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