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Schools must reach out to Traveller families

Schools need to learn about Roma and Irish Traveller culture and build strong relationships – or risk alienating them, writes Jules Daulby

College funding and the community

Schools need to learn about Roma and Irish Traveller culture and build strong relationships – or risk alienating them, writes Jules Daulby

I recently attended a conference hosted by Hampshire local authority during which I heard some truly inspirational speakers from the Ethnic Minority Traveller Achievement Service.
It was a bittersweet experience for me. In Dorset, where I work, I witnessed the EMTAS service close down, redundancies paid out and experience and expertise disappear into cardboard boxes. 
One of the stand out moments for me at the conference was listening to a talk on the ethnic minorities of Roma and Irish Traveller heritage. Cultural differences were explained and advice was shared on how schools working with these communities could be aware of traditions and ways of life to ensure they didn’t alienate families. 
Something a specialist teacher said really struck me: “Get this wrong and they will just leave. All the family need to do is elect to home educate and after this one phone call to the LA, that's it, we've lost these children to school for good.” 
Traveller children are far more likely to drop out of school, be excluded and less likely to go to university. It's a delicate relationship and one that needs to be handled carefully if schools want to keep these children in school and flourishing. We need to make sure we champion this ethnic minority, make adjustments and be culturally appropriate. 
It doesn't mean patronising them, lowering standards or making unfair allowances but it does require collaboration and most importantly the will to keep these children and their families as part of the school community. It would be very easy to lose trust. Sadly, the data tells you that this happens more than it should.
I have worked with traveller families quite regularly over the years and in the further education college I worked in, a local traveller charity called Kushti Bok presented a legend pole to the college in recognition of providing education and training to the Roma and traveller community. The beautiful wooden carved pole was evidence of how relationships and mutual trust and respect can be built and weaved into education and community.
Legend pole
I thought I knew quite a lot about the traveller community and yet, I had never heard of the term “mochadi”. It means internally unclean and links to many areas of life such as separate bowls for washing up dishes and washing bodies. Some travellers may not wish to drink from a used mug due to mochadi laws. A solution for EMTAS was using paper cups and wrapped biscuits when inviting parents in for coffee mornings.
Giving subliminal (or sometimes downright obvious) messages that these pupils don't belong is, I believe, problematic for communities with different cultural norms. As the legend pole suggests, it's not impossible to have relationships – investment and mutual respect does pay off. In my experience, once trust has been built it smooths a path where real partnerships can begin which are mutually beneficial. 
If education is done to a community and not with it – for example, if a school has rules like: “We have high standards in our school and you will need to think very carefully before coming here,” it gives an immediate signal to families that it’s “our way or the highway”. 
When these families disconnect and elect to home educate, how disappointed is the school? Do they show the gritty determinism shown by Hampshire's EMTAS? Or is it someone else's problem?
If a school blames families for giving their children McDonalds haircuts and eating Coco Pops for breakfast (both judgements I've heard), this alienates certain families in the community even further.
Is there even a will for schools who are fiercely driving through changes to increase their Progress 8 scores to try a different approach? 
Competing against neighbouring schools and loudly celebrating success instead of collaborating with schools and the community is an isolationist approach. In these schools, success is measured on results rather than inclusivity. Will they listen and act on the advice of experts like EMTAS? Or will they ignore it because they know better and are concerned for the majority rather than the minority? Do they even care if these children elect to be home educated once relationships and trust have broken down? Or is there an overriding feeling of relief because they won't affect their scores?
Parent partnership is key. If we judge and blame families based on our own prejudices rather than seeking to understand cultures and difference, then we cannot truly begin to work with all of our community. 
These are the values I hold dearly for comprehensive schools: we must provide an education for all children and serve the community in its entirety. 
The stunning legend pole, carved with love, knowledge and skill, steeped in heritage is, for me, a symbol of community cohesion and symbolises as much success, if not more, than Progress 8 scores.
Jules Daulby is literacy and language coordinator for Thomas Hardye School in Dorset

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