Challenging stereotypes, changing culture: inclusion for GRT children

Gypsy/Roma/Traveller (GRT) pupils have the poorest educational outcomes of any group. But at Ash Manor School, an inclusive ethos and high expectations mean GRT children flourish

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Annie Grant is a freelance consultant, producer, writer and editor

There have been Travellers here for generations,’ says Billiejo Sines, a member of the Romany Gypsy community in Ash, near Aldershot in Surrey. ‘My Dad was brought up on a caravan site here, and when the houses were built, many Traveller families moved from the site into houses.’

Comprising over 12,000 people, Gypsy Travellers form one of Surrey’s largest minority ethnic groups. In Ash, several housing estates are home to large numbers of Gypsy families.

Ms Sines has worked for the last four years as an inclusion assistant at Ash Manor School, where 6.3% of pupils identify as Gypsy/Roma/Traveller (GRT), compared to an average of 0.4% in schools nationally. Deputy headteacher Jo Luhman estimates, however, that the actual proportion is nearer to 12%, as some families are unwilling to declare their ethnic background.

The national picture

According to government national statistics, GRT pupils have the poorest outcomes of any group in terms of attainment, attendance and exclusions. In 2013:

  • only 23% of GRT pupils in England achieved level 4 or above at the end of Key Stage 2 in reading, writing and mathematics, compared to 75% of all pupils nationally
  • only 13.8% gained five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, compared with 60.6% of all pupils nationally
  • attendance for GRT pupils was only around 85% at primary and secondary school, compared with 95% of all pupils nationally
  • GRT pupils were three times more likely to be excluded from primary school, and four times more likely to be excluded from secondary school, than any other pupil group.

But statistics from Ash Manor School tell a different story. Although levels of absence for GRT pupils are still high compared with their non-Gypsy peers, they are nearly half those experienced nationally. And while GRT attainment is lower than that of other groups in the school, results are significantly better than national levels for their ethnic group. In 2015, 44% of GRT pupils at Ash Manor School achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C, compared with only 11% of GRT pupils nationally.

Who are the Gypsies, Roma and Travellers?

  • Romany gypsies left India over 1,000 years ago, settling across Europe and arriving in the UK in the 1500s.
  • Irish Traveller culture dates back at least to the 11th century.
  • New Travellers are people who adopted a travelling life through choice, not because of cultural heritage. Many are now second or third generation.
  • Roma are Romany people from central and eastern Europe.
  • Other Travellers include Showmen, Bargees and Circus people.
  • Around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers live in the UK, about 200,000 in houses and 100,000 in caravans. Some still travel for part or all of the year. Around 25,000 Gypsies and Travellers are homeless and have nowhere legal to stop.
  • Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as ethnic minorities under the Equality Act, 2010.
  • Since 2003, Gypsy/Roma and Irish Travellers are distinct ethnicity group categories within the School Census. The Census does not record other travelling groups.

Challenging stereotypes

However, the outlook for GRT pupils at Ash Manor has not always been good.

‘When I first came here, Traveller boys left at 14 and many girls did not attend secondary school at all,’ remembers Jo Luhman, who has taught at the school for 19 years. ‘Pupils were pulled out of school to be home educated for the purposes of travelling, but more recently, GRT families have become increasingly interested in securing a good education for their children in school.’

Ms Luhman attributes this change partly to the current working climate for Traveller families. ‘It’s more difficult now for fathers to take their sons out to teach them how to make a living,’ she explains. ‘You can’t get trade work any more by knocking on doors. People expect you to have qualifications. If fathers don’t have those qualifications, at least their sons can get them, and most of our Traveller boys today stay on until Year 11, and then go on to sixth form, apprenticeships or college.’

Ms Luhman has seen a similar change in attitudes towards GRT girls’ education. Mothers in particular, she feels, are beginning to realise that qualifications do not undermine their daughters’ ability to become good homemakers and mothers if that’s what they wish to do, but at the same time they open up opportunities and choices that were not available to earlier generations of Gypsy women.

Ann Wilson MBE, vice-chair of the Surrey Gypsy Traveller Communities Forum, feels that where schools persist in holding stereotypical views of GRT families’ attitude towards secondary education, life chances for GRT pupils can be damaged. She describes how the assumption that a young relative of hers will leave school at 14 has resulted in low expectations and lack of provision.

‘Because they think she will leave, there’s no encouragement on the academic side,’ explains Ms Wilson. ‘Her confidence and her belief that she can achieve something are being crushed. She wants to work with horses and with a little bit of encouragement she could study that at college. But the encouragement is just not there.’

‘It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ says Genty Lee, education lead for the forum. ‘ No amount of education is worth sacrificing a child’s wellbeing and mental health. So parents pull their children out. And then the school was right: there’s another Traveller child that didn’t make it.’

A question of trust

Changing the culture at Ash Manor has taken time and a strategic approach. The school has worked closely with its feeder primary schools over a number of years to put literacy programmes in place so that GRT pupils enter secondary school with the skills necessary to access the secondary curriculum.

As a result, GRT pupils no longer form a significant proportion of pupils starting Year 7 below chronological reading age.

GRT pupils are three or four times more likely to be excluded from school than any other group

Underpinning Ash Manor’s success are the relationships that have been built up between school and community over time. ‘Schools can’t just replicate what is being done here – they have to understand their own particular Traveller community, because each one is different,’ explains Jo Luhman. ‘Our Traveller community had turned their backs on education. They were petrified of coming into school because their experience of school was that Gypsy children got bullied and racially abused and nothing was done to stop it. And it’s taken us years to break down those barriers.’

‘It’s a question of trust,’ says Genty Lee, who may soon join the governing body at Ash Manor. ‘If parents have a school like Ash Manor were children are included, where they know no harm will come to them, where their needs are understood and met, and where the door is open for communication, then they’re going to engage with that school and support their children’s education.’

There are still areas to work on. Concerns about safety lead some GRT parents to withdraw their children from important educational experiences such as school trips. Ash Manor addresses this by inviting reliable members of the GRT community to come along.

‘When we visit Auschwitz next year, two of the Traveller elders are coming with us,’ explains Ms Luhman. ‘That not only means we can take some of our GRT girls, but also it will build trust because they’ll see how we safeguard pupils on trips.


An important step in helping Ash Manor to communicate effectively with GRT families was Ms Sines’ appointment as inclusion assistant. ‘Having a Traveller from the community as a keyworker on our staff had a massive impact,’ explains Ms Luhman. ‘We could already see the difference within six weeks, because Billiejo was liaising with parents and communicating to them what our school is about.’

For some Travellers, direct communication between home and school is a new and welcome experience. Traditionally, before many were disbanded or integrated within wider school improvement teams, local authority Traveller education services liaised between Traveller families and schools.

‘For far too long it was the people who work with Gypsies giving their view about what the community needs,’ says Ann Wilson.

‘But now at Ash Manor School, we have a Gypsy woman encouraging parents to educate their children, as well as being a phenomenal ambassador for the GRT community,’ adds Hilda Brazil, co-chair of the GRT forum.

Ms Sines’ work in school has also had a positive impact on the Traveller pupils themselves, and on attitudes to and understanding of GRT students by teachers and other pupils.

‘Students come to me if they’ve got a problem, whereas they might not want to tell a teacher, and I can talk to staff on their behalf,’ says Ms Sines. ‘Teachers too sometimes ask me about cultural matters.

For instance, they might say: “A child said this, is it rude?” and I’ll explain: “No, it’s one of the Romany words they use.”’

‘We got an immediate improvement in GRT attitudes and behaviour as soon as Billiejo was on site,’ says Ms Luhman. ‘Pupils listened to her because they respected and trusted her, and she was giving exactly the same messages as we were.’

Creating an inclusive culture

Ash Manor believes that an explicit recognition of the minority groups within a school community is the starting point for creating an inclusive culture. ‘In our first assemblies, which were about community, the head told pupils about the make-up of our school, including the proportion that are GRT,’ Ms Luhman remembers, ‘and the Traveller children responded positively to being identified as a group, because they’re proud of their heritage.’

Genty Lee highlights the importance of the school curriculum making reference to Gypsy history and culture. ‘Where there’s nothing for Gypsy children to identify with, they feel excluded,’ she explains. ‘But it’s a simple thing to rectify. When you teach about Mother Teresa, point out that she was of Romany-Gypsy heritage. Mention that Christopher Columbus was accompanied by four Gypsy men. Gypsy men fought in both world wars. Everybody studies the Holocaust but there is often no mention of the persecution of GRT groups during or after the war.’

Ash Manor School not only recognises the importance of curriculum content that allows pupils to embrace their culture and identity, but also the value of cultural understanding for non-Gypsy pupils. Each June, the whole school celebrates aspects of Gypsy culture during GRT History Month.

Equality and empowerment

Jo Luhman is keen to point out that the sole reason that GRT pupils do well at Ash Manor is because it is an inclusive school. ‘We are a community and we respect everybody,’ she says. ‘Everybody has an equal opportunity to decide what they want in their life and we will support them to achieve that.'

No concessions are made to particular groups. There is zero tolerance of racism. Policies on attendance, punctuality, uniform and behaviour apply equally to everyone.

‘Occasionally, parents will claim we’re picking on their child because they’re Travellers,’ says Ms Luhman. ‘But we’re clear: “We’re dealing with your child because their behaviour is not appropriate. It’s the behaviour, not the child that we don’t like.”’

All staff are aware of cultural issues that might previously have been interpreted as misbehaviour

Some pupil behaviours are, however, viewed through a lens of cultural understanding. All staff have received training on GRT culture from members of the GRT community and are aware of cultural issues that might previously have been interpreted as misbehaviour.

‘We understand now, for example, that if there’s been a death in the family, children will sit up late,’ explains Ms Luhman. ‘Previously, the children wouldn’t attend for several days. Now they do attend, but if they’re late or tired we understand.’

‘There are several examples,’ she continues. ‘In GRT culture teenage boys are treated as men, while at school they are treated as children. That conflict affects the way they interact with staff when they’re asked to do things. Now that we understand that, when we want them to do things, we ask them in a way that acknowledges that they are men in their community, and we get a completely different response. These small adjustments make a huge difference to a pupil’s experience of school.’

High expectations

Ash Manor has high expectations of everyone. Ms Sines’ own daughter, now in Year 10, aspires to be a solicitor. But some GRT parents still hope their children will follow a manual trade when they leave, and the school will support that too. ‘We have one GRT pupil who wants to be a florist, so she is taking a level 2 course at college,’ says Ms Luhman, ‘and she’s smashing the course – top student. Her dad’s going to set her up in a floristry business when she finishes. But she’ll also leave with eight or nine good GCSEs.’

‘We’ve seen here, over a long period of time, the GRT community’s attitude to education changing,’ continues Ms Luhman. ‘And it will change again because the Traveller children who are coming through now are loving education, they’re seeing others succeed, they want to do better, and they’re going to.’

Mary-Lou, a Traveller pupil sums it up. ‘I want to stand on my own two feet as a Traveller woman and I want to give my children the best chance in life,’ she declares. ‘And nobody’s going to tell me I’m not entitled to it.’

This article is taken from Special Children Magazine, issue 234. Find out how to subscribe. PDF versions of the magazines are available to download in the My Account area under My Magazines for subscribers of the Knowledge Centre and Premium CPD.


Last Updated: 
02 May 2017