The DFE has responded positively to the argument, put by ACERT and NATT+, that it should not rely on on-line consultation methods when gathering the views of hard to reach communities. The Department plans to appoint a “Mobile Families Outreach Contractor” to consult families likely to be affected by the proposal to repeal s444(6) of the 1996 Education Act. Applications must be submitted by noon on Friday 24th August, for a minimum of 20 days up to a maximum of 25 days between 3 September 2012 and 28 October 2012 inclusive. Full details are available on the DFE website. The online consultation is likely to take place over the same period.
ACERT recognises that the law has rarely been used and frequently misunderstood. In the current climate of zero tolerance of absences and the automatic issue of penalty notices, the concept of a defence being available strikes us as quaint. Nevertheless, we are aware that Showpeople and New Travellers who have regular travelling seasons fear that they will be criminalised for not sending their children to school; the change of law will add insult to injury caused by the undermining of distance learning by the withdrawal of funding for laptops and the cuts to Traveller Education Support.
ACERT members find that children may be absent from school because their families are responding to family crises; s444(6) does not offer any defence to such families and we would argue that any successor law should.
What is emerging is a better understanding of the Government’s notion of “equality.” In this case, and in Nick Gibbs response to Lord Avebury’s letter, it is becoming clear that equality means being treated in the same way as everyone else, rather than offering positive action to counter educational disadvantage. The ACERT AGM will provide an opportunity for everyone who shares our aims to discuss strategies for the future.
ACERT is committed to working with the communities and other organisations to press for a legal framework which recognises the validity of a nomadic way of living, and the importance of extended family responsibilities.