What we learnt from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller children who responded to The Big Ask
As Children’s Commissioner I am dedicated to championing the voices of all children which is why I was delighted when 2,300 children and young people that self-identified as Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller (GRT) submitted responses to The Big Ask last year – the largest ever survey of children in England.
As Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller History Month (GRTHM) draws to an end I want to draw attention to the voices of the GRT children that responded to The Big Ask. GRTHM is an important time to reflect on the experiences of GRT children, and to celebrate and raise awareness about their lives and cultures. These moments of reflection are crucial opportunities to consider whether our systems know enough about the experiences of these children and can tailor support to their needs.
Firstly, I want to note the huge diversity that is encapsulated within the term ‘Gypsy, Roma and Traveller’. This is an umbrella term that is widely used and so it’s important to note that there are a range of different ethnic and cultures identities included within it.
In The Big Ask[i] we asked children how happy they were with multiple aspects of their lives. We found that positively, the vast majority of GRT children selected ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ with all aspects of their lives. However, concerningly, GRT children on average reported lower levels of happiness than their peers.
There were also clear differences in GRT children’s happiness with their mental health and ratings of its importance as a factor in whether they have a good life. GRT children were less happy with their mental health compared to other ethnic groups, with 53% of GRT children rating themselves as happy compared to 58% of BME children and 56% of White British children. However, only 38% of GRT children selected mental health as important, compared to 52% of all children. Children in this group experience discrimination on account of their background, and this is likely to impact on their wellbeing. One GRT child spoke about the impact that people around you can have:
“I think it’s the pressure put on from other people whether it’s friends or family. I know what it’s like to feel that you aren’t good enough and it really makes you feel depressed” – Gender not given, 12.
GRT children were least likely to be happy with ‘life at school or college’ compared to other aspects of their lives. There was a notable difference between GRT children’s rating (42% reported being happy) compared to all other children (of which 56% reported being happy). To put these findings in context, we know that compared to other ethnic groups, GRT children living in England and Wales have lower than average attainment across all key stages, have higher rates of persistence absence from schools, as well as higher rates of permanent and fixed-term exclusions.[ii] This demonstrates the importance of GRT History month, as it raises awareness of GRT history and culture within schools.
One reason for these different experiences of school may be because of the different cultural attitudes towards the purpose of education. One GRT girl we spoke to reflected on the purpose of school and called for schools to teach more practical lessons:
“Education is based on theory, rather than practicality so, once we leave school, we do not have the necessary experience to get a good job. Also, I think that exams are too stressful and an inaccurate representation of a lot of people’s abilities as a lot of people are not able to perform to their best standard within a very short time limit.” – Girl, 16
Other children have also told us that they would like more practical education, and my team are now looking at the teaching of PSHE in schools to explore what more can be done to improve this aspect of education. I have also recently conducted an Attendance Audit, which is looking at what more can be done to support children who are struggling to attend school. I am calling for more support for children experiencing bullying or who have mental health needs, to help these children back into the classroom.
I was pleased to see the recent government announcement in Inclusive Britain, the government response to Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities. The government pledged £1 million over the year to test targeted education interventions for GRT children and young people. The fund will focus on improving attainment, reducing school drop our rates and improving pathways to employment.[iii] I look forward to seeing how this programme develops and learning about the findings from the interventions.
Family is clearly very important to GRT children, as it is to their peers. Compared to other ethnic groups, GRT children reported being unhappier with their family life (70% happy compared to 81% of White British children and 78% of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) children. However, in response to a question which asked, “when you grow up, which things, if any, do you think will be most important for you to have a good life”, GRT children were more likely to consider starting a family of their own as important compared to all over children (36% compared to 26% in the overall sample).
GRT children were also more likely to consider having enough money (61% compared to 59%) and a nice home to live in (41% compared to 37%) as important compared to all children.
This GRTHM under the theme of ‘What Makes a Home’, the charity Friends, Families and Travellers have published of practical and engaging participation packs for schools, local authorities, and charities. These are resources that can be drawn upon to learn more about GRT history and the nuances within their language and traditions. I would like to see all schools promoting these resources to raise awareness of GRT cultures and to help reduce negative attitudes and discrimination faced by GRT children.
It is my job as Children’s Commissioner to ensure that the voices of children are heard. Over the next year I will continue to highlight the needs and perspectives of GRT children throughout my work.
[i] Please note, the findings reported in this blog are for 9–17-year-old children only.
[ii] GOV.UK, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Travellers, March 2022, Link.
[iii] Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education, £1 million education programme for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children announced, July 2021, Link.
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