from “Mainstreaming Traveller Education: the litmus test” by Brian Foster and Anne Walker (2010) Mark Allen
The right to educate your own children is an important human right. A state education system will serve the needs of that state, and those citizens, whose values do not chime with those of the state, may wish to educate their children in a way which reflects their own beliefs and attitudes. But the right to an education is also a human right, and the State, as the upholder of human rights, may wish to have a say in whether the education provided by self-educators, conforms with a shared understanding of a good education. Here lies a tension and an irresolvable dilemma; how can those who provide state education judge the provision made by those who have consciously rejected the state model. In many cases the self educators are well educated, well able to critique the state system and design an alternative; if the state want to take issue with their provision and content, they can give as good as they get. To most local authorities, home educators represent an idiosyncratic minority who are looking after themselves; in practice their children may disengage and reengage with mainstream education at various points in their educational careers and show no signs of being damaged or short-changed by the process.
Some Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller families are also sceptical of state education. They feel that gorgios, buffers, country people, whoever – them not us – are trying to impose their values on our children. In so far as successful education in our society seems to be defined from 5 or more A* to C grades at GCSE, through university education to the professions, and since few Gypsy Roma Traveller parents aspire for their children to enter the professions, one can understand the origin of their scepticism. In addition, parents are concerned that their children may learn things in school (both formally and informally) that they do not wish them to learn (sex drugs and foreign languages) while they could be learning life skills in their communities to equip them to survive and prosper as adults.
At a more pragmatic level, children and young people make an important contribution to the life of their family, caring for siblings, helping with chores and contributing to the family business. The home is a place of safety in contrast to, what they perceive to be, an increasingly threatening world. Although Gypsy Roma Traveller communities don’t arrange marriages, most parents have ideas about who would make an appropriate partner for their child; keeping a secondary age child at home makes it possible for them to control with whom their children mix.
In some cases parents register for EHE because they have high aspirations; they feel that if their children are to engage with education the want the best outcomes, and therefore wish their children to enrol in what they see as the best schools. Such schools are often oversubscribed, have complex entry requirements that are easy to fall foul of, or the family are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other cases families reluctantly opt for EHE because their children’s educational needs are not being met by their school, but they remain willing to reengage if an appropriate curriculum offer can be identified.
New Traveller families frequently home educate. In most cases their children are well provided for because the parents are themselves educated and their lifestyle presents a broad range of educational opportunities. Such families may also reengage with mainstream education if their circumstances change, or their children require a curriculum and qualifications provided in schools and colleges. For these reasons, a growing number of Gypsy Roma Traveller parents are now registering their children for Elective Home Education particularly in the secondary phase.
Until quite recently, Gypsy Roma Traveller parents who did not want their children to attend secondary school, opted out of the secondary transfer process. They had observed that they were more likely to be chased by attendance officers if their children were on roll but not attending well, than if they were not on the roll of any school. Recently, schools have begun to monitor the return of applications for secondary school places and contact parents who have not made an application. TESSs also adopt proactive strategies to encourage parents to engage with the secondary transfer process (see checklist). Even those parents who said their children had gone to stay with extended family members in other parts of the country or in different countries have been expected to give details of where there children are being educated and who is responsible for them.
Families registering their children for EHE have found themselves in a relatively protected position, just as LAs were beginning to compel attendance at secondary schools. LAs are required to register and inspect EHE arrangements, but such inspections are infrequent and inadequate provision rarely results in court action. There is no political will to engage the EHE lobby and no basis to make a special case for Gypsy Roma Travellers.
The DFES commissioned an in-house survey of 23 authorities sending questionnaires to the TESS and to the person with responsibility for EHE. This survey found that the most common reason given by parents for electing to home educate was fear of cultural erosion and lack of cultural relevance. In addition parents had concerns about the educational philosophy of the school and racist bullying. Gypsy Roma Traveller parents are most concerned that education will undermine their culture and their children will not be equipped by schools to survive as Traveller adults. It is likely that concerns around educational philosophy relate to sex education and gender stereotyping.
The Ivatts report concluded thatThe developments described within this report provide clear evidence that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities represent a unique case. Because of inherent inadequacies within mainstream educational provision as listed, it could be argued that increasing numbers of children from these communities are unjustly being ‘removed’ de facto from mainstream provision. And yet these are the communities most ill placed to organise or deliver an efficient and suitable education for their children. Many parents have very low level literacy skills, have limited and negative experiences of attending school themselves and are among the least qualified to be able to make a sound and informed judgement on the quality of the education that they are managing to provide or organise for their children. There is little doubt that few Gypsy/Roma and Traveller parents are providing their children with a suitable education. As either consumers or providers parents are thus seriously disadvantaged.
Education Otherwise, an organisation which supports home education responded to this report made the following robust response.EO expressed strong distaste for this ethnic group being singled out as different in the eyes of the law from any other home educating families. The DfES has apparently had representations from these communities saying that they experience racial and cultural prejudice at local authority level, which is why the draft Guidelines includes a recommendation that there should be referral or engagement with the local Traveller Education Service.
However EO made the point that the TESS has a strong ethos of inclusion and re-integration into the school system and that therefore this is inappropriate for Traveller Gypsy Roma families who categorise themselves as electively home educating and for whom the EHE department is the correct point of reference as for all other home educating families of whatever ethnic background.
The guidance produced includes a single paragraph suggesting that local authorities should have an understanding of and be sensitive to, the distinct ethos and needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. “It is important that these families who are electively home educating are treated in the same way as any other families.” It then suggests the involvement of the TESS for advice and access to local settings.
One of the main dilemma’s in assessing the efficiency of the education provided because home educators are not required to follow the national curriculum or even provide a broad and balanced curriculum. There need be no timetable or contact time, and the educators need no educational qualifications. Local authorities do not have the duty to monitor EHE but they do have a responsibility to make sure all children receive a suitable education! In practice they can ask parents for evidence that their children are receiving education and if that evidence is unsatisfactory the LA can seek a school attendance order. Even where a school attendance order is issued, families may place the children in school for a few terms and then re-register for EHE starting the process all over again.
From a community perspective Gypsies and Irish Travellers have prepared their children for adult life by giving them responsibility from an early age and having their children work alongside them as they go about their daily work. In practice this has resulted in most young men having the skills and resources to earn a living by the time they are 16 or 17. They will share the proceeds of the work they do and young men may have enough money to buy a trailer and establish a home around the time they plan to get married. Not only do families feel that this is a more reliable way of safeguarding their future than relying on formal education, paper qualifications and job centres, but they feel that schooling may blunt the edge of their initiative and enterprise. In addition, there are strongly held cultural and religious values relating to sex education and opposed to premarital relationships, which many Gypsy Roma Travellers feel are undermined by secondary school attendance. By opting for EHE the feel their culture is strengthened and safeguarded. So EHE enables them to bring up their children in a traditional way, without their culture and values being undermined by the values of settled society.
On the down side the options for girls are particularly limited by this arrangement. They are likely to take an increasing amount of responsibility for the care of children and the home, until they marry and take responsibility for their own home and family. Although it is the religious and cultural norm to assume that marriages will succeed, some marriages fail, leaving women with little formal education and few options for making provision for themselves and their family. Induction into the family business works well when fathers have sufficient work but increasing number’s of men have only occasional and casual work, and no longer have a trade to pass onto their sons. Educational limitations restrict business opportunities for the communities; increasingly subcontractors are expected to be registered and comply with Health and Safety regulations. Most of the employment opportunities will be in the grey or black economies, often without legal safeguards or redress, and at low rates of pay. Having said that, we have to concede that in the current climate most educational qualifications do not guarantee employment and the aspirational target of 5 plus A*to C grades at GCSE is no guarantee of economic prosperity.
Finally, official sites, especially those which are isolated from other communities, frequently develop a sub-culture which is hostile to secondary school attendance. Parents and children who attend secondary school are treated as stupid at best, culturally treacherous at worst, and an anti-school ethos gathers momentum. In such a context opting for EHE may be not so much a culturally appropriate choice as a response to social pressure.
Implications for practice
- Each Local Authority is expected to identify a senior officer with responsibility for monitoring Elective Home Education.
- This person should have a discussion with LA staff responsible for supporting Traveller education to establish how the policies and practices in the authority should be applied to Gypsy Roma Traveller families.
- Schools need to be clear what steps they should take if a family seeks to register for EHE.
- The policy needs to be clear, about time-scales and acceptable levels of proof and the steps which will be taken if the provision is not acceptable.
- Although Gypsy Roma Traveller families should be treated like anyone else, there needs to be an understanding that Gypsy Roma Traveller parents may be less well equipped to deliver a suitable education than other home educators.
- The TESS needs to remain in contact with home educating parents and identify ways in which they can reengage with education to supplement or replace EHE.
- Although the adoption of EHE by an increasing number of families may seem to undermine much of the work done by TESSs over the past decades, it should also be seen as a challenge to the education system. We have yet to convince may Gypsy Roma Traveller families that schools provide an education which meets the needs of their community and culture, in an environment which is safe and affirming.