Lessons lost in transit

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Gypsy Traveller students in secondary schools By Chris Derrington and Sally Kendall Trentham Books pound;17.99

Traveller education: accounts of good practice Edited by Chris Tyler Trentham Books pound;10.99

Both of these books reinforce the need to find ways of enabling children from Traveller communities to participate effectively in education. Too often these children are abused and scapegoated by their peers and seem to escape the focus of policies designed to eradicate racism or improve achievement. The figures speak for themselves, as children from Traveller communities come bottom in league tables of achievement. Not much has changed: it has been known since studies of canal boat children in the 1920s that itinerant children fare very poorly in terms of the indices of success in conventional education.

As Chris Derrington and Sally Kendall point out in their excellent book, the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act effectively criminalised the traditional Traveller way of life, thereby heightening tensions between Traveller and settled communities. Gypsy Travellers have always been stigmatised; indeed, Elizabeth I made it a capital offence to be one.

Looking at the history of the way Gypsies have been treated over the intervening years in this country and in continental Europe it seems that not much has changed.

Derrington and Kendall report the findings from the first national longitudinal study of Gypsy Traveller students in secondary schools. Their work was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and documents the educational experience of 44 Gypsy Travellers in secondary schools since 2000. They find that although there have been improvements, the school system could not be said to have made huge strides in the inclusion of children from the Gypsy Traveller community. In fact, more than half of the sample of students had dropped out of school by the end of key stage 3, and Gypsy Traveller students were far more likely to be excluded from school than were other students.

Aside from the culture clash between a settled community and one with other values, there was a variety of racism and abuse from other students towards the Travellers that was troubling in its insidiousness.

Although it is not discussed in detail by the authors, this appeared to be of a kind and intensity that has persisted against the current of increasing intolerance of racism elsewhere in schools. Students would call their Traveller peers "smelly Gypsy", "smelly pikey", "farm girl", "tramp", "skiver" or "thief". Their homes would be called "shopping trolleys", "cardboard boxes" and "dustbin wagons". There is clearly some way to go in stamping out this kind of racism.

Nuffield should be congratulated on funding this work, which is an exemplar of the value of case study research.

Chris Tyler's book makes a good complement to the work by Derrington and Kendall, providing an edited compilation of accounts of good practice in schools. It begins with a chapter from Arthur Ivatts that puts Traveller education in the context of inclusive education, which brought out for me the peculiar nature of racism against these children. As Ivatts points out, Travellers now seem to perform a scapegoat function in society. As racism is eliminated from schools, the ritual abuse that comes from the less pin-downable name-calling against Travellers persists. And while it persists, as Ivatts points out, the Traveller communities develop a culture that is independent, self-protective, defensive and resilient: sharply focused on survival in a hostile environment.

A chapter from Brian Foster and Hilary Horton on the national primary strategies gives evidence, like that of Derrington and Kendall, that children from Traveller communities benefit less than other children from initiatives designed to meet their needs. What appears to be crucial in predicting educational achievement here is the stability of the educational experience.

Other chapters helpfully address access and attendance, early years education, literacy, supported distance learning and whole-school plans.

One particularly interesting chapter describes how the Travellers'

education service in Leeds addressed the problems of families on the move by establishing a specialist team that took a school bus, adapted as a mobile classroom, round roadside sites and camps.

When we discuss inclusive education we try to play down specific issues concerned with identifiable groups, on the assumption that we might do more harm than good by conspicuously identifying and thereby ghettoising such groups. These excellent books remind us, however, that it is sometimes necessary to devote focused energy in one direction - here in the direction of children from Traveller communities - precisely so that ghettoisation and stigmatisation isn't perpetuated.

Gary Thomas is a professor in education at the University of Leeds

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