Raising Eastern European Gypsy/Roma Achievement: a guide for Educational Practitioners

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Raising Eastern European Gypsy/Roma Achievement:
A Guide for Educational Practitioners

Castle Hill Centre

Castleton Street


Tel: 01204 338150

Email: travellers.education@bolton.gov.uk

With thanks to Refugee and Traveller Advice in Kent for permission to use their information as a base

Community Cohesion & Traveller Education

Raising Eastern European Gypsy/Roma Achievement: A Guide for Educational Practitioners

Since the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary (part of the A8) joined the European Union in 2004, Gypsy/Roma have been moving to find work, (e.g. estimated 90% Roma unemployment in Slovakia). Some were working in the closest Western European countries such as Italy, Austria and Germany and more recently some have come to work in France.

Marginalisation and persecution of Roma across Eastern Europe is endemic and historic. Despite the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 Roma slaves were not emancipated in Rumania until 1864. Today documented accounts confirm skinhead attacks and murders with which some local Police have colluded. Roma women are still being misled into sterilisation. However, the case of sterilisation has only been proved to happen in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Robert Fico, the now Slovak Prime Minister, in his 2002 campaign included a promise to: “actively effect the irresponsible growth of the Romani population.” So prior to European Accession Roma were already leaving Eastern Europe to seek asylum in neighbouring western countries.

The European Union has designated 2005-2015 ‘The Decade of Roma Inclusion' recognising that time, energy and funding needs to be targeted if this group is to gain access to Equal Opportunities in education, health, housing and employment in Eastern Europe.
The arrival of Eastern European Roma in Western Europe continues a journey begun 1500 years ago when the Roma left the Indian sub-continent and began to move westwards along the Silk Roads in search of trading opportunities.
1500 years of marginalisation means that today the Roma in Bolton are doing the lowest paid manual jobs. They access rented accommodation often on very short term lets leading to intermittent access to schooling for their children. Most Eastern European Roma children have been denied access to mainstream education so the majority of Roma parents cannot read or write. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and other new EU countries the families speak Romani but with varying dialects both local and family based.
Eastern European education systems assess children in their state languages. So when young Romani speaking children fail to understand the questions they are placed in Special Schools. This confirms the institutional belief that this group is inferior. Furthermore there is no Romani language used in schools and children stay in the same class unless they pass an exam to move up. With their Asian origins the Roma people look different from the longer established Eastern European people and are derogatorily referred to as 'the blacks'
Although opportunities are slowly improving, the Roma have, until recently, been denied access to primary health care. So they may also suffer disproportionately from additional educational needs (AEN); needs such as hearing and sight impairments. Also Roma across Europe have the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rates
Today Roma parents are keen that their children have equal opportunities and access mainstream education. However families need support with the English admissions process due to their lack of English, lack of literacy, and lack of positive school experience.
Across the EU all Migrants' children have the same rights so are entitled to school places and Child Benefit. Parents however are not entitled to benefits in Britain until residency and work have been well established.

Areas of interest:

Gypsy/Roma culture places the highest value on family life. Family needs may be seen as more important than formal education. For example if a relative is ill the family will all rally, including the children. Celebrations such as weddings or funerals may go on for much longer than in English culture as families may travel long distances to support each other. Children are included in all aspects of extended family social life.
Roma migrant workers' families are often subject to short term lets and the subsequent stress. As few have transport, they may change schools more frequently than they would wish. Not having been to school themselves, some may not understand the importance of school record keeping and of letting school know family movements.

  • Developing good face to face relationships with parents will help keep the school informed of family events/movements;

  • Gypsy/Roma parents may be unable to send in absence notes so should be encouraged to ring in. Where this fails, a prompt, friendly simple telephone enquiry as to the child's health is usually helpful. An absence note written in the appropriate national language could also be seen as good practice. This is because they can be read with the help of those children who speak both English and their own language. Another idea would be for the school to provide picture form letters where the parent(s) could indicate with a ‘tick’ the child’s reason for absence;

  • Ensure school/ ESW understands Roma cultural differences so can be effective;

  • Gypsy/Roma pupils can be marked T (authorised absence) in the register whilst travelling or attending cultural events;

  • Gypsy/Roma attendance/achievement should be monitored separately so as not to skew overall figures and to highlight schools’ awareness of needs;

  • Schools may choose to monitor European Roma separately from English Gypsies if English Gypsy pupils have improved attendance/achievement;

  • Distance learning packs can be provided by the school to keep children in touch if they are away for longer periods. Traveller Education can support with advice;

  • Culturally appropriate curriculum encourages attendance and raises other pupils’ awareness positively about Roma history and culture;

  • Include a Romani dimension in school's multicultural celebrations;

  • Romani speaking interpreters might be appropriate as most Roma families speak Romani; however there are many Roma dialects that have different words for the same meanings. Speaking Romani does not mean the interpreter can speak all dialects.

All behaviour patterns and attitudes reflect experience of family life and society. Societies are ethnocentric. Children from oral cultures with no history of formal education will have little in common with English school settings. Furthermore parents will find our bureaucratic processes bewildering. Remember:

  • confused /anxious people from oral cultures may express themselves quite loudly;

  • people from oral cultures see spontaneous expression as a sign of honesty;

  • face to face speaking with eye contact is a sign of honesty in Roma culture;

  • a smile, patience and clear boundaries are helpful;

  • kinaesthetic learning styles predominate in peoples from oral and nomadic cultures;

  • oral cultures rely on accurate memory;

  • oral cultures have the highest respect for the spoken word before the written;

  • supporting relatives is a vital and natural daily function;

  • delayed learning may reflect lack of access to education or primary health care – rather than inherent special needs;

  • Children moving into a completely new environment may need some considerable time to adjust.

There may be a lack of awareness of how much value English schools place on uniform and equipment. In addition due to overcrowding, there may be little room for the safe storage of school equipment out of reach of younger siblings. Maintaining uniform can pose a serious challenge to mothers in cheap rented accommodation having to use launderettes. Historically Roma have suffered at the hands of those in uniform so may have little respect for it. The need for it to be correct in detail will not be understood. Also low wages prohibit purchase of expensive items and migrant workers do not qualify for State Benefits until residency and National Insurance contributions are well established.

  • Where schools operate homework clubs at lunch times, there is no need for equipment to go home and then be forgotten/lost;

  • Contingency plans for missing equipment are useful, so that learning can proceed;

  • Good home school liaison will encourage necessary communication;

  • A ready supply of clean second hand uniform may be helpful;

  • Persistent problems can be referred for help from Traveller Education (01204 338150).

Home-School Liaison
A history of persecution by authorities and marginalisation by the general population lead to Roma fears regarding apparent officials. Roma may take assertive stances or maintain avoidance to mask anxiety and be prepared for the worst. Changing living circumstances, lack of English, lack of literacy and fear of authority, may present challenges to home/school links.

  • Offer help openly with a smile;

  • Identify a designated member of staff to get to know the community so that families have a known trusted contact. Traveller education will support/advise new staff on request;

  • Identify any Roma family members who can speak some English. Sometimes older siblings are more competent speakers than parents;

  • Only send a letter home with a child who can read. Go through the letter with him/her and entrust responsibility;

  • If no one can read well enough, ring up to convey information simply and take the opportunity to build relationships with positive remarks. Avoid metaphors, jargon and over detailing;

  • Where there is no phone contact accompany child to gate to meet family member, and explain simply with a smile;

  • If more support is required refer to Traveller Education (01204 338150) and make a telephone referral.

The concept of homework is outside Gypsy/Roma culture and experience. Living circumstances are not conducive to study due to lack of space, quiet area, resources and literate adults with school experience. There is also a general belief that school work belongs to school time and family life is sacrosanct.

  • Homework clubs during lunch times;

  • Ongoing availability of the library or appropriate quiet areas;

  • Careful explanation to families as to why homework is helpful;

  • Appropriately differentiated work so that the child can cope without help;

  • Homework ‘pack’ with appropriate equipment.

Identifying Ethnicity
The history of Gypsy/Roma persecution and ethnic cleansing mean reluctance in declaring true ethnicity which may be less apparent in this country. Roma may call themselves Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian until they feel completely safe.
In Eastern Europe, ethnic information was used by the Police to hand families to the Nazis and (in more recent times) to monitor Roma families. Most families today remember relatives who died in the Holocaust, which the Roma call Porrajmos (Great Suffering). Families may also have experienced recent Eastern European Police brutality.
The challenge for schools is in identifying Gypsy/Roma children because their learning needs are very different from children of historic Czech/Slovak/Polish/Hungarian ethnicity who have a very different history, culture and mother tongue. Also those children have had ongoing access to mainstream education and primary health care whereas Roma have not.
Schools can access additional funding through recording accurate data on PLASC because the DfES recognises that Gypsy/Roma children are the lowest achieving ethnic minority and need extra help.
Declaring ethnicity is a very personal issue, which all parents have the right to refuse. Sensitive strategies can encourage accurate ethnic declaration and a safe school environment where being Roma is celebrated will help.

  • Staff may observe known Gypsy/Roma happily associating with those declaring themselves because Roma feel safe with relatives; This is a good clue as indigenous Eastern Europeans generally keep themselves apart from Roma whom they refer to as ‘The Blacks’;

  • English Gypsy/Roma may have enough Romani in common to speak to their long lost cousins so buddying can help and may confirm true ethnicity;

  • Gypsy/Roma have Indian origins, so may also be able to communicate with Asian children whose languages are also rooted in Sanskrit such as Gujarati/Hindi/Urdu/Bangla/Punjabi;

  • Celebrating Roma culture e.g. in a multicultural week or a display, can encourage Gypsy/Roma to declare themselves;

  • Including a Roma dimension in the curriculum encourages ethnic declaration;

  • Get advice on DfES recommended good practice from DfES Standards Website or ring Traveller Education 01204 338150.

Low Levels of Attainment
Most Gypsy/Roma children are the first generation to access literacy. Factors affecting achievement here are: bi/tri-lingualism, lack of previous access to mainstream schooling, lack of literate role models at home, lack of literacy history, lack of social necessity, lack of culturally appropriate resources in schools and low self-esteem resulting from persecution/racism and low expectations in Eastern Europe.

  • Ensure anyone offering additional support/assessment understands Gypsy/Roma history and culture and its impact on the learning process;

  • Be familiar with DfES/OFSTED Guidance on good practice ‘Aiming High’

  • Identify EAL advisory support from BEMAS 01204 338054;

  • Take time to observe/identify any AEN’s beyond EAL;

  • Use ethnic monitoring to identify literacy needs/attendance issues and set targets;

  • Monitor baseline performance using standardised tests;

  • Consider short-term withdrawal to Literacy Booster Classes using culturally appropriate resources;

  • Use cross curricular literacy planning to include materials reflecting culture;

  • Use the “Enhancing the Curriculum” pack available in all Primary schools.

Oral Communication

Gypsy/Roma culture has always been an oral one. Oral cultures place emphasis on understanding body language and eye contact. Memories of those from oral cultures are more practised, being in constant use. The spoken word is revered and remembered. Plain, loud, direct speaking is normal. There is no tradition of non-confrontational communication and a good argument/discussion is enjoyed. It is acceptable for children to interrupt conversations and for several to talk at once with the most persistent and loudest winning the day. Emotions are expressed openly and immediately. Confidence is respected and encouraged in children.


  • Affirm respect for Gypsy/Roma culture within the context of ‘but school ways mean that……..’

  • Remember that noisiness and direct speaking is not meant to intimidate;

  • Since raising the voice to Gypsy/Roma children result in them talking loudly back, engage a noisy child by talking quietly and directly, repeating as necessary;

  • A cooling off period will help if there has been an incident although being spontaneous is valued in their culture as a sign of honesty;

  • Emphasise speaking and listening skills in the classroom without inadvertently denigrating the different ways of other cultures;

Most Slovakian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian Roma are practising Roman Catholics. However in Slovakia, the Roma attend separate churches from the Slovaks. As in other countries in Europe they are perceived as the ‘blacks’ while non-Roma see themselves as ‘whites’. A Roma home will contain religious icons and families are keen to access the Sacraments. Some save hard earned, low wages to pay to return to their known churches in Slovakia for Baptisms and Marriages. Families are usually nervous about approaching the English 'white' Catholic Church and coming from an oral culture and having been denied access to mainstream education, will not have Baptism Certificates or be able to get references from their Parish Priest in Slovakia to support applications to Catholic Schools. This will be the situation for most of the Roma from the other countries.

  • Local Catholic Churches can be made aware of the Roma and their background so that they can outreach and offer a warm welcome into the established local Catholic community.

  • Families approaching Catholic Schools will only have verbal evidence of Catholicity. Confirm by a home visit from a Traveller Education Outreach worker or a Priest/Sister from the local Catholic Church.

Stereotypical Beliefs
All Gypsy/Roma families can relate experience of racism. Gypsy/Roma receives an ongoing negative press both in this country and in Europe. This gives the non-Gypsy (“Garje” – plural form) host population the idea that Gypsy/Roma are all dangerous or criminal.

Inside the home, strict hygiene rules apply but few non-Gypsies have been into Gypsy/Roma homes or understand their ways.

Gypsies perceive Garje society as unsafe and immoral: inhabited by paedophiles and drug dealers. They believe there is little respect for marriage, the family and children. Some Roma communities believe that abortion is illegal.


  • Celebrating the Gypsy/Roma culture as part of the curriculum will challenge stereotyping and promote confidence and promote a culture of respect;

  • The Enhancing the Curriculum pack available in all primary schools should be used and extended;

  • Reporting and monitoring racist incidents will give all a clear message;

  • A mentoring system will encourage a feeling of safety and offer opportunities for cultural care;

  • Ways of challenging racism can be practised through PSHE;

  • Through a cross-curricular approach all children can learn how to separate fact from opinion and promote positive attitudes.

Strong Family Bonds
Protecting family members has always been an important survival strategy in the face of ongoing persecution. This can be especially so when dealing with perceived ‘authority’ figures. There has been a long history of ethnic cleansing so bonds between relatives are strong. The term cousin applies to even distant blood relatives. Parents, fearful of prejudice, instruct older family members to make sure younger children are protected. Gypsy/Roma are used to having to act quickly to survive, so in school they may instinctively act first and think later.
Strategies to build Roma children's trust in non-Gypsy adults

  • Relatives can be asked to look after a family member in an appropriate place if an issue occurs in school;

  • Sensitive use of a mentoring or buddy system can build confidence in non-Gypsies;

  • Respect for other cultures and family structures can be shared through the curriculum;

  • Promote clear understanding that rules in school are different from (not better than) home;

  • Welcome family members who may come to school in groups for mutual support;

  • Understand that if a dispute occurs between the school and one family it will reverberate across many more. Similarly good news spreads fast;

  • Be careful not to be dismissive of what might seem a minor issue. It may appear more important in a different culture.

Time Keeping
Family needs will be more important than being in school on time. Many Gypsy/Roma adults cannot tell the time by the clock. Historically this was not important as they rose with the sun and followed the seasons. Finer timekeeping was never a priority and a relaxed attitude to appointment keeping does not mean a lack of care. Some families are deliberately late delivering children, in the belief that the child is safer avoiding the playground and going straight to class.

  • Welcome children in when they are less late in order to encourage;

  • In Maths use visual and practical work on time and timetables;

  • Time sheet with targets, which staff can tick may help;

  • Simplified timetable can be shared with pupil and home;

  • Greet the person doing the transport and form a friendly relationship, which will enable a later discussion of time keeping;

  • Be aware that an openly critical approach to lateness may result in a parent feeling that it is easier to not bring the child in when they are delayed.

Welcoming Into School

Most Roma in Eastern Europe have been denied access to mainstream schooling so must learn school ways. Having an oral culture, the Roma are used to only dealing with the spoken word. Oral cultures operate in the here and now and in the context of the continual presence of extended family members

Peoples from oral cultures speak directly and spontaneously. The Roma's mother tongue is usually, but not always Romani. They arrive already bi-lingual so English will be at least their 3rd language.

Some Roma have grown up without access to primary health care and utilities - such as modern toilets.


  • Smile: everyone likes to feel welcomed;

  • Ensure correct pronunciation of child's name: check carefully with child;

  • Pronounce first name to class and explain different ways surnames function in other cultures. (Feminine form of the Czech and Slovakian surname ends in ‘ova');

  • Find out exactly where the child has come from and name of school if possible;

  • Use opportunities to share geographical information;

  • Become aware through the internet of the political/social situation in the child’s home area to inform understanding of background issues;

  • Remember child may express anxiety through distress / passivity/ anger/ lack of co-operation;

  • Let class know that child already speaks 2 languages and is learning another;

  • Observe ways in which child's body language is different to avoid misinterpretation of needs;

  • Pair with friendly buddy to show around the school and help with school day;

  • Take into account that Gypsy/Roma children are usually kinaesthetic learners so:-

a) They process knowledge through physical sensations;

b) They can be energetic and not able to sit still long;

  • Label some everyday items in English/Romani remembering to use English phonics;

  • Teach child basic English survival language: hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you, toilet;

  • Teach class a little Romani (see Traveller Education Transition pack or Romani Language CD);

  • Create small opportunities for child to use own language;

  • Speak directly avoiding idioms and over detailing;

  • Allow time for settling - could be days/weeks/months;

  • Remember listening and speaking must come before writing English;

  • Celebrate child's culture overtly through appropriate resources/ activities/stories;

  • Be sensitive to child's history of racism and persecution;

  • Start with very small achievable social targets e.g. to understand concept of queuing.

The Romani Language CD is Free of Charge and designed for use in schools.


  • FREE ONLINE RESOURCES & AN ONLINE FORUM - www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/newarrivals

  • Support to schools: www.romasupportgroup.org.uk

  • European Roma Rights Centre: www.errc.org

  • Roma in Slovakia: www.slovakia.org/society-roma.htm

  • Roma in Czech: www.romea.cz/english


  • General news: www.romnews.com

  • Travellers Times: www.travellerstimes.org.uk

  • Nigel Dickinson (Images of Roma): www.nigeldickinson.com

  • Report on Roma/Gypsy Traveller Children in Europe: www.savethechildren.org.uk

  • Legal Rights of Working in the UK (in different languages): www.worksmart.org.uk/rights/viewsubsection.php?sun=82 OR


  • Information & Action Gypsy/Roma: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ethnicminorities

  • Origins and History: www.romani.org

  • Education of Gypsy Roma in Europe: www.pjb.co.uk/npl/bp46.htm

  • Patrins Web Journals (articles): www.geocities.com/~patrin/orgs

  • Information on different Romani Dialects: http://romani.kfunigraz.ac.at/romlex/

  • Information on the Romani Language: http://www.llc.manchester.ac.uk/Research/Projects/romani/

  • Roma and Travellers Department (Council of Europe): http://www.coe.int/T/DG3/RomaTravellers/Default_en.asp

Further advice is available by contacting Traveller Education  01204 338150

Email: travellers.education@bolton.gov.uk

We have more detailed reports of the Lives and Education of Roma Children from Eastern Europe – if you would like any of these, please contact us.

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