One day at school, Jack* was accosted by his teacher while he was putting his coat on and getting ready to leave the classroom. “Leave it there,” she insisted in front of his classmates. “We donated you that. Your mum didn’t have enough money to buy you a coat.” When he argued back – his mum, a successful public sector employee, had bought the coat for him before term – he was given detention for a week.
The same teacher referred him for an ADHD diagnosis without telling his parents. Sarah*, his mother, has worked in educational special needs, and questioned the teacher’s decision. She learned the diagnosis stemmed from a high score on a maths test, which had been deemed suspicious “considering his background”.
Throughout his school career, 12-year-old Jack has had to get used to micro-aggressions such as these. “That behaviour is quite constant,” says Sarah. “Would she have done that with another child, or is it because he’s a Traveller?”
Jack’s experience is not unique. In a recent report from the Traveller Movement, two-thirds of Irish Travellers said they been bullied by teachers, with one in five saying this made them leave school. This is one of the many reasons why just 3-4% of pupils from Traveller, Gypsy or Roma (GRT) backgrounds attend university compared with 43% of their peers, according to Kings College London research. The numbers are thought to be getting worse rather than better, although this is difficult to measure given so many GRT students conceal their identities for fear of racism.
Another barrier is cultural. Some GRT pupils’ parents experienced patchy schooling themselves, and don’t always value education or struggle to support their children with schoolwork. Jack is lucky because although Sarah didn’t attend school growing up, she had the opportunity to go to college, where she received distinctions across the board.
“The issue now is that he’s starting secondary school, and most Traveller boys don’t go. They normally go out to work with their dad,” she says. “He feels a bit torn. They’re saying ‘we’re old enough, we don’t have to’, and I’m saying ‘actually, you’re really bright, you do really well, you enjoy it’.”
So when Sarah spotted an Instagram post offering free online tutoring for pupils from GRT backgrounds during coronavirus, she leapt at the chance. Within weeks, she noticed a transformation. “It’s the attitude towards education that’s changed.”
The project is part of Rom Belong, a pioneering programme run by King’s College London and the Traveller Movement. It aims to help more bright GRT pupils like Jack get into university, and support them when they arrive. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, most of its work had to be suspended, leading the team to worry that these hard to reach communities could drift even further away from education.
But they rapidly rolled out online tutoring and discovered it to be even more effective than face-to-face. The project funds free Amazon Fire tablets and dongles for families since they are twice as likely to face digital poverty as their peers. Some tutors even started teaching their students over WhatsApp.
“It’s working amazingly – the kids are less embarrassed when it’s online,” says Chrissie Browne, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller lead at King’s College London’s department for widening participation. “And their families don’t have to change their lives. If you’ve got a living situation in poverty, parents don’t want people to come in.”
Many GRT pupils experience low expectations and racist bullying from teachers and fellow students, so receiving personalised attention from a tutor is invaluable. “The most important thing is to have an experience where someone in education sees them as an individual with their own interests and skills, and to focus on what makes them special, not just as part of a group,” says Meredith Moore, one of the tutors. She thinks her pupil’s experience of travelling has made her adaptable, open-minded and equipped with good social skills.
Outreach work with the GRT community has to start young, as many disengage with education early. That’s why although most university access work focuses on teenagers, the tutoring project is open to children of all ages. “If you look at the evidence, GRT kids are already behind by primary school, by secondary they’re in pupil referral units. They’re behind their peers by two to three years, so to just work with 16 and 17 year-olds is shutting the gate after the horse has bolted,” says Browne.
Browne identifies as Gypsy herself, and experienced a difficult journey through the education system. She dropped out of school, which she didn’t enjoy, then returned to education in her late 20s, ending up with a BA in nutrition and dietetics from King’s.
“As a Traveller, going to uni is a scary thing. My family didn’t understand what uni was, they still don’t. I didn’t feel like I fitted in. Even though on the outside I look like any other white girl, inside I felt different to everyone else,” she says.
Her views are echoed by Chelsea McDonagh, an Irish Traveller working on the project, who is also a campaigner and researcher for the Traveller Movement. “When you don’t see people from your background at uni it can make it feel as though it isn’t a place for someone like you,” she says, but adds that “especially more recently, universities are doing a lot more outreach work and that’s a really positive step.”
She thinks one of the main benefits of the tutoring project is the way it tackles the root cause of underrepresentation at university: lower attainment at school. “Not all parents are able to support with home learning, so if schools aren’t bridging some of that gap that can contribute to young people falling behind,” she says.
But while grassroots projects can make a difference to a handful of pupils, ultimately meaningful change is the government’s responsibility, McDonagh says. She thinks policy isn’t “going anywhere near as far as it should”, highlighting how few GRT students have benefited from the free laptops drive during the pandemic.
She thinks there is an urgent need for more targeted initiatives focused on the GRT community. “There are schools which are trying but if young people are behind their peers, the schools need access to additional funding to get them up to speed,” she says. “Honestly even if [the government] did the bare minimum we’d probably clap, because there’s been so little.”