5th November 2004 at 00:00
In 1967, the Plowden report, Children and Their Primary Schools, identified young Gypsies and Travellers as the most severely deprived children in England. Almost 50 years later, little has changed. There are an estimated 28,000 Traveller children in the UK. But only 10,000 are registered in school and less than half of those are regular attenders. With such a record it is hardly surprising that only a handful achieve even one GCSE.

So why are Britain's schools failing this group?

On the road

Gypsy and Traveller have become accepted terms to describe individuals and communities living a mobile or semi-mobile lifestyle, but they are far from a homogeneous group. Some would object to being called Gypsy while others would object to being called anything else. The traditional communities settled in the UK are Gypsies (English and Welsh) and Irish Travellers, acknowledged as minority ethnic communities under the 1976 Race Relations Act. The term Gypsy dates back to the 16th century, when the first arrivals in the UK were thought to be from Egypt (although later research identified that they originated from India), and Irish Travellers have been doing the rounds since at least the Middle Ages, when many travelled in search of employment as nomadic metalworkers.

... the highwires and the waterways

But there are all kinds of other travelling communities, often, again, with long traditions, including Scottish Travellers, showmen and fairground workers, circus families and bargees (travelling boat dwellers). In more recent years, New Age Travellers, mostly people from settled backgrounds who are seeking an alternative lifestyle, have swollen the numbers of mobile communities, while Roma people from eastern Europe have sought refuge in Britain from discrimination and persecution. Most of the Roma have been settled in houses.

Each group has its own ethnic roots, language and culture but, in general, they share the aspiration to some form of mobility, even if it is travelling for just a few weeks of the year. There is little reliable data about these communities because they are not included in the National Census. Estimates vary, but the most quoted figure is between 120,000 and 150,000 across the UK. In some areas, Gypsies and Travellers are the largest minority ethnic groups.

Move on!

Historically, Travellers have often been seen as outsiders. Gypsies were included in an act of 1597 that made "vagrancy" illegal. By the 18th century, vagrancy was punishable by whipping and a week's imprisonment. And during the 19th century, Victorian authorities, deeply suspicious of Travellers, introduced a range of measures to make the lifestyle less practical and attractive. In 1968, the Caravan Sites Act gave local authorities a duty to provide sites for travelling families, for which they could apply for government funding. But the requirement to provide sites was removed in 1994, when the act was repealed and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act passed. "Although the Criminal Justice Act had many parts it seemed to make Travellers a prime target," says Trish MacDonald, senior adviser at the West Midlands Consortium Education Service for Travelling Children (WMCESTC). "The repeal of the Caravan Sites Act meant councils no longer had to provide sites for travellers and the CJ Act gave the police and councils authority to move on any group of Travellers."

Finding a home

Since 1994, increasing numbers of Travellers have moved into houses or on to permanent sites, becoming "settled" or "semi-nomadic". But about one-third have no settled site and are forced to keep moving or resort to camping illegally. Attempts to set up independent sites have faced difficulties in the planning stages, with many turned down. "There are no reliable statistics, but it is generally accepted that 90 per cent of Traveller applications fail at the first attempt," says Ms MacDonald.

The office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently reviewing provision and planning. "We know many Gypsy and Traveller families have trouble finding sites," says Yvette Cooper, social exclusion minister. "There are problems with the planning system and with local authority provided sites.

That is why we are looking at changing planning guidance and addressing local community concerns about enforcement on unauthorised sites."

A conflict of interests?

Inevitably, there is a conflict between a local authority's duty to provide education to this community and its obligations to evict illegal encampments.

Those struggling to provide education to Gypsy and Traveller children face the uphill task of building relationships and trust with Travellers while working for the authority that is threatening to evict them. Ofsted's most recent report, Provision and Support for Traveller Pupils, published last year, states: "In some authorities, different agencies acted in a way that was at odds with their own recently published council policies on inclusion and race equality. A wide gulf still exists between policy and practice in ensuring race equality for all groups, as set out in legislation."

How many are going to school?

Estimates vary, but it would seem that fewer than half of all Traveller children attend school. "Gypsies and Travellers are having difficulty finding legal sites where they can stay for any length of time," says Linda Walker from the Advisory Council for the Education of Romani and other Travellers (Acert). "And it is difficult to register children in schools if they are highly mobile." Department for Education and Skills figures for England show that just under 7,000 children from Gypsy and Travelling communities are registered at primary school and just under 3,000 at secondary school. Yet DfES figures collated from the records of local authorities show 28,000 school-aged Traveller children. That means about 18,000 children not attending school, though Ofsted's estimate is lower, at around 12,000. In Scotland, just 61 Traveller children are registered for secondary school and 301 at primary, but Sue Fisher, assistant programme director at Save the Children in Scotland, says the statistics should be treated with caution. "Under-reporting of ethnicity is likely," she claims.

"Gypsy travellers' experiences of racism are so extensive that many will be concerned about the use made of this information, and many fear reprisals if they report their ethnicity."

In any case, the challenge lies not just in getting Traveller children to register at school, but also in persuading them to attend regularly. Ofsted has warned that Gypsies and Travellers have the worst attendance profile of any minority ethnic group. "We are having more success in getting these children to go to primary school," says Pat Holmes, principal advice co-ordinator at WMCESTC and co-author of The Education of Gypsy and Traveller Children. "Around 84 per cent go intermittently and around 47 per cent regularly. But the figure drops dramatically at secondary school, with only 20 per cent of those registered attending regularly."

Why are attendance levels so low?

Historically, Gypsies and Travellers have tended to shun education for fear of forced assimilation or because it is seen as an instrument of control.

Within family communities, schooling is often a low priority and few adults will have had positive experiences of school. In many Gypsy cultures, a child who has reached puberty is considered an adult and expected to work - the sons learning a trade with the fathers, and the daughters helping their mothers with the cleaning, washing and childcare. There is also widespread suspicion of schools, especially secondaries, and the chances of children being exposed to smoking, drugs and illicit romance.

But there is no doubt that racist abuse is a common reason for rejecting school. "There is still a fear that children will be bullied, harassed and discriminated against," says Lucy Beckett, president of the National Association of Teachers of Travellers. "Parents don't want to send their children to school where they will face verbal and physical abuse."

What's being done to change the situation?

Many local authorities in England have Traveller education services, but provision varies. Some have one individual with sole responsibility, while others, such as the West Midlands service, have set up consortia across authorities. These services work with schools and Gypsy and Traveller communities to ensure opportunities for education. "Outreach family liaison is the cornerstone of the services' work," says Pat Holmes. "We work to reduce the gap between home and school. We also provide advice and support to schools for short-stay pupils, prepare and monitor distance learning, help arrange school places and support parents and schools in arranging for national tests to be taken, as well as providing a range of services to schools." These include home-school liaison, teaching materials and Inset delivery.

Do schools discriminate?

Despite the work of local authority services, attitudes can vary widely.

Legally, of course, schools with places are obliged to take Traveller children, but anecdotal evidence suggests some are reluctant to do so. One primary head in the south of England says he is well aware that his is one of the few schools in the area willing to take Gypsy children. "You can't please every family and sometimes you have a ruckus with someone and they remove their child to another school. But when it's a Gypsy family they can never get a place at another school."

How can schools integrate Travellers?

With 30 per cent of travelling communities pursuing a genuinely nomadic existence, many children move school frequently. They may miss out on basic literacy and numeracy skills, and the challenge facing a new school is to fill in the learning gaps. But placing Travellers with special needs children is not always the answer. According to Ofsted, 50 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller children are registered as having special educational needs, and have an increased risk of exclusion. "But these children are often as bright as buttons. They just end up getting bored," says Ms Holmes. Schools should also consider the experience of the child and make allowances where necessary. For example, Gypsy and Traveller children may not be used to being in large buildings, or to being separated from their siblings, both of which can cause anxiety. Schools may also have to acknowledge other cultural differences. For example, some Gypsy cultures forbid undressing in public, so changing for PE may be tricky.

Raising awareness of Traveller cultures through the curriculum is important, and it may be a good idea to check that no negative images of Travellers feature in the school's library or resources. The most recent Ofsted report found that schools with flexible admission arrangements had a more welcoming ethos, while free transport, meals and uniforms helped improve attendance. Incentives for attendance, rather than punishments for non-attendance, also helped. But the most important contribution was official and enforced anti-bullying strategies. "This reassures parents that if their child does get bullied, it will be dealt with effectively," says the report.

What about home learning?

Ofsted found in its recent investigation an increasing tendency to educate secondary-aged children at home. But there are concerns that some families lack the expertise or the will to provide effective home education. And there may be practical difficulties: living in a trailer or caravan may mean there's limited space to study. Home education may also perpetuate the exclusion of Gypsies from society and most local authority Traveller education services believe the best solution is to get the children into a local school that is supportive and sensitive to their needs, and provides a positive learning environment.

Supported distance learning is available to those with a regular pattern of travel, such as circus or fairground families. These families have base camps where they live out of season (usually November to March), and where the children will be on the school roll. During the rest of the year they attend other schools on their route or use distance learning with the help of peripatetic teachers.

Can the education system cope with frequent absences and short stays?

For those with set patterns of movement the system of base schools works, although the funding for each child is allocated to that school rather than shared among the schools the children attend throughout the year. Also, according to Ms Holmes, the schools must mark periods away as authorised absences, which affects their overall profile. "As a result, schools feel penalised," she says.

For those with erratic patterns or high mobility there is greater difficulty in ensuring learning gaps are plugged and assessments are consistent. The DfES, in partnership with National Association of Teachers of Travellers, is evaluating the Parent Held Education Record (Red Book), issued to mobile pupils so schools can assess their previous educational levels quickly, reducing the need for children to sit tests or go through long interviews. It is hoped that the Red Book, or perhaps ICT tracking systems, can be further developed to make it easier for Traveller children to gain qualifications that require on-going assessment.

Time to act

Persuading Traveller children to make the transfer to secondary depends on close liaison between secondary schools and their primary feeders, and on providing a curriculum with wide appeal. The Scottish Executive, for example, is looking at all types of education following its own inquiry and suggests that "more flexible provision in relation to vocational and work-based learning should be considered for older children and young people, in consultation with Gypsy travellers". Ofsted has a similar view and has identified a series of successful projects set up to attract disaffected Gypsy and Traveller children into secondary education. They include out-of-school sessions in literacy, mathematics, craft and outdoor activities or working on vocational subjects such as mechanical skills.

Ofsted recognises that something needs to be done; its latest report highlights the scale of the task schools face. "The vast majority of Traveller pupils linger on the periphery of the educational system. The system has persisted for too long and the alarm bells rung in earlier reports need to be heeded."

Main text: Su Clark

Photographs: Suzanne Hubbard; Emily SteinPYMCA

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: Handwriting

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