How to Support Roma EAL Learners

Who are the Roma?

The Romani (typically known as Roma) are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group. They are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe. It is estimated that there are over ten million Roma living in Europe, mostly in Central and Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The Roma have experienced high levels of persecution and hostility throughout their history.

Since the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 with the addition of countries including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, groups of Roma families have moved to the UK to find work and avoid discrimination in their countries of origin. Since January 2014 Roma families have also moved to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria. There are now estimated to be over 200,000 Roma settled in cities such as Sheffield, Rotherham, Leeds, Bolton, Glasgow, Leicester and Peterborough.

Ethnic ascription

Many Roma families are unwilling to identify themselves as Roma on admission to school (Roma ascription) because of historic persecution and continued discrimination. Many admission forms use ascription “Gypsy/Roma”; in turn, many Roma families will not apply the word “Gypsy” to themselves. School staff should work sensitively with parents and children to gain their trust and improve the ethnic ascription information.

What languages do Roma learners speak?

Roma learners usually speak the state language of their country of origin and are likely to have received some education in that language. However, the main language of the home is likely to be one of the dialects of the Romani language. This is the oldest Indo-Aryan language in Europe and originates from North India. Several of the dialects used across Europe have acquired many of the lexico-grammar features of Greek or Romanian. There is now a standardised alphabet for the written form of Romani.

Previous education

Learners of Roma background may not have been educated in mainstream school in their country of origin. In many cases Roma learners enter the English education system with literacy levels and cross-curricular knowledge below the expected levels. See also Learners with Limited First Language Literacy .

Roma learners in English schools

  • In 2019/20, the Gypsy/Roma group represented 0.3% of the overall school population in England (DfE, 2020). This number might be lower than the true number due to the ascription issues described above.
  • In 2018/19, the Gypsy/Roma group had 12.6% school absence rate, second only to the Travellers group (DfE, 2019)
  • In 2018/19, the Gypsy/Roma group had the highest rates of both permanent (0.39%) and fixed period school exclusions (21.26%) (DfE, 2019)

Strategies for Roma learners

As Roma learners fall under the category of learners with EAL, many EAL strategies will be effective in supporting them (see the Great Ideas pages for a collection of relevant strategies as well as the pages on New Arrivals and Learners with Limited First Language Literacy). This page provides some ideas specific to the Roma families and learners sub-group of EAL. This is because some issues, such as ones of attendance and less of a willingness to ascribe themselves as Roma at schools, apply only to this group of learners with EAL but not others.

School-wide strategies:

  • Make “Gypsy” and “Roma” separate categories on the admission form to combat the issue of low Roma ascription
  • If possible, consider employing Romani-speaking teaching assistants to help engage pupils’ parents or carers and improve communication
  • Establish a role of Roma ambassador at the school to explain school expectations, the English education system and to allow parents or carers to express their needs and concerns
  • Engage with Roma families through spoken (instead of written) communication
  • Set up the school phone system so that parents do not have to go through a switchboard to leave a voicemail message
  • Invite parents or carers to attend and assist with specific projects
  • Organise coffee meetings and social events for parents
  • Find out when special Romani cultural events are during the year
  • Establish links with NGOs and Roma associations
  • If possible, consider having a Roma representative on the school’s governing body
  • If possible, use a Roma speaker at the initial interview for reassurance
  • To help with attendance issues, phone families to remind them of the dates for new terms

Teaching and learning strategies:

  • Roma pupils might not be used to pairwork and groupwork from their previous experience or that they can ask a teacher questions – clarify this to the learners
  • If the pupil is not literate (due to not having received mainstream education in their country or countries of origin), fast track literacy and use an EAL induction programme for at least 2 hours for 12 weeks
  • Introduce a phonics programme, ensuring phonics are taught in context of real language in real situations
  • Having their work marked (with the view to improving it) might be a new concept, which might need to be explained

Based on Penfold, 2016

Further reading