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'Willows' is on the right road

Classic tale can help children to understand the lives of Gypsy and Traveller communities

The wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame's classic children's book - should be studied in schools to promote a positive attitude to the lifestyles of Gypsy and Traveller families, new Assembly government guidance suggests.

It says knowledge of the novel, whose main character - Toad - has a keen interest in caravan travel, could increase tolerance of the ethnic minority groups among the young.

Research has shown that Gypsy and Traveller pupils experience the most bullying in Welsh schools.

The guidance, Moving Forward, comes as an influx of children from the minority groups enrol in Welsh schools, due in part to migration from Eastern Europe. It says schools should ensure they have resources covering Gypsy and Traveller culture, and that schools should nominate a senior member of staff to liaise with families.

Livelihoods threatened by a lack of work at fairgrounds and farms, as well as greater competition from migration, has forced members of these minority groups into schools, the guidance says.

Gypsy and Traveller families have traditionally shunned mainstream education, mainly because of persecution and their fear that their children will fall victim to teenage influences such as drugs, alcohol and underage sex.

But their educational achievement is well below other ethnic minority groups: the proportion of GypsyRoma pupils gaining the common standard indicator at key stage 2 between 2005 and 2007 was 27.9 per cent - well below 82 per cent for pupils from a mixed white and Asian ethnic background.

There are 19 local authority Gypsy Traveller sites in Wales, with a total of 404 pitches. Pembrokeshire, where there are many examples of good practice, has the highest, followed by Cardiff and Neath Port Talbot. The guidance says it is hard to know the number of children from these groups in Wales. In 2005, the National Foundation for Educational Research put the figure close to 1,200.

Education minister Jane Hutt said a mobile lifestyle meant many Gypsy and Traveller pupils did not settle in schools, making achievement more difficult. "Those who settle can feel different and misunderstood," she said.

The guidance covers attendance, staff training, homework and best practice in the curriculum, and urges use of the internet to boost links with families on the move.

Concessions are already made for poor attendance among these ethnic groups. The guidance says parents will not be prosecuted for their child's non-attendance where a pupil has attended 200 sessions in the preceding year and absence has been authorised for work or cultural events.

But Bev Stephens, head of Pembrokeshire's education service for Gypsy and Traveller children, said schools should be careful not to romanticise the lifestyle represented in the children's classic.

"This book is a great starting point, but there are other resources that show Gypsy and Traveller communities as they are today," she said.

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