genuine rarity within the education sector, to have the scope and the time available to deliver lessons in this way, but it’s greatly needed for young GRT. In order to help address the widening attainment gap and allow these young people to go into the world confident and qualified to pursue a future they want rather than feeling like they’re on the back foot, programs such as these are absolutely essential.  

One thing which is consistent across the students who’ve been on the program for a few weeks or more, is an amazing tenacity and genuine passion for learning. These students want to learn. Many just don’t necessarily see learning as synonymous with formal education. Several students have expressed this to me, that academic learning isn’t for them, that it’s for someone else.  

This morning I received an email from a teacher in south London looking for poetry recommendations by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller authors she could teach to her year 7 class. I’m certainly no authority on GRT poetry, but it’s great to see educators recognising the importance of including positive Gypsy, Roma and Traveller representation in their curriculum. Including material from Gypsy, Roma and Travellers isn’t something teachers should ignore, but which they can find out about and incorporate. Because having texts, or paintings, or songs for that matter, from GRT artists, shows Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people that education is for them, that it’s a path or stepping stone they can take to help them build the life they want.  

Two of the key words which kept coming up in feedback for Leeds Beckett’s evaluation were patience and support. Many of the students reported feeling intimidated by school, that it was scary, lonely, and competitive. With many students, I noticed a dramatic shift in their attitude to learning after just a few weeks and I think this has a lot to do with just feeling comfortable. Having a historically difficult relationship with the UK’s education system, it’s important that teachers are patient, understanding and sympathetic of the structural barriers faced by many of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people and their families before them.  

In talking about the report and my experiences as a tutor on the program, I hope to show others working with these young people that they want to learn, want to engage, and will do great things if given the opportunity. 

For further information and guidance on techniques to engage with the GRT communities, I’d certainly recommend our recently released toolkit of best practice, titled BESTIE. Released in partnership with the National Youth Association, the toolkit provides a wealth of helpful guidance for practitioners working with young GRT in different contexts. You can find the toolkit here.