ACERT Submission to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry

Margaret Wood and Lisa Smith have compiled an excellent submission to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry into tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities.

The submission covers a range of issues with which ACERT members and supporters will be familiar, but brought together in one document they comprise a powerful indictment of this and the previous coalition governments’ indifference and hostility to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights and inclusion.

It covers the failure to recognise or build on the achievements of the Labour Government, the inadequacy of the Ministerial Working Group Commitments, the impact of cuts and funding change and the unleashing of xenophobic and nationalist sentiments by the Brexit debate. Women and Children suffer disproportionately from the consequences of austerity and the submission doesn’t pull its punches. 

Ethnicity codes

The attached document from the DFE sets out a proposal that would allow schools to use the option of either “Gypsy” or “Roma” to give parents a choice thus hopefully increasing ascription and accuracy of data, while also minimising any burden on schools. Critically, by keeping the new categories (Gypsy and Roma) relatively close to the existing category (Gypsy/Roma) we can with confidence continue to aggregate data and thus there would be no disruption in our ability to compare changes in attainment/attendance over time.

ACERT supports the idea of taken account of first language in the analysis of data in order to assess the impact of language acquisition on achievement of Roma children but we were concerned that the historic link between Romanichal and other Romani groups should be recognised. Our reply recognises this point

What are the characteristics of an education system which protects and promotes children’s rights?

Consultation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner

Response by Margaret Wood on behalf of ACERT, the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers.

The following points are intended to highlight the issues relevant to children from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma backgrounds.

We are broadly happy with the proposals and their links to the previous Every Child Matters agenda and wish to make the following points.

  • Current DfE attainment figures demonstrate that children from all these groups are significantly under achieving by comparison with all other ethnic groups and with groups such as those in receipt of Free School Meals. In 2013 83% of All Pupils achieved 5 A* – C GCSEs. For Travellers of Irish Heritage the figure was 39% and for Gypsy/Roma Pupils it was 42% (DfE figures).
  • Up to 50% of children from these groups have dropped out of the school system before the age of 16 and schools are therefore not enabling them to reach the highest level of qualification they can. This means that informed choices about their future in higher education, employment or further training may be less accessible.
  • In order to start to improve the situation for children from these groups it needs to be acknowledged that formal education can be far from a fulfilling experience even though it should be the entitlement. This fact more than families’ mobility accounts for the high level of drop out, poor attendance and exclusions for the groups as a whole. It is not uncommon for children to be ostracised and made unwelcome by other children and at times by staff on account of negative or racist attitudes to their communities.
  • It can be hard or impossible for children who do not fit in to get involved in making positive contributions to society or to get involved in leisure activities with other children whose families might, on occasion, have campaigned to have them evicted from their homes.
  • Providing additional support where necessary and striving to close the attainment gap are both necessary. They require the right level of resources. A good level of cultural understanding on the part of education professionals is necessary and this has implications for training. Sweeping reductions in specialist Traveller Education Services and the decision not to include these groups in the Pupil Premium means that schools may be less likely to address these children’s needs. It also means that it is likely that more children remain outside of and hidden from the system and not on school rolls.
  • The list of children who are unable to attend school should specifically name the example of children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds as such high numbers are not on roll. It should also be made clear who exactly should provide outreach to identify the missing children, who should provide and take responsibility for their education and how this will be monitored and enforced.
  • Many children from these groups are let down by the system but the children and their parents might not realise this and may need specialised help to articulate their views and to be listened to.
  • Accountability of schools (including those outside of local authority control) and of local authorities is essential particularly in economically difficult times.
  • Best practice in education includes careful monitoring of these specific groups by schools and local authorities and DfE. They should then implement strategies to address the issues. Every Ofsted inspection should look at the achievements of children from these groups including any in the catchment area who are not in school.
  • Any consultation carried out with children should deliberately include enough children from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma backgrounds to get a realistic picture of their situation. Best practice may need an element of compulsion to help it to spread and become embedded.

ACERT will be pleased to discuss any of these issues further with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

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Responses to s444(6) consultation

The consultation on the repeal of s444(6) ended on Friday 22nd February, but the campaign goes on. Below are our submission and those from some of our partner organisations. If anyone would like their submission to be added, please email it to us at admin@acert.org.uk. Having a record in one place of all the arguments put would be valuable. Feedback from the Department of Education suggests that there has been a significant response.

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Education of nomadic children under threat

Under s444 of the Education Act 1996 economically nomadic families can defend themselves against a prosecution for their children’s non-attendance in school by showing:

  • they are engaged in a trade of business of such a nature that requires them to travel from place to place;
  • the child has attended at a school as a registered pupil as regularly as the nature of that trade permits; and
  • any child aged six or over has attended school for at least 200 half day sessions during the preceding year.

In April last year the Government published “Progress report by the ministerial working group on tackling inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers” which announced in Commitment 3 their intention ” to look again at the impact of this legislation and to consult on whether it should be repealed.”

The consultation period runs till 22nd February 2013.

ACERT will make public its submission opposing repeal on the website and we encourage all members and visitors to this to make their own responses to the consultation request.

Undermining Distance Learning

Currently, people whose travelling pattern has a fixed base, can negotiate with schools to keep them on roll and provide distance learning packages to support their education. Support for Distance Learning has been undermined by:

  • cuts to Traveller Education Support Services restrictions on their roles,
  • the demise of ELAMP (the Electronic Learning and Mobility Project) and the successor Home Access programmes
  • the increase in the proportion of Secondary Schools no longer under local authority control, and
  • the emphasis by the DFE and OFSTED on narrower, school-focused definitions of teaching and learning.

The repeal of s444 would add another nail to the coffin, and remove another element of the flexibility which all research has shown is the key to improving the outcomes of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Poor attendance by these children is a serious problem, but there is no research evidence to suggest that s444 might be a cause.

Compliance will be impractical

Circus families in London were told recently that it was not possible to admit their children to school for two weeks, even though this is what they have done for years. The central admissions system which operates in many areas can delay admission by several weeks; are parents going to be prosecuted for non-attendance even though there is no school place available to them? Will it be simpler for such families to opt to Home Educate their children, rather than face prosecution, and would the Government regard this as successful outcome?

The Government’s Commitment

Finally ACERT must ask “Why is the Government proposing this change?” On the face of it, they wish to improve the attendance of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils and have entitled their consultation paper “Improving educational outcomes for children of travelling families.” We believe it may be part of a campaign in the run up to the next election to prove to core Conservative voters that they are prepared to get tough with groups who are unfairly privileged by the existing law. We also believe that it may force families who have a nomadic way of earning a living into opting for Home Education; if they do so we can expect to see an improvement in the attendance statistics.

We have made clear that we are not satisfied with the delivery of Commitments 1 and 5 (inclusion of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the OFSTED framework and the thematic review of prejudiced bullying) and the jury is out on most of the others.

For our part ACERT will seek to defend the right to a nomadic way of life, and focus our attention on supporting the education of nomadic children through distance-learning and/or dual registration. We will also argue for flexibility in admissions systems to enable mobile children to be admitted for short periods of time.

https://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/a00217692/educational-outcomes-travelling-families

https://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/submit

DFE seeks consultant to gather community views of law change

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.