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Campaign to win back lost travellers

Up to 50,000 "invisible" gypsy and traveller children are to be targeted to stay on at secondary school under a new Government campaign Ministers say it is "simply unacceptable" that an estimated 10,000 traveller children aged 11 to 16 have never attended secondary school. Traveller education workers say the children still face discrimination in education.

John Paul MacDonagh, a 14-year-old who lives on a permanent site in south London, is the first of his family to stay on at school beyond primary.

His mother Christina says: "My other three left at 11. I can definitely see the difference in John Paul, he's much more into picking up books and papers than they were. And he's very good at mathematics."

The McDonaghs are one of four traveller families who appear in Are we missing out?, a Department for Education and Employment video aimed at showing the community positive experiences of education.

Thomas Acton, professor of Romany studies at Greenwich University, said that traditionally many traveller families sent their children to primary school to learn basic literacy and numeracy, but didn't see the need to learn beyond that.

"Traveller parents worry about time wasted at school when the children could be earning money and contributing to the family economy," he said. "And, like many communities of Asian origin, travellers often live by strict codes of behaviour. They worry children may get into fights, drink or take drugs. Also a girl's reputation and marriageability are big issues.

"Many would be happier to have their daughters in single-sex schools. Schools don't often take travellers' cultural needs seriously in the way they do other minorities."

There are an estimated 50,000 travelling children of compulsory school age in England, including traditional romanies, fairground and circus families, boat dwellers (or bargees) and new age travellers.

Around half of those are thought to be permanently nomadic, making them particularly difficult to trace. A 1996 Office for Standards in Education report into schooling for travelling children found that "unacceptably low" numbers of children had never been to or had been expelled from secondary school.

A DFEE spokesman said; "There's no big stick here being beaten about absenteeism. We do genuinely understand the cultural difficulties and the economic need for traveller children to work. We also admit travellers may not have been entirely welcome in schools in the past.

"Understandably many parents have bad memories of their own school days. It's a question of convincing them that's not the case now."

Dave Cannon, of Southwark Traveller Education Unit, agrees: "By nature traveller society is flexible and changing. It had to be to survive years of persecution. They increasingly recognise that to do business in this fast-moving, information society their young must become better educated. "

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