GYPSIES have fought a centuries-old battle against discrimination, marginalisation and ostracism. Yet public opinion remains sharply divided: some vilify gypsies as dirty, unprincipled and work-shy, while others condemn such attitudes as raw, racist prejudice. Those who work with gypsies describe them as the forgotten ethnic minority of Europe.
Until recently the Department for Education and Employment, too, was guilty of woefully neglecting this group. It was only in 1983 that the Government first showed "a glimmer of hope that it might be interested in this area", said school inspector Arthur Ivatts at the first-ever national conference on post 16 traveller education, held recently at West Kent College.
It was not until March 1999, in an HMI report for the DFEE Raising the Attainment of Minority Ethnic Pupils, that gypsy
travellers were recognised as a distinct ethnic group.
Prompted by the report, the Government pledged pound;13.7 million last year for the education of travellers and displaced persons. But from this year, funding will be merged into a larger pot to include all ethnic minorities. This is worrying since, as the report states: "Gypsy traveller pupils are the group most at risk in the education system." Since very few achieve success at GCSE or beyond, it is essential that colleges open up their doors to this group which includes fairground and circus families, New Age travellers, bargees and eastern European gypsies, Arthur Ivatts argued.
"Increasingly, the primary sector is working well and secondary is improving," he said.
"The further education sector needs to be organised, ready and responsive to cope with a tidal wave of traveller youngsters, who suffer social prejudice and disaffection." Yet the sector was still asking the sort of "naive questions" that primary teachers were asking 25 years ago, such as whether education would erode ancient and diverse traveller culture, he said.
Kent is a prosperous county but the gypsy population - its biggest ethnic-minority group - is poor and suffers from severe racial prejudice. A high percentage of travellers are illiterate. Yet schools and colleges in the area fail to identify their traveller students, and travellers can be unwilling to identify themselves.
The Kent and Medway wideing participation group, which includes higher education institutions and colleges in the area, hopes to begin to change outmoded attitudes and provision.
"The Traveller Education Support Service in Kent is remarkable. It has sent traveller children to primary and secondary but then it stops," said West Kent College's Liz Whittome, who organised the conference. Kent colleges hope to work with secondary schools to help pave the way to tertiary education.
Delegates, including college lecturers working with travellers as far afield as Northumberland and Leicestershire, were well aware of the challenges. Gypsies lead a nomadic lifestyle and tend to move from job to job. They are wary of sending their children to school or college and will withdraw them if teachers are heavy-handed. But as opportunities for unskilled, casual work decline, gypsies need higher levels of literacy and numeracy.
FE lecturers beginning to work with travellers stressed the need for a sensitive approach from understanding, well-informed teachers, carefully-planned outreach provision and the development of strong links with secondary schools. Liz Whittome has put in a bid to the Lifelong Learning Partnership to enable outreach provision of family literacy for disadvantaged traveller families in Cranbrook, Kent.
"We're very interested in reaching young mums with very low literacy levels and in reaching children by working with schools," she said. "You need a non-threatening person to go in and build up trust." She added that it can be difficult to get funding because funders "don't realise it's a major achievement to get three people along". Young male travellers, who are even more unlikely than their female counterparts to stay on after the age of 16, enjoy motor vehicle courses and equine studies, yet the college's funding for horse studies has been withdrawn.
Patti Budd, from Northumberland College, has begun an initiative to send out a college learning bus with 10 laptops to traveller sites, one of them 54 miles from the main college. In time, she envisages devising learning materials in conjunction with the travellers themselves.
"A small number of young travellers are entering post-16 provision, but these brave young people who are parachuted into unknown territory, have to go home with positive stories of their experiences if others are to follow in their footsteps," warned Ivatts.