Education on the move

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Scotland's traveller children will benefit from school-based education more than before, thanks to A Curriculum for Excellence.

That optimistic appraisal comes from people working with Traveller children on a daily basis. They believe the new curriculum will make school more relevant to these children, and see some signs of a new willingness among the Traveller community for children to go to secondary school. This would be a huge step forward, as formal education for Travellers often goes no further than primary school because parents fear their children will face bullying and be assimilated into another way of life.

Speaking at last week's Scottish Learning Festival, Fife-based Gypsy Traveller teacher Ingrid Todd said Traveller children often struggled with traditional measures of learning, but they had much to offer that was not formally recognised. The flexibility of the curriculum, however, promises to change that.

She pointed to the four so-called capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence, and showed how skills common in Traveller communities could apply to each of them. The many talents required to work in a circus from a young age, for example, showed children who could be successful learners.

Young children who might see the business world as alien, meanwhile, do not think anything of being in charge of a ghost train at a funfair effectively running their own business and proving that they are confident individuals.

The "less individual" role ex-pected to be played by Traveller children where they are often making a contribution to a family's finances and effectively serving apprenticeships alongside relatives is evidence of effective contributors.

"A Curriculum for Excellence has given me huge optimism," said Ms Todd. "Gypsy and Traveller communities have many skills that are not recognised by national assessment. Acknowledgment of their skills might counter negative feelings about not being on a par in literacy and numeracy."

Pauline Padfield, director of the Scottish Traveller Education Programme, underlined the need for awareness that Traveller children come to school not without skills, but with skills "that are different". She talked of lessons where Traveller children would be bemused in home economics, for example, where the inability to identify a colander was a sign that these children lived in a different environment, not of any intellectual failing.

She turned this situation on its end by pointing out that non-Traveller children would not know what a lurcher (a type of dog) was, nor a Weippert (a make of trailer used by Travellers), yet they would be identified immediately by Traveller children.

Equally, it would not be uncommon for a P7 Traveller boy to be seen as having a low level of ability in maths if assessed in the usual way, but this might hide that he actually had an impressive command of mental arithmetic.

Dr Padfield suggested that symbols and vocabulary from the Traveller community could be included in the classroom to make it a less alien environment, although care must be taken to respect the wishes of the families some prefer that attention is not drawn to their children being Travellers.

She believes that new technology is crucial to making education work for Traveller children, who often move in and out of schools and live in environments where there is no suitable space for doing homework.

The Traveller education programme is hoping to get Scottish Government backing for a proposed e-learning project, with a decision expected later this year.

Ms Todd said progress was being made in encouraging Travellers to see that school-based education did have relevance. Travellers are unlikely to attend secondary school on a regular basis, particularly if they live on unauthorised sites.

Yet Ms Todd pointed to the example of one such child who was attending school, which she described as "monumental" for those working in Traveller education.

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