Too many ways to fail
A five-year investigation into the schooling of Traveller children has shed new light on the factors behind their chronic underachievement and high drop-out rate.
Ofsted has described Traveller pupils as the group most at risk in the English education system, and has estimated that 12,000 secondary-aged teenagers are not enrolled at a school.
Its concerns are borne out by the study, conducted by Chris Derrington of Northampton university and Sally Kendall of the National Foundation for Educational Research.
They tracked 44 Traveller children from the age of 11 to 16 and found that only three of them (7 per cent) achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs this summer (the national average was 61 per cent).
In total, 10 of the 44 gained five or more A*-G GCSEs (23 per cent, compared with a national average of 98 per cent).
However, the overall achievement rates for the teenagers are almost certainly worse than even these disappointing figures because most of the young people tracked by the study team were living either on official sites or in houses and had good primary-school attendance records.
The researchers, who presented their findings at the European Conference on Educational Research in Dublin on Saturday, said only 13 of the 44 had completed key stage 4. The other 31 youngsters had dropped out for a range of reasons.
More than half the parents expected their children to fulfil traditional, gender-based roles in adult life. These parents assumed their sons and daughters would leave school by the age of 14.
One girl, who was still 12 at the time, told the researchers: "Next year, I'll be at home learning how to clean up... helping my mum. We don't really get jobs. We usually stay at home until we're 18 or 19 and then get married and be a housewife."
But the researchers said cultural attitudes were not the only factors behind the high drop-out rates. Children were more likely to drop out if they attended larger, high-performing schools, had a history of poor attendance and had older siblings who had been unhappy in school.
Almost 80 per cent of the children said they had been called racist names or had been bullied.
"They don't know how much name-calling we get," one young Traveller said.
"I'd say it happens about twice a week to me."
Four of the girls responded to the problem by hiding or denying their cultural and ethnic identity at school - a practice known as "passing".
Chris Derrington said schools were often unaware of such issues and did not always follow up poor attendance that stemmed from isolation or bullying.
Some schools thought a 70 per cent attendance rate was good for Travellers.
The low expectations also applied to performance. The researchers related the story of a bright boy who was bullied. Neither of his parents could read or write, and because they had no settled home he attended three secondary schools. With each change of school he was placed in low-ability classes but worked his way up to the highest sets. "He ended up with three grade A*-Cs and I believe he was failed by the system," Ms Derrington said.
"His teachers didn't realise he lived in a wagon in a field."
How pupils fell by the wayside
6 failed to transfer to secondary school
6 dropped out in the first year
9 dropped out in the second year
3 dropped out in the third year
6 dropped out in the fourth year
1 dropped out during the final year
20 pupils completed key stage 3 (45 per cent)
13 pupils completed key stage 4 (30 per cent)