Gypsy, Roma and Travellers

Exploring cultural voice and learner choice


The project aimed to explore and challenge some of the issues facing Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) young people as they progress through secondary education in Sussex. It was designed to act as both continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and other professionals working with GRT young people. The project also sought to serve as an outreach programme for GRT students and their families, and was specifically targeted to their needs and with the intended outcome of growing their mindset in relation to post-16 choices available. The project aimed to influence policy and practice at both secondary school and university level.


The project set out to primarily target working with GRT young people and their parents around the transition between Key Stages 3 and 4, although GRT young people at other educational stages and their families were also welcomed to engage in project events, with the aim of maximising knowledge sharing and benefits. The project consisted of three distinct parts:

A school-based participatory workshop – Visualise Your Future consisted of targeted young person and parent/carer discussion activities. The workshop was designed to develop an initial understanding of the educational progression interests, concerns and needs of GRT young people and their wider families, and to feed into the subsequent development of a targeted widening participation outreach activity. Six pupils from Years 7 to 9 and two parents attended. The young people took part in a guided small-group discussion reflecting independently and together on questions around their education ambitions, anxieties and what additional support they would like, and produced individual ‘journey maps’.

A specially developed outreach engagement activity – This was targeted to the identified progression pathway interests of participating GRT young people, and was open to them and their families. The interests expressed within the journey maps were around equine studies and animal care, floristry, sport and blacksmithing.

An HE/FE college visit was selected, and a programme of activities designed in response to this. Nine KS3 students and two parents attended the day in May 2019, which included specially targeted talks and participatory practical sessions focused around identified subject areas, as well as a tour of the college facilities and the chance to meet existing students. The day was led by the University Widening Participation team in conjunction with the FE college NCOP lead, and with an education support worker from the local authority and community organisation youth co-ordinator also present. The aim was to show young people and their families a post-compulsory education pathway.  

A follow-up end-of-project event – The event was designed for GRT families and education professionals to reflect on the project and next steps. In the event, no Gypsy Roma Traveller families attended, so instead the event served as a discussion between 14 education professionals (one of whom identified as GRT) on developing good practice recommendations to support GRT young people through educational progression.


Self-identified learner outcomes from participation suggest that students made progress in growing their mindset in all areas, especially in their understanding of the relationship between educational qualifications and employability. The work developed relationships between the funded partners and wider partners. 


Findings from the project come from two key areas of insight: 

Identified learner gain from the HE/FE college visit 

Objectives and planned outcomes for participation in project activities were set around contributing to growing the mindset of students in their future decisions. These were based on the NERUPI evaluative framework areas (Intellectual Capital, Skills Capital, Habitus, and Social and Academic Capital). Self-identified learner outcomes from participation suggest that students made progress in all areas, especially in their understanding of the relationship between educational qualifications and employability.   

Self-reflection and group discussion data from professionals at the end-of-project event

The reflections of professionals can be grouped into the following areas:

Professionals identified a range of barriers to the engagement of GRT young people in further and higher education, these were grouped into educational, knowledge and cultural, material and discrimination, plus a lack of resources which featured in many of the discussions around barriers.

Educationally, professionals noted the challenge of transitions (between primary and secondary as well as secondary to FE and HE, including the fact that some – particularly girls – may leave school before the end of their secondary education), plus barriers around achieving grades, including GCSEs. They recognised that parental literacy, perceptions of education and level of engagement in their child’s education, as well as technical challenges around using online systems to book parents’ evenings, were all potential barriers. Professionals understood that university may be viewed as ‘white and middle class’, with a culture not in step with what GRT parents may want for their children, and that GRT young people may only be exposed to the jobs that their parents do and therefore don’t see the purpose of university.

The cash economy of the Gypsy Roma Travellers community was identified as a barrier to accessing student finance, coupled with form-filling and reporting that may be seen as intrusive. Professionals recognised the role that prejudice and discrimination in wider society played in the GRT experience. For example, low declaration of GRT status makes it harder for schools to target resources, and even when schools are able to, they are aware of how this may be viewed by the wider school community. Suspicion of the local school may have built up over generations among GRT families, reciprocated by teachers who recognise the surnames of established GRT families and treat them accordingly.

Finally, professionals acknowledged the challenges for GRT families in attending a formal school environment, and agreed that overall schools and other professionals should stop assuming a poverty model and ‘othering’ of the Gypsy Roma Travellers community.   

Good practice

Participants saw ‘getting involved in projects like this’ as key to good practice, and identified as important in terms of networking opportunities to build support and share good practice. The importance was cited of outreach supporting both FE and HE progression; peer support programmes; careers guidance; support from local authorities; and universities becoming more engaged in actively supporting GRT participation (with the University of Sussex and King’s College London cited as good practice examples). It was seen as important that GRT is recognised as a group that needs be 'targeted' specifically as eligible for engaging with projects (including summer schools, clubs etc.) and that the approach to outreach is personalised. 

What is needed?

Discussion around what is needed focused around broad themes of engagement and collaboration; visibility of Gypsy Roma Travellers in discourse; more targeted support around progression-related issues from finance to mental health and wellbeing; and more cultural awareness. These are shown in practical terms in the recommendations below.

Belief about what is possible – While dominant contemporary education narratives often focus around raising ‘aspirations,’ this work suggests that what is needed to support GRT education progression journeys needs to focus more around developing belief in what is possible, and that barriers are not insurmountable. GRT young people need to be aware of the breadth of educational opportunities that are available and to believe that higher education is a realistic option for them and have the confidence to make it through their education journeys. This includes confidence to approach FE colleges and universities, and not being put off by being ‘the first in their families’ and by the white middle-class perception of university. 

Attainment before aspiration – At the same time as focusing on raising confidence and self-belief, it is important to acknowledge that these alone cannot improve the educational opportunities of GRT young people. There is a vital need to make the option to progress realisable in practice through improving educational outcomes for GRT young people, including at GCSE. 

Engaging parents – Effectively engaging GRT parents, families and communities as active and informed supporters of their children’s educational progression is identified by stakeholders as a key priority. As there may be no knowledge around education at home, there needs to be an emphasis on providing both young people and their parents with quality information around the education opportunities available to them at different points. This requires more consistent contact with parents to create interest and win over ‘hearts and minds’. Care should be taken to ensure this engagement is managed sensitively, avoiding complicated, exclusionary terminology or jargon. Parents’ evenings are seen as a key opportunity to engage GRT parents thoughtfully. 

Supporting transitions – Supporting transition between different stages of education is crucial to maintaining the successful engagement of GRT young people in their learning trajectories. Among these, the transition from Year 6 to Year 7 is seen as being particularly pivotal. This is a point at which the school attendance of many GRT young people, particularly girls, can traditionally drop off. More events and wider support aimed at keeping young people and parents on board at this and other key transition points are very important.

Targeted and bespoke support for GRT – To break the cycle of low educational progression of GRT young people, support needs to be targeted, specific, personalised and sustained. This relies on GRT young people declaring their status (which the more bespoke nature of the support should hopefully encourage).  

This message needs to infiltrate all education levels from school through to FE colleges and universities, and knowledge shared within and between institutions. Recommendations include for FE and university visits as well as information events in GRT communities, including outreach presence at major GRT events such as Appleby Fair. Further key suggestions included greater use of ambassador/young person-led outreach and study skills provision, as well as more outreach targeted to primary level that includes information about secondary school, as well as university, given the drop-out risk at secondary school transition.

Targeted financial information – FE colleges and universities should provide more targeted and tailored support to GRT young people and families around the financial costs, benefits and support available for further and higher education, including bursaries. This is seen as particularly important given that many GRT people live within a largely cash economy, in which there may be particular scepticism around both perceived ‘debt’ and the requirement to share detailed, personal financial information with authority figures.   

Policy leading practice – There is a need for strong leadership at policy level in both local and central government to change practices and cultures around the educational progression of GRT young people. This includes developing an understanding of GRT ethnicity, history, heterogeneity, cultures and specific barriers, and recognising racism and understanding that race and racism are not just about visible differences.  

The role of advocacy organisations – Organisations working directly with GRT young people have a vital role to play in leading good practice by other bodies. This includes acting as an effective channel of communication between GRT communities and more official organisations and processes, such as the education system and student finance, and any other situation where there may be mutual lack of understanding.

Building understanding of GRT communities should be built into both the curriculum and staff CPD, even when no GRT pupils are on roll. The expertise of community organisations should be drawn on to ensure that this is developed with sensitivity and with the voices of GRT communities engaged.

Community organisations also have a vital role to play in mediating knowledge and perceptions of education within GRT communities, and nurturing the confidence of GRT young people to believe in their own educational potential and feel pride in their own identity.  

Responsibility of all – There is a vital need for the development of greater awareness and respect from wider society around GRT communities and cultures. This includes the need to alter perceptions about GRT such as those around educational potential, to provide more support, and to take individual and collective responsibility for challenging racism in all of its obvious and less obvious forms.  






According to UCAS data, only 70 students identifying as Gypsy, Roma or Traveller (GRT) were accepted into UK universities out of more than 350,000 students who moved into higher education in 2018. Barriers to participation are cultural, material and linked to prejudice and discrimination.


March to May 2019


Friends, Families and Travellers community organisation; the University of Sussex Widening Participation team, University of Sussex Education department academic research expertise around GRT Higher Education participation; Hailsham Community College (a school with high numbers of GRT students and Uni Connect learners); and The Traveller Education Service in East Sussex

Funding source

Uni Connect (Innovation Fund)