The road less travelled

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
Why education is such a difficult path for Travellers to follow?

Lisa Marie Vine is sitting in a gleaming kitchen in her in-laws' newly built house, bouncing her baby, Henry Joe, on her knee.

"Students used to call me a `dirty pikey'," she tells me. "But the teachers didn't believe me. I was only 12 and I used to cry when I was blamed for things I didn't do.

"My mum wanted us to go to school. She used to go and complain. The school said they would sort things out, but they didn't."

Vine's solution was to effectively leave when she was 13; she then spent most of her time working in a cafe. But the decision was not without major consequences. For Vine, now 21, can read and write only "a little". She claims she is dyslexic and admits she needs help filling in official forms and often has to ask what "long" words mean.

Such stories are not uncommon, and they go some way to explaining why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils are the lowest-achieving ethnic group in schools in England. They are more likely than any other demographic group to be identified as having special educational needs and are more likely to be excluded from school, according to the Department for Education (DfE).

When children from Traveller backgrounds do go to secondary school, they usually stop turning up after the age of 14. Unsurprisingly, the results of this sporadic relationship with schooling are dire. The DfE records just 17 per cent of Irish Travellers and 11 per cent of Gypsy and Roma pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths, in 2010-11, compared with a national average of 58 per cent.

The picture at primary level - where full-time pupils from these communities are more likely to be found - is not much better. Just 40 per cent of Irish Travellers and 35 per cent of Gypsy and Roma pupils were awarded the expected level 2 in key stage 1 reading assessments, according to 2008 government figures, compared with 85 per cent of all pupils.

The statistics are depressing in themselves, but they also hint at children struggling to cope with lessons, with teachers and with what they say is repeated racial abuse from other pupils. But it is not just a story about bullying. These young people are brought up in private communities with strong traditions. When they go to schools there is an inevitable culture clash.

"I went to school to learn, but I just got sarcasm from teachers. Honest to God, I never got out of the punishment block (a time-out room)," says Angela, a 15-year-old Irish Traveller who hasn't attended school since Year 7.

"I would turn round and smile at a girl and they would say that I was having a chat. That was it, I had to spend the rest of the time in the block."

The teenager, who is officially home educated, now spends her days helping in the family home, an immaculate caravan on a private site in Kent. The carpet is covered with protective plastic, and there are lovingly dusted statuettes and gleaming figurines in a polished cabinet. Angela also spends a lot of time abroad visiting her sisters across Europe.

Her father, John, claims that every one of his eight children was singled out by secondary school teachers for unfair treatment. Only a month ago, his 13-year-old son Tony - a confident boy with a cheeky smile and the habit of smoothing his neat dark brown hair - left school. He hopes to have a home tutor.

"I don't think some teachers have got the patience with Travelling children and my children didn't seem to mix," says John, who doesn't want his full name used in case his family receives abuse.

"They seemed to be in the punishment block most of the time. It felt like we were going round in circles. I'm not saying Tony was a saint, but there was a lot of petty stuff that could have been overlooked. It didn't strike me that they wanted Travellers in their school."

According to Tony, he was always put in the punishment block for a simple reason, such as "I forgot equipment like a pencil". His older brother Barney, now 17, says he had the same experience. "Most of the time, 70 per cent of the people in the punishment block were Travellers. We were having a laugh in there," he says.

Children from Travelling backgrounds are far more likely to be excluded from school than pupils from any other ethnic group. A total of 0.47 per cent of Irish Traveller children and 0.33 per cent of Gypsy or Roma children were expelled in 2009-10, compared with 0.09 per cent of the total population of state schools including all ethnicities.

Indeed, a total of 17 per cent of Irish Travellers and 15 per cent of Gypsy or Roma children were suspended from school in the same year, according to a report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner, compared with 4 per cent of all pupils. Many Irish Traveller children also left school earlier than other groups, with only 38 per cent reaching the statutory leaving age in 2009-10.

So are these children more likely to be punished by teachers? And why are they more likely to give up on education?

Cultural chasm

Although it is now common knowledge that Gypsy children are likely to abandon their secondary education before it has even started - thanks to the populist, fly-on-the-wall Channel 4 documentary My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - it remains rare for people to ask why. But if anything is to be done about the shocking underperformance of these children, the first hurdle to overcome is the vast cultural chasm.

Angela is convinced that the teachers who taught her and her siblings had judged them before they met, expecting them to have behavioural problems and disobey their authority.

She may be right: there may be prejudice in the system. Clearly, the families interviewed by TES would wholeheartedly agree with Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who has said that discrimination against these communities appears to be the "last `respectable' form of racism".

According to one headteacher, who runs a pupil referral unit in Kent, some schools still "stigmatise" children from Gypsy, Roma or Traveller backgrounds.

"It is assumed that schools feel their parents will be badly behaved, therefore the child will be badly behaved and they are not going to do well in school, which is nonsense," says the head, who asked not to be named.

Brian Foster, chair of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, supports this view, and says schools fall into two categories: either unwilling to yield to the demands of Traveller families or too eager to respond to their different needs.

He says that the first situation leaves children with three options: "fight, flight or playing white". "Playing white" is a telling reference to how Traveller communities view their mainstream neighbours.

"Most schools want to include children, but sometimes they send out a message about the kind of pupil they want," Foster says. "They might not want to lose children from the Travelling community who are pulled out of school, but they also do not want to give up their overall ethos. Schools take themselves seriously and they expect others to take them seriously. The problem is that some Traveller parents don't."

Izaak, 21, an Irish Romany Traveller from Kent who also does not want his full name to be used, recalls that "everyone wanted to fight" with his sister when other pupils found out about his family's background. "People hear things in the media and think we are violent. That's not always true," he says.

Izaak was excluded from school in Year 10 after a teacher accused him of threatening to hit her. But he and his family successfully fought a battle to quash this allegation and he was allowed to return. He claims the trouble arose only because he had been trying to protect his sister. He persuaded fellow pupils to provide witness statements to support his case and asked teachers to act as character witnesses.

"They knew I was polite and only occasionally rude if upset. There were a few Travelling children in my school and we just wanted to keep our heads down. Once a family is known, that's it," says Izaak.

"I never got an apology. When I went back to school I didn't make a big thing about it. They messed up my education, but you just have to get on with it."

Izaak now works for Kent County Council's Minority Communities Achievement Service in schools as a mentor, counsellor and role model liaising with parents and teachers to get children back into education. But he sees children suffering the same discrimination that he says he experienced in his youth.

"I have come across children who were getting called `pikeys', `wheels' and `dirty scum'," says Izaak, who does manual work at the weekends and cage fights "for fun" because he does not want to be disconnected from his culture. "I want to help them so that they don't have to go through the same things in life as I have. Racism still goes on in schools."

Izaak claims he is dyslexic and says he "failed every exam" in Year 11. When he left school, he had a reading age of 4 to 6. Then one day he decided, out of boredom, to buy a Harry Potter book. It took him a year to complete, but finishing it coincided with his old school offering him a place to return and get qualifications.

A year later, he was awarded a BTEC in business and passed level 2 exams in maths, English and IT. He went on to get NVQ qualifications in electronics. He joined his father's scrap metal business, but when work slowed down he applied for an apprenticeship with Kent County Council, where his mentoring role evolved.

Recurring problem

Discrimination isn't a new problem for Travelling communities. Henry Stanford, 65, grandfather of Lisa Marie Vine, remembers that teachers had an "attitude" towards him when he was at school in the 1950s.

"I had to go to the back of the class and was sent to the headmaster for the slightest thing," he recalls. "But I was always one for capering about, messing about. I used to walk the fields instead of going to school so my father didn't know. Later, my children were picked on. But I used to make them stand up for themselves. You can't do that nowadays."

It is a story that still has resonance today. Catherine, 16, spent just three weeks at secondary school. During that time she says she was called names, pushed and kicked by a boy.

"She sat on the floor crying and said she was not going back," says her mother, Mary Ellen Kindon, 36.

Catherine's family, who are Gypsies, were deeply disappointed by the teachers' reactions, and claim that they did not punish her attackers. But unlike Izaak and his family, they chose not to challenge the teachers.

Kindon has four other children: Nikita, 13, Mary Ellen, 14, and twin sons Manilitho and Thomas James (TJ), who are 12. The boys attend secondary school in Leeds.

"My boys have been called `Gypsy bastard' by other pupils," Kindon says. "Some are from different cultures themselves, so they should understand that this is racism. But we are used to it. This has been going on for donkey's years."

But there is more to this story of educational failure than prejudice against these minority communities. These are communities with very real issues about schooling. Many simply don't approve of it, particularly for girls, who they don't trust schools to keep safe.

"We know what we want: to read and write," says Frank Brazil, 63, a Romany Gypsy, who runs the South East Romany Museum in Kent with his family. "We don't want to be professors. The rest of it, our own ways, children can learn from their parents. They need to learn about their culture."

Although this may not be a universal truth in these communities, the statistics suggest a resolute rejection of classroom excellence. Just 2.5 per cent of Irish Travellers and 2.7 per cent of Gypsy or Roma children at primary schools in England were recorded as being gifted and talented on the January 2011 schools census. In comparison, 10 per cent of Asian and black pupils were on the gifted and talented register.

In many ways, attitudes have not changed through the generations. Brazil started working when he was 10, but also managed to attend school on and off until he was 16. He and his family moved around the East and South East of the country picking fruit and vegetables. In winter he went to lessons, but in spring and summer he did not.

Similarly, when his children were young, the family travelled around Kent, doing the same work. They went back to school only when they were not needed in the fields.

Some things have changed, however, because Brazil's grandchildren - Frank, 13, Archie, 11, Tilly, 7, and Lois, 3 - live in a house with their parents and go to school full-time. Brazil seems content with this, but he wants all children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds to be able to learn about their culture.

Indeed, it seems that he wants to combine the best of both worlds, but he has no suggestion as to how it would work in reality. All he says is that children from Traveller and Gypsy families should be treated as "a special case".

"Children need an education; times have moved on. But if families want to travel around they shouldn't be persecuted."

Like Brazil, Stanford went to school between hop-picking duties. His father gave him the choice of going to lessons or working with him - the latter was usually more attractive.

"I'm good at reckoning up and reading, and I liked art at secondary school. I used to like school to a certain degree - subjects like woodwork. But I wasn't so keen on religious instruction," he adds.

He says other people outside the classroom were just as important in his education, such as the sweet shop owner who helped him to read by promising treats if he could read the names on the labels.

In the past, Travelling communities were more mobile, taking seasonal jobs such as fruit- or crop-picking in the warmer months. Now, many families have a very different way of life; most live in houses or on a permanent site, not in highly decorated, horse-drawn caravans.

Yet these communities remain immensely proud of their heritage and try to live according to the same code of conduct as their ancestors. They want to keep their children safe and under their control. But it is this flexible attitude towards schooling that often leaves the children without qualifications.

Joan McVittie, headteacher of Woodside High School in North London, recently tried to persuade a 16-year-old girl from a Travelling family - who left school in the middle of taking her GCSEs to get married - to come back and sit exams.

"It was so incredibly sad. We knew she had scored a C in English language, she just needed to sit the other exam," says McVittie, who is also president of the Association of School and College Leaders. "In my experience, most children from the Travelling community are extremely bright and do well even when their attendance is low. The problem is getting them to school on exam day.

"Sadly, a number withdraw partway through their GCSEs. We recently had a boy who was getting very high marks in maths, who got sent back to Ireland after taking one paper. We pleaded with the family to send him back. At times, I could weep."

Fear of daughters' safety

Catherine has been taught privately from the age of 11 by a tutor her parents found on the internet. She studies, together with her two sisters, but does not want to take GCSEs. Each girl gets just two hours of teaching a week. The rest of the time is spent helping their mother and doing homework. The family live in spotless caravans, carpeted with fluffy, cream rugs, on an official Leeds City Council Traveller site, squeezed in among industrial estates on the outskirts of the city.

One of the main reasons for the high drop-out rate for Traveller girls in secondary education is because their parents refuse to believe that secondary schools can protect them from the dangers of the wider world.

"They fear their daughters meeting boys without the kind of supervision you get in primary schools, while they are going through puberty. A lot of parents are concerned about their children being exposed to drugs in secondary schools," says Gillie Heath, "virtual" headteacher for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils at Kent County Council.

Certainly, Kindon "doesn't worry" about her sons at school. "They can fend for themselves," she says. "Nobody will bully them. If anyone wants to have a fight with my boys they can do it. They train in the gym every day. I know people have tried. But the girls can't (protect themselves)."

"Mums who have not had experience of secondary education can be fearful," says Claire Lockwood, manager of Leeds City Council's Gypsy Roma Traveller Achievement Service. "They are very, very protective of their children, particularly girls."

Sue Itzinger, a teacher who works with Lockwood, highlights the stark differences between the way boys and girls are treated in Travelling communities.

"Boys often leave school early so that they can learn a trade. But I have met some families who keep girls at home to look after younger siblings. This is what their mother did."

Itzinger also knows families who do not want their children to go on residential or educational trips because they do not feel teachers can keep them safe. It is not unusual for teenage girls to not be allowed to take public transport or travel anywhere on their own.

How can schools break down this parental suspicion? Those who run Traveller education services say building up trust is essential.

"Some schools have a really good awareness of Traveller culture, and parents want their children to go to them," says Heath. "Teachers should treat families with trust and respect: this, along with a due regard for safety, is of paramount importance to the Traveller community."

Finding role models for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils can also work wonders. But this is not always easy. In Kent, new mother Lisa Marie Vine is so far content to care for her new baby. But she is increasingly aware of the consequences of her brief time at school. She can't read to him. Nor will she be able to help him learn in the way that most parents find so rewarding.

Adult education courses are an option, of course. But despite her frustrations, she says the memory of school is still too painful for her to want to set foot in another classroom.

But she does want an education for her son, who is 10 months old. "I hope Henry Joe doesn't go through what I did," she says. "But he will have to stick it out and go to school. I wish I had stayed on, gone to college and got a proper job."

Original headline: Lessons lost in transit

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