Case study: Supporting Roma students

Written by: Ian Comfort | Published:
Culture: The green and blue flag embellished with the red, 16-spoked chakra was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Romani people at the 1971 World Romani Congress. Blue represents the sky, green the land, and the wheel symbolises movement/progress

Firth Park Academy has seen a notable increase in the number of Roma pupils during the past five years, sparking concerted efforts to engage with and motivate this cohort of children. Ian Comfort explains

Roma pupils from Eastern Europe have had the poorest education outcomes of any ethnic group in England in terms of attainment, attendance and exclusions, according to Ofsted (Overcoming Barriers, 2014).

As a consequence, many local authorities and schools are struggling to identify sufficient ways to meet these pupils’ wide-ranging needs.

Former MP for Sheffield Brightside and former education secretary David Blunkett warned of the tensions between local people and the Roma community in Sheffield, and how these could escalate unless action was taken to improve integration. Concerns such as these have been echoed in communities across the UK, such as in Glasgow, Derby, London and Newport, and education institutions need to be at the forefront of finding a solution.

Firth Park Academy in Sheffield has seen a significant increase in Roma pupils over the last five years, with around 100 currently on roll compared with just four pupils in 2012.

Integrating and ensuring the educational success of these pupils is not an easy task. Roma pupils are among the hardest to reach of any group in the country. Due to the nature and rhythm of their lives they are often in and out of the school system, and most have English as a second or even third language. Meanwhile, although some written texts are available, Romani is not an official standardised language, and the variety of different dialects makes it particularly difficult to hire appropriate teaching assistants and translators.

There are other hurdles for pupils to overcome, too – a recent research study found that nine out of 10 gypsy, traveller or Roma children in the UK have suffered racial abuse (Gypsy, Traveller and Roma: Experts by Experience, October 2014).

At Firth Park Academy we adopted a personalised approach to integrating hard-to-reach pupils, committing time and resources to ensure that Roma pupils could access the curriculum, were integrated into the school community, and that home-school relationships were established to increase attendance and attainment in school.

Through this approach, Firth Park has improved the outcomes for Roma pupils. Of the “New to English” (NTE) cohort from 2014/15 (a quarter of whom are Roma), 71 per cent of year 11 students are making progress in GCSE English, with the others having just recently arrived, and an overwhelming majority are more confident in communicating with others during the school day, enjoy the lessons and like the teachers.

To help us understand what worked we commissioned Dr Mark Payne of the School of Education at the University of Sheffield to look into the educational, linguistic and social integration of Slovak Roma pupils at the school.

At the outset of the research, the Roma were taught off-site so the first step was to move provision back within the school and situate it within the modern foreign languages department.

The NTE curriculum was redesigned and structured according to three NTE pathways, with pupils actively encouraged to progress more quickly through the levels to eventual graduation to mainstream curriculum lessons.

The research findings allowed us to identify key factors in driving up outcomes in schools where pupils come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. None of these are revolutionary in and of themselves – it was about creating a strategy across the whole school where pupils felt they genuinely fitted in.

Integration: Some of the 100 or so Roma students are also pictured in class

An open and positive attitude among teaching staff towards the Roma pupil cohort in the school was key. Once staff became more familiar with the unique language and social challenges posed by the Roma pupils and families, they could begin to adjust and differentiate lessons accordingly with the support of the EAL (English as an additional language) staff, and provide a more Roma-friendly school environment.

At Firth Park we found that this had a beneficial impact on the school’s endeavours in raising the attainment and attendance of Roma pupils in school. At a recent review attended by external partners, a genuine love of learning and being at Firth Park Academy shone through among NTE students. Relationships between staff and pupils are excellent both within the interventions led in the languages department, in corridors and the mainstream lessons observed.

To further support this, we also placed emphasis on increasing participation in sports teams and extra-curricular activities, where Roma students have traditionally been underrepresented.
Initiatives such as the Roma football team played an important role in helping pupils to feel a connection to the school and community. The Roma staff initiated this, enthused the Roma boys to join in and organised football fixtures with other local schools – the team were later shortlisted by the Sheffield Star newspaper for Sports Team of the Year.

Integration: The Roma football team at Firth Park Academy

Two non-Roma students now attend our Roma dancing classes that take place after school twice a week, showing cultural integration is ever more evident. External observers have noted positively that children speak English in social time far more than in other schools, highlighting effective social integration.

Flexibility in curriculum planning, adapting lessons to consider and meet Roma pupils’ needs and sharing good practice across schools and departments is key to facilitating positive outcomes for all Eastern European Roma children.

The EAL teachers have raised awareness of EAL issues via INSET days and on-going CPD. For example, teachers have been encouraged to identify keywords, such as common terms in science, which are learned first as a basis for then engaging with more advanced scientific language and concepts.

Roma pupils are able to take advantage of and build on their EAL learning by progressing to the GCSE ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and Future Skills subjects. Through establishing networks among teachers across different departments a supportive platform is created for exchanging ideas, developing teaching strategies, and for discussing present issues and challenges concerning the Roma pupil cohort.

Formal English language support through NTE classes is clearly vital to ensuring that all Roma pupils can access the wider curriculum and take a full part in school life.

Like many in the NTE cohort, Roma pupils often speak more than one language, and so are good at picking up languages with the right support. However, it is also important to note that the Romani language and other languages such as Slovak/Czech can play a key part in allowing pupils to feel valued, and to bridge understanding in lessons.

To this end, the school employed Romani-speaking staff from both the Slovak and Czech communities who support in language learning, behaviour management and promoting attendance. The Roma staff also provide that invaluable school-home liaison link.

We also saw a crucial role for Romani-speaking teaching assistants and support workers, both male and female, particularly in maintaining home-school communications, for supporting pupils in terms of the curriculum and for providing positive role models. At Firth Park we currently have a qualified ESOL teacher, a Romani-speaking teaching assistant and two Romani-speaking student support workers.

We are constantly evolving our approach based on feedback from pupils, staff and external observers to improve the integration of NTE pupils. This year we have made changes to improve on the existing long-term NTE induction programme, where in some cases progress was too slow and boredom set it. For 2016/17 students have a time-limited induction planned to be a maximum of one term. The first week of this is devoted to school rules and routines to accelerate social and behavioural integration.

This year, we have moved from age-based intervention programmes led with the languages department, to programmes now based on vertical intervention groups focused on the need most relevant to a student, i.e. reading comprehension, phonics, speaking and grammar.

We conduct assessment of NTE students using Leeds for Learning NASSEA Steps. This assessment allows staff to be informed of the intervention required for each learner, allowing personalisation of their curriculum. Assessment and data entry take place in the skill (reading comprehension, phonics, speaking and grammar) in which a student is receiving intervention every half-term.

After each half-term, students change groups for intervention, which helps to ensure that they are constantly challenged, and do not “stagnate” in a group that they no longer need the support of. In addition, SEND NTE students are now receiving bespoke personalised timetables to build an individual nurture curriculum suitable to their own, often extremely complex and challenging, needs.

While at an early state, initial qualitative data already suggests that the evolution of our approach this year is accelerating progress even further than the programmes that ran in the last academic year. Roma pupils at Firth Park continue to thrive, and the school was judged good in its most recent Ofsted inspection.

However, we are still learning about effective ways to best support those on the fringes of the education system. We are now working in partnership with Dr Payne and the University of Sheffield on a further five-year longitudinal study to better understand the drivers of integration and educational success for the Slovak Roma pupils. There is more thinking for all of us to do.

  • Ian Comfort is chief executive of the Academies Enterprise Trust, of which Firth Park Academy in Sheffield is a member.

Further information

  • Overcoming Barriers: Ensuring that Roma children are fully engaged and achieving in education, Ofsted, December 2014:
  • Gypsy, Traveller and Roma: Experts by Experience, National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups and Anglia Ruskin University, October 2014:


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