When the wanderers return

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Travellers' children can be led into education by simple steps, say Marie Parker-Jenkins and Dimitra Hartas.

PICTURE a group of women begging in the street with babies in one hand and mobile phones in the other. This is one of the images we have of transient people today, and the public is understandably confused as to whether they are traditional gypsies, other types of travellers or Kosovan asylum-seekers.

What they have in common is the right to have their children educated - an entitlement recently reinforced by the Human Rights Act. Education authorities are legally obliged to respond to this need, regardless of the background of the child.

We conducted a small research study to look at the educational experiences of transient children, and chose a primary school in Newark, Nottinghamshire, as a starting point. Newark has long been a centre for the travelling communities because it is a "crossroads" in the middle of the country. Up to a third of the school's pupils are travellers' children.

Travellers tend to perceive "gorgios" - or non-travellers - as ignorant of their lifestyle and beliefs, and often search out schools in which the teachers have some knowledge of, and respect for, their culture. A number of primary schools in Nottinghamshire are considered to fall into this category.

Each school tends to cater for different groups of travellers. One attracts gypsies while others are favoured by circus, fairground or New Age communities.

Travellers' children generally spend between four days and four weeks in the Newark school, but some are more settled. So the image of travellers as "wandering people" is not entirely accurate. Even so, the stereotype generates confusion and prejudice.

Some of Britain's one million travellers are nomadic by choice, others move on in response to employment opportunities - a lifestyle that is encouraged by the European Commission.

At present, there are thought to be about 50,000 travelling school-age children in England attending 3,400 schools each year. About 10,000 are not enrolled.

"Roma values" are usually blamed for the poor school

attendance. However, the disaffection and demoralisation experienced by travellers' children can also stem from the racis and isolation at school.

There has been debate about whether segregated schooling is justifiable. A report from the High Commissioner on National Minorities in Europe highlights a segregated school in Hungary run by gypsies that aims to develop a "gypsy intelligentsia". The intention is to support the wishes of gypsy parents for their children: education that sustains their sense of cultural identity and history without compromising their principles and lifestyle.

In Britain, some authorities have become efficient at meeting the educational and bilingual needs of such children within the mainstream system. Nottinghamshire is currently catering for children from 40 countries, and Derbyshire has provided schooling for Kosovan refugees within a week of their arrival.

This work is invariably supported by the Government's ethnic-minority and travellers' achievement grants. Nevertheless, travellers' children tend to be low-achievers and are frequently given "special needs" statements.

The introduction of a written driving test may possibly help to encourage interest in literacy among travellers. But it would be naive to invest a lot of hope in such developments.

Some practical initiatives adopted by schools may be better:

establishing "distance learning" programmes for travellers' children (the Newark schools give children project work to finish while en route to the next school)

appointing specialist teachers

selecting parent-governors from the gypsy community

supporting pupils transferring from primary to secondary.

There is, however, a serious discrepancy between the type of vocational education that the travelling community wants and the schooling offered under the national curriculum.

If we want to draw more travellers' children into our schools we must give more careful consideration to their education and welfare needs. But we do not have to wait until these families arrive in our town: we can start in the classroom by helping non-travelling pupils gain a better understanding of cultural differences.

Marie Parker-Jenkins is professor of research in education at the University of Derby. Dr Dimitra Hartas is a research fellow at the university. Contact S.Parmar@derby.ac.uk

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