Lord Avebury Update

Once again I’m delighted to be with you at this AGM, though we’re looking at a somewhat depressing picture as far as the Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities are concerned, from most but not all angles.

The abrupt change of policy on accommodation, signalled by the Secretary of State Eric Pickles the minute he got his feet under the desk, means that after seven years of gradual reduction in the proportion of the caravan-dwelling Gypsy-Traveller population who are homeless, from a quarter in 2004 to 17% in 2011, the trend is likely to go into reverse. Not only is it likely that, following the example of the inhuman treatment of the residents on the Dale Farm site, whose eviction is being subsidised by £18 million of public money, other local authorities will be acting tough against the 3,100 unauthorised caravans, but they will also decline to renew the 900 temporary permissions whenever they expire. The psychological impact on the whole community is already traumatic, and there will be unfortunate side effects on the education of those affected, such as even higher rates of absenteeism and lower records of achievement.

The direct effects of Government policy on the education of GRT children are also negative on balance. The gradual extinction of Traveller Education Support Services, initiated by the end of ring-fencing in 2007, seems to be accelerating with the squeeze on local authority budgets. Freelance journalist Michael Doherty found in a survey of 127 local authorities that 24 were abolishing their TESS altogether and another 34 were cutting more than a third of their staff. The total number of staff in these authorities was 480 in April 2007 when the service was at its peak to 354 in the next academic year, a 38& reduction. The actual situation may be worse than this, because 20 councils were unable to say what their projected staff levels would be because they were “under review” or some equivalent.

The Pupil Premium is a very welcome development, but isn’t likely to be spent on retaining dedicated support for GRT pupils, when schools are accountable to parents on how the money is spent. There is to be limited guidance on how the money is to be used, but this may not require that all parents, rather than those most actively engaged with their children’s education, get to know what’s proposed to be done with the money.

Last week the Department’s GRT Stakeholder Group considered and finalised responses to the School Funding Consultation, and I hope you would agree that it was a useful exercise. I want to pay a special tribute to Margaret Wood, Brian Foster and Arthur Ivatts for their input to this exercise, without which it would have been impossible to reach any conclusions. The questions demanded knowledge of both the existing system of funding and the changes which were likely to be proposed, which few members of the public including representatives of the GRT communities were likely to possess. We now have before us an inquiry by the Children’s Commissioner on exclusions, which I’m very much hoping we can also get some help on, with so many of the Stakeholder Group members totally submerged in the Dale Farm catastrophe.

One of the lessons we have learned from this exercise was that the Stakeholder Group doesn’t have the necessary mix of experience and skills to comment on the educational funding system, and we were very lucky to have enlisted the advice of ACERT members to help put the submission together, and to have Arthur Ivatts, who IS a member of the Group, guiding the meeting through his own very useful additions to the draft.

The response emphasises that significant numbers of GRT children are not on school rolls and aren’t considered in the funding formulae. The proposed simplification isn’t helpful from a GRT point of view because it eliminates the categories ‘underperforming ethnic groups’ and ‘turnover’ that were covered by the Additional Educational Needs (AEN). The additional funding for ‘deprived pupils’ should be extended to underachieving groups, and ought to refer specifically to GRT pupils, and EAL children as well to bring in Roma children.

We said that Free School Meals were a relatively good proxy indicator of financial deprivation and related educational needs, but the Department’s own statistics showed that fewer than half of GRT children were claiming. The questions in the consultation don’t take in the observation of the Equality Impact Assessment that AEN which aren’t deprivation-related should be considered.

Here perhaps I should mention that the Minister, Lord Hill, helpfully wrote to me setting out how deprivation is defined and presumably, since he was writing in the context of a New Clause I had tabled to the Education Bill requiring the Secretary of State to issue guidance on how local authorities could promote and improve the education of vulnerable children, how it would continue to be defined in the new funding system. [You can read my speech on the New Clause in the Grand Committee on the Bill]. To summarise, I argued that the definition leaves out a sizeable number of GRT children and especially those missing education or ostensibly being home educated. I suggested that we need to make far greater efforts to improve the attendance of secondary age children, bearing in mind that over a third of Irish Traveller children don’t make it through to school leaving age.

We ducked the problem highlighted by the Badman report, that many parents who claim to be home educating their children are manifestly incapable of doing so, but a system of inspection that concentrated on GRT home educators would violate the Equality Act. Intervention would have to be based on some other characteristic that wasn’t ethically specific.

Two more thoughts on this: The E-Lamp project, using laptops and distance learning, was reported to have been successful, with 75% of participants gaining qualifications. When public funding for this work ceased in 2010, the project was taken over by the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, and the learning materials infrastructure remained in place. With the arrival of low cost netbooks, surely this would be an effective way of getting dropouts to come back to education. I gather from some of the comments on the scheme that some participants didn’t think the laptops or the total package including internet access provided by the nominated suppliers, were good value for money, and a more flexible scheme might allow users to take advantage of the rapid developments in both hardware and ISP pricing on the market.

Second, we need to find a more effective way of re-engaging with all Children Missing Education, that would include those who withdraw at or after the transition from primary to secondary. The virtual schools, which I believe have been successful in the pilots on looked-after children, could be extended to CME, an idea which I understand is already being considered in the DfE. I mentioned this in the debate on GRT education in the Lords, and expect to get a response from Lord Hill, who is always meticulous in writing to pick up details that weren’t covered in his reply to the debate itself. Clearly the tasks of a Virtual School Head would be quite a bit different in the case of children missing education from that of a VSH dealing with looked after children, and the blueprint might start with the Ofsted survey of August last year. Some of their work would be preventive, such as ensuring that pupils failing to attend for more than 20 consecutive school days were followed up, and that agreed procedures for exclusions were observed.

I spoke to David Berridge, one of the team at Bristol University’s School of Policy Studies who carried out the evaluation of the pilot VSH studies, and his off the cuff answer was that a small team with a central overview of Children Missing Education could have a useful role to play if the funding was available, and that it could be lead by someone with the status of headteacher, though a different terminology might be appropriate when most of the children covered aren’t actually in contact with the educational system.

Speaking of exclusions, I’m hoping that the Stakeholder Group will put together a response to the Children’s Commissioner’s School Exclusions Inquiry, the deadline for which is October 5. On this, as with the schools funding, the GRT communities themselves may not be well placed to deal with some of the questions, such as how for instance the inequalities seen in the figures for exclusions be addressed, or how schools should address the imminent equality duty and whether schools have been made sufficiently ready to implement the duty; and if the Group is to cover these broad questions of policy, they will need input from allies in ACERT beyond those who are actually members of the Group. I’ve asked the members of the Group to let me have their comments on the questionnaire and Arthus Ivatts has very kindly agreed to collate the replies.

A couple of other matters I’d like to share with you today. At the April meeting of the Stakeholder Group we discussed the European Union Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, which proposes that all member states should adopt a comprehensive approach to Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities, covering access to education, employment, healthcare and housing. The Framework recommends that the national strategies should set achievable goals for GRT children in each of these four sectors, with funding by governments, supplemented, where appropriate, by the EU. Money is available through the European Social Fund, in which there is a ring-fenced 172 million Euros for actions aimed at integrating the GRT people in the period 2007-13.

The Framework suggests that the strategies should be designed, implemented and monitored in close cooperation and continuous dialogue with GRT civil society, but up to now the Group is unaware of what is going on. We have written to the CLG Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, asking to be included in the policy- and decision-making processes stemming from the European Commission’s Framework, and I hope the cross-departmental Ministerial Task Group on GRT Inequalities of which he is chairman will set out our response to this initiative (read the letter to Eric Pickles here). The House of Lords EU committee will also be looking at the Framework in the light of the Government’s response, and I’m sure that in the meanwhile the DfE is bearing in mind the possibility of applying to the Social Fund for help to meet the cost of projects we would like to launch or retain, but are otherwise going to be lost in the cuts.

Finally, Margaret Wood, Brian Foster and I had a useful meeting with Christine Gilbert the former Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector on June 17, after a conversation I had with the Minister Lord Hill. She told us it may be possible to conduct a survey on how the needs of GRT children are being met towards the end of their current 18-month programme, that’s towards the end of 2012. Notes on the meeting are on the table, and you will see that we have an assurance that a further meeting with the new Chief Inspector could be arranged at an appropriate time. Subject to what the meeting thinks, it might be an idea to suggest that it should be an annual fixture.

That great lady who founded ACERT in 1973 Bridget Plowden, asked a rhetorical question in an article she wrote on the 20th anniversary of her Committee’s report on primary education:

“Is there not a place for knowledgeable people, not only politicians and those from the educational world, to look at intervals at what the educational world and the politicians are doing for the nation’s children, who belong to all of us?”

Alas, there are few enough politicians, let alone those knowledgeable people, who take an interest in what’s being done for GRT children, and the national media ignore the connection between the failure to do enough for those children, and the problems faced by their communities as adults in terms of health, social isolation and inability to access public services. But perhaps amid the gloom, there’s an opportunity. Dale Farm, a cliffhanger experience for the families involved, has focussed unprecedented media attention on the overall environment in which society has allowed such a barbaric event to develop, even if the application for judicial review on the grounds that Basildon made insufficient efforts to find an alternative site for the residents is successful on Monday. And the European Union will be keeping watch over us until 2010 at least, ensuring that the Government have to account for themselves internationally. After nearly forty years, ACERT has a more important role than ever in these circumstances, and I’m sure that we will play a very full part in keeping up the constructive pressure which is the very reason for our existence.