Reforms may put Travellers on road to prosecution
Teachers and educationalists have long struggled with the sensitive issue of the absence from lessons of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. They have battled against the historical and cultural reasons that prevent many parents from these communities from sending their children to school.
Now the government has admitted that the law might have played a part in keeping these young people away from state education, pointing to legislation that it says gives "tacit consent" for children from such families to be absent from compulsory schooling for long periods. And ministers have revealed plans to change it.
More Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have participated in primary education in recent years, but attendance remains low. What progress there has been has "not been mirrored in secondary education", according to a recent report by civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Their report said that there "are continued concerns about the number of children who fail to make the transition to secondary school or who drop out before Year 9". Consequently, officials in the Department for Education are proposing a legal change that would "tackle poor attendance".
The Education Act 1996 currently protects parents who remove their children from school from prosecution if their job requires them to travel. The protection applies if the child has attended school "as regularly as the nature of that trade permits" and if they have attended school for at least 200 half-day sessions during the preceding year.
"The government believes that this concession has come to be seen by some schools - and by Gypsy and Traveller families themselves - as giving tacit consent for mobile pupils to benefit only from a significantly shortened school year," the report states. "We intend to look again at the impact of this legislation and to consult on whether it should be repealed."
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils have the highest absence rates among English pupils. During the 2010-11 school year, the absence rate for Travellers of Irish heritage was 23 per cent, compared with the national average of 5.8 per cent. The persistent absent rate among Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils was 37 per cent, compared with the national average of 6.1 per cent.
Brian Foster, chairman of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, said that the change could upset parents because they would feel it was an attempt to "criminalise" them. "They may feel that they are more vulnerable to prosecution," he said.
Anthea Wormington, a member of the National Association of Teachers of Travellers and Other Professionals executive committee, said that the changes could lead to more children missing school. "That is one of the big dangers. More parents may opt for home education and my fear is that this means the child won't get enough education," she said.
There have also been warnings that the change is likely to particularly affect families who run funfairs, as they regularly take their children out of school in the spring and summer months.
Valerie Moody, national education liaison officer for the Showmen's Guild, said that the reforms would be "catastrophic" for the community if they were brought in without consultation. "Do we stop our profession?" she said. "I can see this (situation) is open to misuse, but we are well equipped as a community to move children backwards and forwards.
"We want them to be educated. Many children will have a limited time in school, but they will still be in education."
Education liaison officers such as Ms Moody work with local authority Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education services staff to help children continue learning when they are away from school.
Thomas Morris, a showman from Northumberland, takes his two sons, aged 6 and 10, out of school for four to five weeks a year, but only when the fairs are too far way for them to commute back home.
"It's vital for us that our boys are in school, but I never want to be in the position where I'm enrolling them in a school for a week. I would rather take them out of school and they bring their schoolwork with them," Mr Morris said. "I think it's a bit ignorant of the government to be suggesting this change. They are in danger of upsetting the apple cart over something that can work very well."
VIRTUAL HEADS WOULD 'CHAMPION INTERESTS'
Department for Education officials want Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils to have virtual headteachers who will keep track of their educational progress in the same way as for looked-after children.
They would "champion their interests" and monitor and respond to issues of low attainment and attendance. They would also train teachers, work to identify and return to school those Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who are missing from education, and raise awareness among schools and others about the barriers to success faced by these children - and how best to overcome them.
Pilot schemes will be run in a small number of local authorities with higher than average numbers of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils - Kent, Surrey, Cambridgeshire and Bradford - beginning in April 2012. The DfE will "carefully monitor" the impact.