Welcome and Chair’s Report
The Chair Rose McCarthy introduced the conference. She welcomed everybody who attended and then presented the report for the year 2016 to 2017. The full text of this report is available below on the ACERT website. She emphasised the vital importance of education for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.
Anne Walker encouraged all who attended to apply for or renew membership of ACERT. Brian Foster outlined the geography of the venue and informed every one of the password for conference wifi.
Arthur Ivatts: The 50-year legacy of Plowden
Arthur Ivatts introduced the background to the famous Plowden Report of 1967. He used a PowerPoint presentation available on the ACERT website.
In short, he showed how the Chapter on Traveller Education in the Plowden Report put this topic on the political map. He emphasised how Lady Plowden’s status and influence helped create a positive environment for progress towards improving the education of Gypsies and Travellers.
This initial impetus was then consolidated in the Swann Report of 1986.
From 1997, for a period of about 10 years, substantial attempts were made to incorporate the education of Gypsies and Travellers into the mainstream education of all children. This marked the end of a chaotic situation where sometimes Gypsy and Traveller children were segregated into special units. The idea was to establish specialist Traveller education teams across the country to facilitate the education of Gypsy and Traveller children in mainstream schools. Financial incentives encouraged local authorities to make substantial efforts to improve the quality and results of this education.
Following the economic crash of 2007 and particularly the General Election of 2010, these special efforts towards improving the education of Gypsy and Traveller children were reduced significantly. A Ministerial Working Group was established but its recommendations have largely been ignored. This group has not met since 2012. An attempt to engage members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, in the form of the Education Stakeholder Group, has also floundered.
Despite this discouraging progress, Arthur Ivatts was hopeful that the will to improve the education of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers would return. This would require lobbying of government and campaigning activities to establish a political will for progress. This would also be aided by positive empowerment of members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to put their case.
Personal testimonies of Education
Sue Mutter introduced a number of positive community activists.
First, Sue introduced Bobi Rostas by showing a film that he had made about his home village in Romania. This showed us the harsh way of life: working on town refuse dumps, recycling plastic bottles, metals and more. Access to education was not easy, and housing was poor. The Roma from the village had joined together to pay for a water supply to a single tap in the village. Without this effort, they would have had no clean water supply. Bobi Rostas explained that he had come to the UK in 2000 at the age of 10. He felt he had a good education in the UK, leading to a drama degree. He is now an actor.
Second up was Kelly Buckley who is married to a Traveller. She has 3 boys and has lived on a council site in Cambridgeshire for 23 years. Despite leaving school with no qualifications she decided to attend a community health and development course in 2003, which started her education again. She has worked alongside the Cambridgeshire Team for Traveller Education, supported children in schools and worked with charities enabling them to have many different culturally affirming experiences. She is currently working for Ormiston Families Trust supporting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups. She also works in prisons running family days that help dads to maintain relationships with their children whilst serving long sentences.
She was critical of the growth of ‘elective home education’ amongst Travellers, since the lack of inspectors had led to poor quality education in some cases. Support from Traveller education had enabled her two older sons to complete school and college but the education of her third son has recently become more difficult and he is no longer in school. She also mentioned the unwillingness of some academies to purchase support to enable the inclusion of Travellers in the education system.
Third to speak was Kealy Sly. She came from a Local Authority site near Leicester, and had had no formal schooling, apart from a few weeks when she was 5. In 1998, she took the decision to return to education. In this, she was encouraged and supported by members of the local Traveller Education Service. This support was vital for her. After becoming a mother, she enrolled on an access course in health and social care. She was particularly keen to help with issues of mental health in the Traveller adult community. Now she works to raise the attainment of Traveller children. She was concerned that nowadays the few remaining staff from the Traveller Education Service do not have any role with respect to the many children not in school. She was also worried that the increase in elective home education was overall worsening the position of Traveller children, insofar as this education is rarely inspected nowadays. The key to improving attainment was often to be found in boosting the confidence of Traveller children.
Fourth, Sue introduced Betsy Mobey, currently working as an intern for Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) in Brighton. She related how her education had been difficult, despite her having 1 GCSE in Art. She found that once having identified herself as a Traveller she had been placed in an ‘outcast’ or ‘anger management’ class. She had wanted to be an actress, so after school did a Level 3 BTEC course in Performing Arts. She had then been a model and had worked at Shepperton Studios. She had worked in the hair and makeup department. Last year she earned her first IMDB in the movie “Obey”. She had come to Friends, Families and Travellers with enthusiasm, but had been shocked by the full range of unacceptable discrimination against Travellers. Working for FFT had led her to participate in many meetings and events across Europe, including a visit to the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. She was proud of her work for FFT.
Fifth, Sue introduced Jason Smith. He had made a short film called ‘Hotchi’. This had been shown on Channel 4 as part of its ‘First Acts’ series.
This film was shown to the Conference. It was a story about identity and deafness in the Traveller community. The title ‘Hotchi’ means ‘Hedgehog’. Jason explained that hedgehogs have an identity that keeps itself to itself, whilst presenting a hard exterior to the outside world. This was why ‘Hotchi’ was chosen as the title of the film.
Sixth, Sue introduced Shelby Holmes. She came from a family with both Romany and Showman backgrounds. Despite being very interested in school and particularly in reading, her attendance at school was always less than 80%. Once the fairground season began her family travelled away from their North Wales winter base. She recalled that her enthusiasm for school was so strong that she thought that if she worked hard with the fairground work then her mother would reward her with school. Despite a busy childhood, she was still able to achieve very good exam results at A-level and before. On this basis, she was accepted on an English Language and Literature BA course at Oxford University. This caused a media stir at the time. She was asked to appear on the One Show and on Radio 4. She felt that they had wanted to tell only a ‘rags to riches’ story, rather than listen to what she actually said. Also, they were interested in sensational cases of racial discrimination rather than the harsher institutional discrimination of, for example, the planning system. In fact, at Oxford she had only experienced one bad incident right at the start, in Freshers Week. Having successfully completed her degree, she is now studying for a Masters degree at Bangor, North Wales.
Seventh, Sue introduced Ruby Smith, aged 14. She was studying for her G.C.S.E.s and had the ambition to be either an oncologist or a neurosurgeon. She asserted that everyday racism was a serious obstacle, and caused an unwelcome distraction from her school work. Sometimes she is
called ‘pikey’, and often there is abuse on social media. Further, racism makes life difficult in other ways. It is harder to make friends, because of unfounded racist abuse. She felt that including some kind of introduction to Traveller culture should be included in the core curriculum. She thought that this might reduce the quantity of racism that permeates life.
Lastly, Sue introduced Birgitta Balough, from Hungary. She had been educated at a Christian High School in Budapest, as her parents were critical of the local school. She had participated in a leadership scheme for Roma, and this enabled her to move to the Netherlands when she was 17. She worked on a social project helping teenagers. After this, she moved to Cardiff to complete her education, gaining a degree in law. She is now studying for a higher degree in Copenhagen.
Alongside this, she had addressed the Welsh Assembly on their Roma Integration Strategy. It was strongly felt that Roma should be advocates for themselves, wherever possible. She had developed a passion for equality and inclusiveness. She believed that working in the legal system offered the best way forward. She was optimistic about the future.
Thomas McCarthy – Irish Traveller, teller of stories and singer
Thomas spoke against the way that Irish Travellers were ignored in history. He asserted that it was vital that their positive contribution to society was recognised. He was appalled at how he felt history had been rewritten to the detriment of Irish Travellers. Thomas made many other wide-ranging observations. He suggested that it would be a good idea if teachers applying to work in a school were given a racism test, as well as just a police check.
Thomas sang a traditional song. This was very much appreciated by the audience. You can find some of his songs on YouTube. https://www.thomasmccarthyfolk.com/music/
Brian Foster – the scale of the problem of secondary transfer and retention for Travellers
Brian Foster affirmed the value of inclusive education. He suggested that this was happening to some extent, but that for Gypsy, Roma and Travellers the experience was very patchy. He indicated that for most Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieving a good education in the UK was a struggle.
He considered the situation in mainstream secondary education. He compared the declining participation of Irish Travellers and Gypsy children. The situation was worse for Irish Traveller children, but bad also for Gypsy children. The situation was better for Roma children. Declining participation was sometimes due to exclusions from school; transfer to pupil referral units; or to transfer to special schools.
Brian also considered the growing impact of families opting for ‘elective home education’. Unfortunately, the government has made no effort to collect data on the extent of this.
Unfortunately, also, the government has not made any effort to fund the inspection of the quality of the home education being delivered. Recently, concerns about child safety have arisen, as some argue that the government and local authorities have a duty to ensure that children are not being exploited or abused.
Jozef Sadowski – Dikh He Na Bister (‘Look and don’t forget’)
Valdemar Kallinin introduced Jozef Sadowski to the audience and translated from Romanes into English. Jozef offered the conference his personal experience of the Holocaust. He was born in the Warsaw Ghetto. His father had been an officer in the Polish army and had been executed by the Nazi invaders. Jozef had been smuggled out in a basket after some guards had been bribed. He survived somehow. Jozef believes he survived simply because of the accident of his fair complexion. His moving testimony was concluded with his saying that only in London does he feel free. Jozef urges us all to remember the victims of the Romany Holocaust.
Panel discussion chaired by Hazel Marsh: Hopes and ambitions for the future
The panel comprised Ruby Smith, Betsy Mobey, Shelby Holmes, Rose McCarthy (junior) and Brigitta Balough.
The first question, from Lisa Smith, asked what the panellists thought was most interesting for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers today.
Brigitta remarked on the amazing potential. Rose emphasised the vital role of education. Shelby believed that there was a common need amongst all communities for help, right from the early stage of learning to read. Betsy thought that it should not be necessary to change who we are to progress. She thought that we should see diversity as empowering. Ruby struck a more pessimistic note. It was very hard for young people to progress in an environment of overwhelming racism. She thought that overall schools were not too bad at tackling racism against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, but that they often did nothing until prompted.
The second questioner asked a difficult question. This asked to what extent the panellists thought that mainstream education was problematic for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The question suggested that mainstream education was a kind of ‘factory system’ that did not suit students. Lisa Smith intervened, since she believed the question was too broad to be easily answered. She reformulated the question as asking the panellists not to imagine an alternative education system, but how things could be improved.
Rose thought that the wider community did not really understand the Traveller community. She thought that often people wanted to help but could not because of this. Shelby suggested that there was a clash between the demands and expectations of home life on the one hand, and the demands of a bureaucratic education system on the other. She imagined a kind of dream world where a university would fit in with Travellers. Students could turn up and park their trailers outside. The timetable would be very flexible and helpful. Shelby accepted that this was only a dream, but that there was something right about it. Shelby accepted too that the education system can be hard for many people, but that it was particularly hard for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. Betsy argued strongly that Traveller pupils should not feel that they have to ‘fit in’ totally with the often unexplained demands of school and college. School and college should to some reasonable extent try to accommodate the special point of view of Travellers. Ruby believed that the teaching of the history of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to the wider population would help. Finally, Brigitta argued that a new stronger curriculum backed by government was necessary. This should form part of a wider strategy of promoting equal opportunities. She thought that often a poverty of aspiration held children and students back. She thought that young people needed to be informed and enthused about their possibilities and given confidence in themselves.
Thomas McCarthy – a song and a short story of its origins
Thomas McCarthy described what he was about to do as showing us how a story marries a song. He told a long and amusing story that bewitched the conference audience. Unfortunately, it is not possible to repeat this excellent story here. Thomas then sang a song that was based on this story, but which varied it in interesting ways. He offered the story and the song as an indication of the depth and richness of Irish Traveller culture.
Lisa Smith – some closing remarks
Lisa described a worsening situation for the education of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils and students. Despite a lack of government action, she saw hope in the huge number of education success stories of pupils and students from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. She described her own educational experiences to support this.
Rose McCarthy – Closing the conference
Rose concluded the conference optimistically.