Young people from the Traveller community in Derby are receiving crucial help with literacy skills thanks to a city charity and a group of volunteer A-Level students.
Four students from Derby College Group give their time each week at the charity Enthusiasm, which is based in Cotton Lane and aims to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the city reach their full potential.
The students, aged 17 and 18, are in the second year of their English Language course and are teaching the Travellers – currently all boys – to read and write.
Some of the boys have never been in a classroom before and are being helped with basic skills such as writing their own name.
The sessions are being led by Derby College teacher Tyler Jackson who said the scheme was benefitting everyone, and the students were all learning as much as the youngsters.
Tyler said: “Many of the Travellers, who are between eight and 15, have never been in a classroom and have never had to concentrate in this way.
“At first there was a lot of bravado among them but as soon as we split them into small groups, they were keen to learn.
“We apply our lessons to what they need in life. One boy works for his family as a roofer, so we helped him design a poster for his firm
“Another boy is really keen to learn how to read. The student helping him now has first-hand experience of the language skills needed to segment and blend sounds, enabling him to read out loud.
“The group all love boxing so one week we designed and labelled up all the words you would find in a boxing gym.
“We always start the lessons with tracing a pattern. At first, some of the boys had poor ‘fine motor muscles’ which are required when holding a pen or pencil. Now they settle down to it comfortably.”
Children who attend Enthusiasm are primarily drawn from Osmaston, Allenton and Alvaston with smaller numbers from Chellaston, Sinfin and Shelton Lock. Those who are old enough are working in family businesses.
They are usually aged between 11 and 18 years old and are often referred to the centre by schools, police and other agencies if they are deemed to be at risk of exclusion, offending or anti-social behaviour, including the influence of negative peer groups and gangs.
While there are plenty of fun activities to keep the teenagers engaged and off the streets, many of the youngsters attending the centre have low literacy and numeracy skills, while some are not able to read at all, so enabling them to access education is an important focus.
As well as the work with the Traveller community, Enthusiasm runs a homework club on a Tuesday evening and a reading and writing club which is a safe, quiet space where the young people can study. Sessions in IT and maths skills are soon to follow.
Tyler already has volunteers among her first-year students to take over when the current group need to move on and focus on exams. They have taken 34 sessions so far and according to their feedback 86% of the Traveller boys say their reading and writing skills have improved.
She added: “My students are learning all the time about how children learn to speak and build language skills. It feeds directly into their course.
“It’s definitely made me a better teacher. Dealing with young people who have never been in an educational environment before really tests me – but in a good way!”
Enthusiasm has recently announced a new board of trustees which includes Pauline Anderson, director of learning, inclusion and skills at Derby City Council who is also chair of trustees for the Traveller Movement London and chair of Derby Cultural Education Partnership.
She said the Travellers were quick to learn as their lack of literacy skills was by no way a reflection of their underlying abilities.
Enthusiasm charity CEO April Allman-Hayhurst, former deputy principal at the Derby College Group, said: “It is remarkable to see the difference the students have made and we can see our youngsters respond well to them because there isn’t a big age difference and they can relate to them.
“The students have really thrown themselves into the task and have learned a lot themselves – not only related to language but they have had a rare insight into the lives of these young people from a different culture and background.
“The Travellers come to us with few, if any, literary skills and develop techniques to help them in whatever they do in the future.”