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Challenges to Eastern European Roma and their teachers in the UK

Rory Henderson

The Roma are amongst Europe’s most disadvantaged groups, facing high levels of prejudice and discrimination. The largest population of Roma is in Eastern Europe; particularly Romania and Slovakia where social and economic disadvantage are endemic (European Commission, 2014).

Since 2008, there has been a significant migration of Eastern-European Roma to the UK (Fox et al, 2012). There is, however, limited data on educational outcomes for Roma students in UK schools. A significant issue is the failure to make a clear distinction between the Roma and other ‘gypsy’ groups.

A significant issue is the failure to make a clear distinction between the Roma and other ‘gypsy’ groups.

A recent report (Ofsted, 2014) focuses on the rising number of Eastern-European Roma. The report categorises pupils as gypsy/Roma. This includes non-Roma gypsies, and also the Romanichals and Kale, who have a Romani origin but have been present in the UK for centuries and are fluent in English, albeit often in a dialect that uses Roma words (Matras et al, 2007). Indeed, much research on gypsy-Roma-traveller groups (GRT) has not distinguished between different ethnic groups or draws generalised conclusions on GRT pupils when some sub-groups have not been considered (highlighted by Payne, 2015).

The generic grouping of Roma/gypsy/traveller children means the underachievement of an individual sub-group may be concealed. In 2013, 13.8% of pupils in this broadly-defined group achieved five or more GCSE grades A*-G (Ofsted, 2014). However, in three cities with large Roma populations – Manchester, Sheffield and Derby – no Roma pupils achieved this standard. It is reasonable to conclude that almost all of that 13.8%, come from non-Roma gypsy groups and those with a longer history in the UK.

The academy where the data were generated has a fast-growing Roma population, mainly recently-arrived migrants from Slovakia. The data included focus groups of Roma pupils; questionnaires issued to staff who work with those pupils; and an interview with the Director of English as an Additional Language (EAL), who was the member of the school leadership with responsibility for the Roma cohort.

Pupils spoke of their previous educational experiences; for example in Slovakia, they had attended segregated Roma-only schools. Those schools did not take account of language barriers and did not provide a positive educational experience. Consequently, these pupils entered the UK education system, often during the secondary years, without a concept of what a school was like. Basic expectations such as asking for permission to leave their seat were unfamiliar to pupils, and some staff did not understand that non-compliance with rules was due to ignorance rather than defiance. Staff and pupils expressed frustration: staff with what they saw as deliberate rule-breaking and pupils believing they were being treated differently from British and other minority pupils. This confusion appeared to be the cause of many behavioural issues: in the academy, the Roma made up a considerably higher-than-expected proportion of behaviour incidents from their representation on the school roll.

A further finding was that pupils did not understand the purpose of examinations. For example, they thought that GCSE results were simply for the information of teachers. The EAL director spoke of a need for pupils to be provided with interview and CV-writing techniques alongside qualifications, to help them access routes into further education and employment.

My research suggests that schools should develop intense induction programmes for pupils on entry to school, helping them to learn about the education system holistically rather than simply the requirements of their individual institution. Otherwise there is a risk that the Roma will have no better experiences in the UK than in their previous countries of residence. For example, 60% of children in special schools in Slovakia are Roma (European Commission, 2014), despite making up only 2% of the population in the 2011 census.

Recently, models have emerged for teachers working with these marginalised groups, for example the Traveller and Roma Gypsy Education Tool (see Payne, 2015). Such models fail to meet the needs of the newly-arrived Roma, whose English-language proficiency is usually much weaker than that of other gypsy groups in the UK. Neither do they account for pupils’ and parents’ negative experiences of schools in Eastern Europe. Schools in high-Roma areas are now trialling models targeted specifically at recently-arrived Eastern-European Roma pupils, such as the Roma Language and Education Tool, which take account of these factors.

With the impending exit of the UK from the EU, the long-term future of the Eastern-European Roma in this country is uncertain. In the short term, their numbers are likely to increase: recent reports (BBC, 2016) show migration figures at an all-time high. Schools need strategies to help children to adapt to the UK system, while also ensuring that staff have high expectations and appropriate resources for learning. Policy-makers can also recognise from this study that categorising all traveller-based groups together is confusing, unhelpful and inefficient.



Barany, Z. (1998), Ethnic mobilization and the state: The Roma in Eastern Europe, Ethnic and Racial Studies 21 (2), 308-327.

BBC (2016), UK net migration hits record high. Available at

European Commission. (2014). Report on discrimination of Roma children in education. Available at

Fox, J.E., Morosanu, L. and Szilassy, E. (2012), The racialization of the new European migration to the UK, Sociology, 1-16

Matras, Y., Gardner, H., Jones, C and Schulman, V. (2007), Angloromani: A different kind of language? Anthropological Linguistics 49 (2): 142-184

Ofsted (2014), Overcoming barriers: ensuring that Roma children are fully engaged and achieving in education, London: HMSO

Payne, M. (2015), Supporting the educational development of Slovak Roma pupils in Sheffield: The Roma language and education tool (RoLET), Tilburg Papers in Cultural Studies, Tilburg: Babylon