All Change Keynote Speech

The Future of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller inclusion in the new coalition era

By Lord Avebury

ACERT conference November 5, Friends House

This is a time of crisis and uncertainty for the GRT community, when the policies that were being developed and implemented by the previous Government have been shredded, and the shibboleth of localism means that targets for providing sites for homeless Travellers have been abandoned permanently. On the home page of the DfE website the reader is told that

“All statutory guidance and legislation linked to from this site continues to reflect the current legal position unless indicated otherwise, but may not reflect Government policy”,

And if you then turn to the page on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Heritage, you find that against every heading there is a warning in red, that

“This page may not reflect Government policy”

An excellent excuse for doing nothing, and for cancelling projects wherever possible to help meet target spending limits.

A Rapid Impact Assessment by the  Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) found that in the East Midlands, 71% of the local authorities that responded were planning to keep the RSS targets for Gypsy sites, but they will find it much harder to achieve them when the public know the Government have encouraged them to make their own decisions, on which there is no guidance as yet to replace Circular 1/2006. You would think that Ministers would be keen to know what changes in provision of accommodation are likely to occur, but so far the BSHF gives us the only clue. Since 29% of the LAS that responded have either adopted a lower target or still have’t made any decision, its a fair bet that the final numbers are going to be a good deal lower than the RSSs.

Ostensibly, education did comparatively well in the Spending Review, with an extension from 2012-13 to 15 hours per week of free early education and care to all disadvantaged two year old children, as the cornerstone of a new focus on the foundation years before school;

  • a new premium worth £2.5 billion targeted on the educational development of disadvantaged pupils, and
  • the 5 to 16s schools budget rising by 0.1 per cent in real terms each year

But if GRT children don’t attend school, and there are no specialist Traveller Teachers, how is this money going to benefit them? The pupil absence statistics published a couple of weeks ago tell us that absence rates are highest of all ethnic groups for Irish Travellers at 23% and next highest for Gypsy/Roma pupils at 18%, and we know that the real figures are probably much worse, because of the reluctance of GRT pupils and their parents to declare themselves.

The local authority does have a statutory requirement under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 to monitor and assess the impact of their policies on children from GRT background. Assuming that the Government aren’t going to water down this obligation, and bearing in mind that GRT children are the lowest achieving groups at all Key Stages, we need to know what strategies the Government are going to adopt with a view to eliminating under-achievement, and in particular, what they intend doing about projects launched by the previous administration.

We believe there may be some funding for elective home education to carry on with the E-lamp projects, which came to an end in July, but may be continued in another form as part of the Home Access programme which focuses on providing packages to families with children who have profound disabilities or special educational needs,

The GRT Achievement Project is another important initiative to raise the attendance and achievement of Gypsy and Traveller pupils in school, with the participation of their parents. There’s no doubt that in the past many Gypsy parents have had difficulty in seeing the benefits of education beyond a certain level, and if they can be engaged, it would raise attendance and achievement.

These and other initiatives in GRT education were discussed with the Minister Nick Gibb MP when we had a meeting with him on October 14. He had offered us half an hour, but we continued for well over an hour, and it appeared that he was genuinely interested in what the ACERT representatives and our colleagues from NATT+ had to say. It makes a lot of sense for us to have a joint approach wherever possible in our dealings with the DfE and I think we made a good impression on a Minister who seemed to be receptive. But since Coalition policy says we are going to make a vigorous attack on disadvantage, there’s a problem. The number of Traveller Teachers is going down, as local authorities make use of their new freedom, and there’s no alternative on the horizon for raising standards, just at the moment when Gypsy leaders are keen on getting their kids into vocational programmes like plumbing and electrictity. This came out plainly at the third Gypsy and Traveller Educational Forum held yesterday at the DfE, and I’m optimistic that GRT families too have begun to realise that to escape from poverty and disadvantage they need a big educational upgrade. We heard about the work being done in Canterbury and neighbouring authorities in Kent, where Gypsy children have no problem in ascribing, numbers have shot up, bullying has gone down, and achievement is steadily improving.

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