Families on the move are warming to the idea of school, but it is taking a long time. Mark Whitehead reports. The chances of Traveller children gaining a basic education have improved in the past few years, according to school inspectors, but they still have a long way to go.
Only 61 per cent of the estimated 50,000 Traveller children in England are registered for school, according to a new report from the Office for Standards in Education. And of those only a small proportion - possibly as few as a fifth in secondary schools - are attending regularly.
The report also outlines disturbing findings that while educational standards among the youngest school-age children are good, there is a marked decline as they get older. Attendance and performance in secondary schools is a particular problem, with only a small proportion continuing with their education after the age of 16.
OFSTED also found that many gypsy children are being excluded from secondary school, despite the fact that they are generally well-behaved. This is usually the result of frustration caused by under-achievement or racial abuse from other pupils.
Gypsies make up the biggest Traveller communities and are recognised as a distinct ethnic minority group. Other Traveller communities include fairground families, bargees and New Age Travellers, which the OFSTED report also studied.
Pat Holmes of the National Association of Travellers' Teachers and head of the West Midlands Travellers' children education service, believes the problem reflects gypsies' suspicion of the education system.
Gypsy families, who traditionally make a living from activities such as scrap-metal dealing and agricultural work, often adhere to fairly strict moral and social codes, and youngsters are expected to start work relatively early.
"Unfortunately the image gypsies often have of secondary schools is of dens of iniquity where your girls will get pregnant and the boys will end up on drugs," she says. "Children in the Travelling community are seen from the very youngest age as trainee adults who will be inducted into the world of work by the age of 11 or so. The family is an economic unit in which everyone plays a part. "
Hughie Smith, 64, president of the National Gypsy Council, agrees. He went to 23 schools before quitting at the age of 11 to help his father, a Romany, in his work as a horse dealer.
"The traditional way of life is that when a young male reached the age of 11 or 12 he was expected to go out with his father and learn the trade," he says. "A girl was expected to stay at home or go out with her mother telling fortunes or selling lace."
Against this background the transition to full-time schooling is taking time, says Mr Smith. But with the economic landscape changing, the old lifestyle is adapting. Gypsy families now realise their children need a basic education if only to deal with officialdom.
"The pattern of life has totally changed," says Mr Smith. "We need to be able to fill in forms to apply for insurance and that sort of thing, and our children need to be educated in the same way as house-dwellers. We understand that times have changed and we live in the age of the silicon chip."