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Commitment 3 their intention ” to look again at the impact of this legislation and to consult on whether it should be repealed.”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.

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.