Traveller Education

A Department of Education Perspective

Angela Overington

Department for Education
Underperforming Groups Team
Improving Pupil Performance Division

  1. Angela Overington (AO) thanked ACERT for the opportunity to speak with them on an informal basis and share some initial thinking about next steps for GRT education policy. She informed the group that on 9 September 2011, the Department will release national attainment data for different minority ethnic groups based on teacher assessments at Key Stage 1. In late November/early December, Key Stage 2 attainment data by pupil characteristics will be published. Early Years Foundation Stage and Key Stage 2 attainment data, broken down by pupil characteristics, will be published in mid-December.
  2. AO explained that, as a general principle, the Government believes that schools and Local Authorities are best placed to respond to local needs and priorities, and should take a lead in tackling the underperformance of disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils. She explained that just over £201m has been provided to schools this year via the Dedicated Schools Grant to help schools improve the performance of ethnic minority and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils, as well as those learning English as an Additional Language. Schools can use this funding to ‘buy in’ support or specialist advice, to employ an additional teacher or teaching assistant or to fund community outreach work with local Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. Where Schools Forums wish it, the funding may be retained at Local Authority level to provide centralised Ethnic Minority Achievement and Traveller Education Support Services.
  3. AO explained that the Government wants schools to have the same high expectations for all their pupils, regardless of background or ethnicity. The Department for Education will continue to monitor and publish information about the progress and attainment of individual pupil groups, based on national tasks and tests, and will continue to pay particular attention to the achievements of disadvantaged, underperforming or vulnerable groups, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. The Government is also refocusing school inspection around the core areas of achievement, teaching, leadership and behaviour/safety. Within this more streamlined approach will be a requirement for Ofsted to consider the extent to which the education provided at the school meets the needs of all its pupils. This means considering the data on all groups and individuals, with a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
  4. AO updated the group on the progress that has been made by the Ministerial Working Group on Gypsy and Traveller Inequalities. Chaired by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Ministerial Working Group is due to report on the outcomes of its work before the end of the year. The intention is that the report should form the basis of a cross-Whitehall strategy for tackling Gypsy and Traveller inequalities.
  5. AO explained that Education Ministers were still considering the content of the education strand of this report. Among the ideas currently under consideration, and on which she sought feedback from the group, were:
    • Seeing whether any of the lessons learnt from the Virtual Headteachers pilot for Looked After Children could be applied to GRT pupils;
    • Looking at ways in which attendance among GRT pupils could be improved;
    • Identifying and sharing latest models of effective practice in schools in raising the attainment and attendance of GRT pupils; and
    • Exploring how GRT role models could be used to raise educational aspirations among GRT pupils.
  6. AO said that, in addition to these key areas of interest, the Department is already:
    • closely monitoring a three year pilot focusing on groups of pupils who are disproportionately affected by exclusion. The pilot is now running in 300 schools and will look at the impact of making schools directly responsible for arranging and paying for alternative provision for excluded pupils; and
    • supporting the GRT Education Stakeholder Group – chaired by Lord Avebury – in putting together combined responses to the School Funding consultation and the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry into the disproportionate exclusion of vulnerable groups (including GRT pupils).
  7. AO said that, in line with its Schools White Paper commitment, Ofsted is currently conducting a survey on prejudiced-based bullying. This will involve inspectors talking to pupils about their experiences of bullying and the way in which it is handled in their schools. Bullying of minority groups, such as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils, will be picked up in this survey, and the results will be published early next year.

Cuts to Traveller Education Services

By Michael Doherty 


You already know that the cuts to Traveller Education Support Services (TESS) are bad. I guess I am here to tell you how bad. The trouble is this would only take five minutes and I would still have another 15 to fill. So I am going to tell you a bit about why and how I did the research and what I think it means.

I realize that there is a hell of a lot of experience of working within and for the Romany Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community in this room and it’s a bit daunting because I am up here about to tell you how it is – with all of 4 months of research and experience behind me.

In short – It feels like I am just about to teach you all how to suck eggs.

The Research

Why I did the Research

The research into the cuts to Tess was part of my final dissertation project at City University, London. I have been there for the last academic year studying for a Masters Degree in investigative journalism. A previous Assignment to this involved making a short film about Traveller reactions to Firecracker Production’s TV series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (MBFGW).

During the making of this film I managed to tag along to a protest by members of the Traveller community targeting a Firecracker Films presentation at a Royal Television Society bacl-slapping event.

From this I managed to get published a short opinion piece for the Big Issue and a tiny little news piece for the Guardian Media section – for which I got paid £90.

Protests, publication and payment! I was hooked and decided to switch my MA project from an investigation into British Waterways to something to do with Roma, Romany Gypsies and Travellers.

How I Did the Research

Didn’t have much time so I quickly formulated a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. I wanted to capture the data for the numbers of staff that worked within education Teams that were mainly or wholly targeted at Travellers. The team, or individual within that team, might be part of another team that had a wider remit – that didn’t matter – as long as most of their work was solely with Travellers.

I sent the FOI’S off in two batches over two weeks – one to every LA with responsibility for education in England.

Two days after I sent the first batch I got a full reply from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This told me that the FOI Worked.

In addition, Bury – which also came in early – kindly told me that the FOI cost £12.50 to process – good news – but I do realise that my dissertation cost the tax-payer £1,687.50 – so all you tax – payers out there – Thanks and possibly a story for the Daily Mail?

The Results

135 Local Authorities replied. 24 of them, or one in five, are completely ‘deleting’ their dedicated Traveller education support team and a further 28 are cutting more than a third of their staff.

The responses also reveal that the Total number of TESS full time staff, or equivalent, has been reduced from 519 in April 2006/7 when the service was at it’s peak, to 425 ON April 4th, this year. The projected figures for this term – which of course has now started – is 372. This IS a 27% reduction in staff from when the cuts started to bite BUT the actual situation may be much worse as 17 Local Authorities declined to anticipate their projected staffing levels because they where ‘under review’, ‘undecided’, ‘unknown’, or being ‘re-structured’. It would probably be safe to say that some of these Local Authorities (LAs) may be making further cuts, or even deleting the service completely, adding to the carnage.

Most LA’s deleting the service indicate in their FOI responses that they are passing the responsibility onto other staff/teams – usually EMA, BME, attendance and inclusion and vulnerable children teams.

Another noticeable feature of the FOI responses, and one that may be transforming the type of service that the individual TESS’s give, is the annihilation of the qualified teaching staff and those who are given the title of GRT teaching assistants. 300 in 2007 and 150 now.

On a national scale the impact of the cuts is patchy. Some regions – such as London – having severe losses and some only minor losses. A few LA’s – mainly in the North of England – are even adding one or two staff because of the increasing number of Roma being added to their remit.

Back to London

The London TESS’s serves the cities 35 official Traveller sites which have 494 pitches with space for 740 caravans and chalets.

Freedoms of Information Requests were sent to all 32 London Boroughs.

30 replied. (Bromley and Enfield didn’t)

10 London Tess’s have now been deleted completely since 2007, most during the last academic year; (Greenwich, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Hillingdon, Lambeth Lewisham, Barking and Dagenham, Barnet, Camden, Kingston Upon Thames and Newham.

Inner South London is particularly badly hit.

At its peak in 2007, the London TESS staff stood at 61. By April this year the total staff count was down to 40 and is now at 29. From the responses it is clear that almost all of these are front-line staff.

So What Does it Mean?

I will let Vanessa, a 17 year old Irish Traveller woman I met during my research tell you in her own words.

“My father wasn’t happy with me going to secondary school. I could read and write and he didn’t see the point of me carrying on,” she says. “I could blame Mr Cannon. I could say Mr Cannon is making me go or mum will have to go to prison,” she says. “I could say that to my friends as well – I have to go to school today or Mr Cannon will find out,” she says. “Mr Cannon knew that and he would just laugh and say that as long as we went to school he didn’t care what he was blamed for. Mr Cannon understood us – he knew we had to clean house and look after the younger ones and sometimes might be late. He would talk to the teachers if we had to go to Ireland for a funeral or christening and miss school. He would explain that funerals are important for our community and work out how to settle us back in so we could catch up,” she says. My dad completely changed his mind about education when I got my qualifications and got a job,” she says. “He is proud of me. He now tells my sisters to go to school to get their papers, and that is a shocking thing to have happened if you knew him,” she says.

So what to do?

My job is to tell people. The research has been part of a UN report, has appeared in two articles in the Traveller’s Times, has been published as a news story in The Independent. I am currently working with BBC London TV to make a short news clip.

There is still room for an in-depth feature somewhere.

What you can do – I don’t know.

What Happens Next?

Travellers are starting to get more of a public voice. This can only be a good thing. Dale Farm – Travellers, young and old, fighting back and engaging with and using the media (and this includes Paddy Doherty) – telling the public that Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are not mythical stereotypes or one dimensional folk devils. It’s the same in the printed press. Some Journalists are seeking out and talking to Travellers and their voices are being listened to. And they are being told to do that by editors who realise that there readers are curious and want to know more. But there is also a backlash – the way the recent slavery raids were racialised in media reports show that for many sections of the press its business as usual.

I want to work on something – anything – that helps to challenge this racism in the media.

I am going to focus on something I came across when I manned the online comment thread the day the Independent published the cuts to TESS news story. And that’s Anti Traveller racism in the online versions of the mainstream broadsheet press.

I have read through one thread after a sympathetic Dale Farm opinion piece in The Observer and separated and counted the racist comments.

500 comments – 150 of which have at least one racist statement in them. I don’t mean they are just negative about Dale Farm or even are just abusive about the Travellers living at Dale Farm – they are racist generalisations about the different Traveller ethnic groups.

There are common themes to this racism.

One is: ‘You wouldn’t want ‘them’ living near you’ (meaning ALL Travellers – not just the ones at Dale Farm. If it was clearly just about the Dale Farm inhabitants then it’s abusive – but not racist).

Another type is that Gypsies and Travellers are not ethnic groups – just drop-outs and free-loaders who cry ‘race’ if challenged.

Another type compares bad ‘Irish tinkers’ to good ‘true Romany Gypsies’.

Then there are the unsubstantiated anecdotes about Travellers spreading human excrement, leaving rubbish and thieving. And these anecdotes are then ascribed as traits that are cultural or even genetic traits of the different Traveller ethnic groupings.

Gypsies ‘who own shiny 4 x 4’s’ having lots of money ‘obviously’ obtained from criminal activities is another. Not paying tax or contributing to society – yet getting more than a fair share of its benefits is yet another. Beating their women. Drugs and alcoholism.

All the racist comments are posted anonymously under avatars. These avatars have names like ‘Haardvark’, ‘Doughcnut’ and ‘Fart Like a Creaky Hinge’. The same names and statements crop up regularly in other articles on Travellers.

I am going to crunch a few articles and start counting the different types and percentages, number of racist comments per commentator, etc etc. Other ways to analyse them will come to mind. The initial aim of the research is to shock people with both the repetition, the bullying and cowardly abusive inanity of them, and just the sheer numbers. Some threads go on for days. To be honest – I’m gobsmacked by what is out there – A far right website yes – but the Observer?

But Why worry? – it’s just trolls and trolling isn’t it.? A small minority of bedroom dwelling pizza munchers? Misfits and low-life? Billy no-mates?

Yes, it might be – but their scrawlings are legitimized and given authority by being published by what should be the quality press. A press that’s read by opinion formers, elites, professionals, mp’s policemen, teachers, planning officers, potential jurors AND Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. And editors are legally and – I would say – morally – responsible for this racism.

A quick scan suggests that other ethnic minorities do not get the same treatment – or, rather, the racist comments are deleted by the papers online moderators. It seems like Travellers are a special case.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why it’s called the last socially acceptable racism. And this racism does make Traveller children a special case.

And this is one of the reasons why I think that Traveller children going through formal education need special targeted help.

And TESS exists to do that – so why delete and replace it?

Grand Committee

September 12 2011

Education bill: Amendment 123 Moved by Lord Avebury

123: After Clause 50, insert the following new Clause-

“Promotion of education of vulnerable children

The Secretary of State shall issue guidance on how local authorities can promote and improve the education of vulnerable children in their area.”

Lord Avebury: My Lords, this new clause is about the way that local authorities deal with vulnerable children. The group that I am specifically concerned with, as your Lordships may be aware, is that of Gypsies and Travellers. I declare an interest, as president of the Advisory Council on the Education of Romany and other Travellers, ACERT.

Statistics show that GRT children are severely deprived. They are in fact the most vulnerable of any ethnic group by a long way. The National Foundation for Educational Research showed, in a report produced last October for the department, that absence rates in primary schools were between 19 and 24 per cent, compared with the national average of 5 per cent. In secondary schools it was between 23 and 27 per cent, compared with a national average of 7 per cent. There were more than eight permanent exclusions for every thousand GRT boys, compared with less than two per thousand of all boys nationally. The figure for fixed-term exclusions of boys, mainly for persistent disruptive behaviour, was a staggering 25 per cent, compared with a national average of 10 per cent. Some 20 per cent of GRT pupils failed to make the transfer between primary and secondary education. For every 100 GRT pupils in year 6, only half get to year 11, compared with a national average of 92.4 per cent. From the cohort that did get to take GCSEs, the number achieving five A to C grades at that level in 2010 was 8.3 per cent, compared with a national average of 55 per cent.

These appalling figures do not tell the whole story by any means. More than half of all the children belonging to these communities do not identify themselves as such, fearing the discrimination and bullying of which they are unfortunately likely to be victims if they are known to be Gypsies or Travellers. Obviously they do not include, either, the high proportion of children from these communities who are not on school rolls. The children in these two groups are likely to be at the bottom end of the scale of vulnerability, and if they could have been included the record would almost certainly have been worse. Manifestly we have failed to do enough educationally for GRT children in the past, and that is one of the reasons why they are also at the bottom of society in every other respect as well.

Let us next see whether these children are likely to be picked up by the definition of vulnerable children who are covered by the coalition’s statutory framework, as was set out in the Minister’s very helpful letter to me of 31 August, which I hope that some other noble Lords will also have seen.

12 Sep 2011: Column GC156

SEN children are covered by a code of practice that details what should be done to ensure that they get an appropriate education. They will be assessed by a statutory education, health and care plan, which was outlined in the recent Green Paper. A revised legal framework will deal with about 87,000 looked-after children, on which there is also statutory guidance to local authorities. For those looked-after for six months or more, the pupil premium of £430 will chip in.

Children in need-those who are unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development, including the disabled-are supported under a general statutory duty laid down in the Children Act 1989. Again, that is reinforced by a range of guidance.

The Minister concludes by saying that he hopes that those statutory frameworks and their associated guidance make clear the importance of local authorities and others with duties to improve the educational outcomes of vulnerable children, but, unfortunately, there are some gaps for GRT children. I shall try to explain why that is so.

Under previous legislation, the Traveller Education Support Service was ring-fenced, but after 2007 the sums previously allocated to that service were subsumed into general grounds aimed at disadvantaged children. Local authorities have therefore been dismantling the TESSs. It is predictable that, with the pressure on educational budgets, they will disappear altogether in a few years, despite their considerable achievements, particularly in getting a higher percentage of GRT children to attend and stay on in schools. The specific expertise that they have amassed over the years will not be inherited by the mechanisms that already exist or are being developed to cope with the needs of the three categories of vulnerable children cited by the Minister in his letter. Nor will the staff concerned with vulnerable children generally be likely to devote the same amount of time and effort to the specific problems affecting the GRT children as TESSs have done.

I now come to the special needs that are not covered by any of the three categories of vulnerable children in the Minister’s definition. There is undoubtedly a much higher proportion of children missing education among GRT communities than in any other sector of the population. Those children are exceptionally vulnerable, as an Ofsted survey in June 2010 concluded. It referred to the former DCSF’s statutory guidance for local authorities on the circumstances in which a child may not be receiving suitable education. They included membership of the GRT ethnic groups. Ofsted looked at 15 authorities, large and small, urban and rural. It found that none of the service departments in the authorities was confident that it was aware of all the children living in its area. The consistent response from officers was, “We don’t know what we don’t know”.

However, in a Times Educational Supplement survey last February, 12,000 children were listed as officially missing, and it was clear that the number would have been much higher if all the authorities had made as much effort as Leicester, which employs a full-time member of staff to trace CME, assisted by 20 educational welfare officers. Martin Narey, the former chief executive

12 Sep 2011: Column GC157

of Barnardo’s, said that the situation was deeply troubling. If my noble friend is not prepared to add CME to the categories of vulnerable children, I hope that he can tell your Lordships what alternative solution he has to offer. The Government acknowledge that the current guidance on CME is defective, because they are planning new guidance to be issued by the end of the year, but if that is all that my noble friend has to say on this after the Government have had the devastating Ofsted information for well over a year, I shall be very disappointed.

In the case of GRT children in particular, who must make up a significant element of the TES numbers, in the response by the inner London consortium co-ordinator, Brian Foster, to the Ofsted survey, it was pointed out that the TESSs’ relationship of trust, developed with those communities over time, had made it more likely that they would get information and that their development of a cross-borough database of families minimised the number of unidentified CME. Such arrangements may be discontinued with the disappearance of TESSs and the lack of any local authority responsibility for CME who are not covered by any of the three headings.

One thing that the local authorities covered by the Ofsted survey knew was that excluded pupils’ vulnerability was significantly increased because of their potential exposure to drugs, alcohol, crime, pregnancy or mental health problems. It is not clear whether excluded pupils are included within children in need. Without explicit guidance they may not be covered. Nor are local authorities obliged to keep a register of children in need, as they should be required to do in guidance. Here again, GRT pupils are far more likely to be excluded than any other ethnic group, with over one-fifth of Gypsy or Roma boys and one-quarter of Irish Traveller boys excluded in the course of an academic year. Ideally, CME should be added to the Minister’s three categories of vulnerable children, but if that is unacceptable because it is too broad, a way of picking up some-perhaps most-of the CME would be to add a category of “mobile child”, meaning a child who starts other than at the beginning of their phase. These are defined by authorities such as the London Borough of Hackney as “mid-phase admissions”.

The pupil premium of £430 in the current year does not necessarily cover these children who dip into education from time to time, including not only those of GRT origin but, for example, asylum seekers or the dependent children of migrants coming here for work. The proposal in the schools funding consultation to extend the payment from children currently in receipt of free school meals to those who have done so in the past three or six years would dilute the per capita grant because the total sum available would not be increased. It still does not necessarily cover these mobile children, who are disadvantaged because they are engaging with school for the first time or after an absence.

Some GRT parents say that they electively home educate their children just to give a reason why they are not attending school. It is very doubtful that the parents are competent to teach or that the lessons they give, if any, would enable the children to participate effectively in wider society or to earn a living in any

12 Sep 2011: Column GC158

skilled employment. They are likely to remain in the closed communities of their families, cut off from the rest of the population. Graham Badman’s recommendations-that parents should register a child who is to be home educated, submit a yearly statement of their educational approach, intent and planned outcomes, and accept home visits by the local education authority-might have focused more attention on these children and enabled local authorities to offer parents advice and assistance. However, as the Committee will recall, the report stirred up a hornet’s nest among parents who were effectively home educating their children as measured by their outcomes, and it sank without trace. I take it that the Government have no intention of revisiting the question of what to do about EHE, although some of the children ostensibly being home educated-not only those in the GRT communities-may be extremely vulnerable.

A further suggestion would be to add those who cease to attend at any point in their school career, particularly at the point of transfer between primary and secondary school, to the list of vulnerable children. We need to make far greater efforts to improve the attendance of secondary school-age GRT children, considering that one in five drop out at the end of primary school and just over half drop out before school-leaving age. Only 38 per cent of Irish Travellers go all the way through school so the disadvantages that they suffer, and their lack of affinity with the social system, are being transmitted to the next generation.

A final thought that I offer the Minister is that virtual schools should be given a chance to cover children missing education. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child looked after by them. By virtue of Section 52 of the Children Act 2004, that includes a duty to promote the child’s educational achievement. Outcomes were driven up by virtual schools for children in care in the pilot authorities, and the idea was rolled out in all but three local authorities by July 2010. If the virtual schools continue to benefit children in care, is it not likely they could do the same for CME?

I am not optimistic that the Minister can give your Lordships much reassurance on this amendment, which asks so little in the face of a task that has been ducked by successive Governments throughout the half-century of my political life. Gypsy, Roma and Travellers belong to a minority that clearly is not popular, as evidenced by the racism in the comments threads of the media whenever they publish articles on the subject. Now, having at least prided ourselves in the past on our human rights and equality law, we are under fire from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing over the inhuman eviction of Travellers from the Dale Farm site, due to start a week today.

6.45 pm

We are also at risk of adverse comment from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which already said in its draft report on the UK three years ago that significant inequalities persist with regard to school achievement of children living with their parents

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC159

in economic hardship. Several groups of these children have problems being enrolled in school or continuing or re-entering education, either in regular schools or in alternative educational facilities, and cannot fully enjoy their right to education, notably, among others, children of Travellers, Roma children, drop-outs, non-attendees and so on.

The Committee will no doubt want to be convinced that in the Bill the Government are taking positive and constructive steps to meet this criticism. I hope that they will not only accept this amendment but set out a convincing case that will satisfy this Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they mean business in satisfying the needs of vulnerable children. I beg to move.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the amendment to which I have put my name, I wish to say how grateful I was to the Minister for rapidly arranging a meeting to amplify the points that he made in his letter to the noble Lord on 25 August. He and his team, in the person of Angela Overington, have been helpful in sending us again the current guidance to local authorities.

The amendment refers to vulnerable children of any kind, so I should make it clear that one group or another is not being singled out. The essential point of any guidance, and the reason why it should be mandatory, is that it must be specific about the different kinds of children who miss out on education and how differently to target them. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said so tellingly, Gypsy and Traveller children are perhaps the most significant of such groups in terms of the extraordinarily high proportion who do not get to school in the first place, especially secondary school, and drop out or are excluded if they are there. As the Minister knows, the Children’s Commissioner is looking at Gypsy and Traveller children as part of her first inquiry into exclusion.

This apparently discriminatory outcome needs specific attention. As long ago as the Plowden report on primary education-is that over 40 years ago?-targeted measures in respect of Gypsy and Traveller children were called for, and they seem to come and go in fits and starts, which do not achieve an acceptable solution. I need hardly describe in this place the importance of school education for finding work, fitting into society and becoming useful, law-abiding citizens, quite apart from self-fulfilment. The Ofsted report, Children Missing from Education, published last August, suggested that local authorities struggle to track pupils who are out of school.

The rapidly disappearing Travellers Education Service had some success. In 1997 it was estimated that only 5 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller children stayed on for key stage 4. The figure now is closer to 50 per cent, but schools that are focused on “the importance of teaching”, which we all support, cannot reasonably be expected also to secure the inclusion of all marginalised children, some newly arrived, some unfamiliar with or fearful or mistrustful of education. If local authorities had the sort of safety-net responsibility that the amendment provides, schools would remain free to concentrate on their core business.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC160

The Minister told us in his letter that local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure the education of some vulnerable children-those with SEN, looked-after children and children in need, which is now a developmental criterion. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out, there is no duty to tackle the missing education of all vulnerable children, which would include Gypsy and Traveller children and others not in the above three classes. The current statutory guidance has a few passing references to Gypsy and Traveller children. Among 26 groups of children who might miss out, it lists mobile children such as those of families in the Army or of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. However, by no means all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are mobile, especially Roma. There are some other reasons why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who do not live in caravans still do not get schooling.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment and undertake that the accompanying guidance will define vulnerability so as to include Gypsies, Roma and Travellers as a specific group, as they are in law, and set out more developed measures to get them the education to which they have a right.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendment and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for their longstanding advocacy for Gypsy and Roma children. I recall the noble Lord tabling a debate on the education of Gypsy and Traveller children 10 years ago.

I am also reminded by this debate that I once taught a nine year-old Traveller boy. What really comes back to me is how enthusiastic and keen he was to be a part of the group and one of the boys. I imagine that many of these young boys and girls want to be a part of a group, and it is tragic that this opportunity to bring them into society is so often lost.

If I understood correctly what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, I was concerned to hear that specialist services for these children may be being lost. Trust is very important. If these services have developed trust with those communities, it is very important to maintain that relationship.

There are also things that schools, if they are well informed, can do. For example, the special experience of Gypsy and Traveller children can be a bonus for the pupils generally. A boy from a Traveller community can talk about the involvement with animals or other activities that his community has and celebrate that with the other children. Alternatively, for example, a head teacher can involve the mother-it would usually be the mother-of a Gypsy or Traveller child. Even if she cannot write, she can help the child with his homework. The head teacher can ask the mother to put a sign by her son’s work to say that that boy sat quietly for half an hour to do his homework. That is her job and she can communicate that to the head teacher. Therefore, it is possible to engage with those parents. It is possible to think about these things in a very constructive way, and I hope that the Minister can give a positive response to the amendment.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: Before the Minister speaks, perhaps I may ask whether he will address a particular point in his summing up. The point raised

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC161

by my noble friend is very important in the light of the education system-or lack of an education system, if I may put it like that-that will arise if all the Government’s changes go through. The very important question is: who will be responsible for looking after the very small groups of children who are, by definition, not very visible because they are small in number but are none the less, for all kinds of reasons that noble Lords have identified, very disadvantaged when it comes to taking up opportunities for education? Given that local authorities will not have any locus in local areas if the Government’s objective of the majority of schools being academies and free schools comes to fruition, I should be grateful if, in responding, the Minister could say where responsibility will lie for looking at the achievement, or lack of it, of these small groups of children, working with schools in some way but without the power and leverage to do so. Who will ensure that schools do better by these very small groups of children? In the new world that the Government will take us into where academies are going to be everywhere and will not be focused on disadvantaged children, I cannot see where that responsibility will lie and where the leverage with individual schools to do better by these children will come from.

Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, it is clear from this debate-as has often been the case-that promoting the highest possible quality of education for the most vulnerable children in society is a subject dear to the heart of the Committee. We have set out in our schools White Paper, published last year, and more recently in our Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, our overall plans on how we want to achieve this,. These include the pupil premium, which will deliver an extra £2.5 billion a year by 2014 to support the education of the most disadvantaged children. My letter to my noble friend Lord Avebury on 25 August set out the overall the statutory framework and range of measures in place to support vulnerable children. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, the White Paper was absolutely clear that the local authority retains its responsibilities for vulnerable children, and the Bill does not affect its statutory duties in any way.

However, the nub of this debate is around Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, who are of particular concern to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and to my noble friend Lord Avebury. He is absolutely right that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils continue to underachieve significantly relative to their peers and are still much more likely to leave school without completing their formal education. This year, under one-quarter of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 in English and maths at the end of key stage 2, compared with 73 per cent of all pupils. At key stage 4, just 10.8 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, compared with about 55 per cent of all pupils. These are stark differences. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils have the worst attendance of any minority ethnic group and there is a marked decline in enrolment between primary and secondary school level, a point that has been made. They have the highest levels of permanent and fixed-term exclusions.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC162

Local authorities have a key role to play in addressing this issue. They are under a statutory duty to ensure that education is available for all children of compulsory school age that is appropriate to their age, ability, aptitudes and any special educational needs they may have. This duty applies regardless of a child’s ethnicity, immigration status, mother tongue or rights of residence in a particular area.

Along with schools and colleges, local authorities have a range of safeguarding duties for vulnerable pupils, as well as duties to establish as far as possible the identities of those children of compulsory school age who are missing education. We are currently revising statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children who are missing education. I say to my noble friend that we expect to strengthen current references to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in the revised guidance and I should be happy in due course to share that in draft form with him, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and anyone else who is interested.

It is also the case that Ministers in my department are working, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a range of government departments to ensure that the range of inequalities faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are properly addressed. That working group expects to publish before the end of the year a report on how the Government will tackle the issue, including a package of measures designed specifically to raise educational aspirations, attainment and attendance. We are grateful to the work carried out by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education stakeholder group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Avebury, for the contributions that it has made so far, and I look forward to working with the group over the coming weeks to develop further plans in that area.

7 pm

On children missing education, a point that my noble friend particularly emphasised, local authorities, maintained schools, further education and sixth-form colleges have safeguarding duties under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002. Crucially, under the 2006 education regulations, all schools are required to inform the local authority where a pupil fails to attend school regularly, where a pupil has been absent from school continuously for at least 10 days without permission or where a pupil has been removed from the school roll in specific circumstances. Indeed, failure by a school to comply with these provisions is an offence.

My noble friend is right to cite some concerns about how well these arrangements are working, so the Government are committed to reviewing those regulations and to tightening up and extending the circumstances in which schools must inform the local authority when a child is missing school or removed from the register. We will revise the statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children missing education.

I hope that this will provide my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and others with some reassurance that there is an overall appropriate legal

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC163

framework and statutory guidance in place to support local authorities and other services in promoting the education of vulnerable children, and specifically that we are taking steps to try to address the educational challenges and inequalities that we all accept are faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. With that, I hope that my noble friend feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Avebury raised the question of virtual schools. Perhaps my mind was drifting as I listened to the Minister’s reply but I did not hear him address that subject. Virtual schools provide an interesting way of dealing with genuine Traveller education and providing them with a consistent relationship with school that is not disrupted every time they move, and we should look to encourage that. Does the Minister have a view on this?

Lord Hill of Oareford: We are due to address virtual schools later. I think that my noble friend has an amendment on the subject so we can return to it then. I can respond more fully to my noble friend Lord Avebury at that juncture.

Baroness Benjamin: In the Minister’s efforts to address this issue, could he please include parents? Parents are the key to the problem of these children not attending school. They are essential to making this successful. In my experience as a governor and a chair of governors of an academy where we had Gypsy and Roma children, the parents were the stumbling block. If you can get to them, part of this problem will be solved.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. It is good to hear about the work that his department is undertaking. I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talk about the demise of specialist Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education services. Maybe the Minister briefly said something about that at the end of his response but, I am sorry, I did not quite catch it. If he could clarify what is going on with those services, I would be grateful.

I apologise if I misled the Committee in any way by describing myself as “teaching” this boy. I was running workshops in a school environment. I am not a teacher; I should make that quite clear.

Lord Avebury: In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the ring-fenced grant for the Travellers Education Service ceased in 2007, and the equivalent amount of money was made available in the general grant to local authorities for disadvantaged children as a whole. It was from that point onwards that local authorities started to see that there was money that they could use for other purposes and either made officials in the service redundant, in some cases, or did not replace them when they left. There has been a gradual process of running down that, as I said, if it is allowed to continue, will result in the complete disappearance of specific Traveller education services in a few years’ time.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC164

What the noble Earl and my noble friend said about contact with parents is important. It was an essential feature of the Traveller education services; they managed to link the parents, the children and the schools, which is why they were effective. In the absence of these specialist services, I am afraid we will not have that advantage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, also reinforced the point about mobile children. We are talking not simply about those who still live in caravans and are peripatetic-that is a declining number. What I was talking about when I defined what I hoped the Minister would pick up on-the term “mobile child”-was a child who enters at a point other than the beginning of an academic phase and is therefore potentially disadvantaged because he or she has not hitherto received education or has received it very intermittently. If we could add such children to the definitions that were specified in the Minister’s letter, it would go some way towards covering the children about whom we are particularly concerned.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We acknowledge the benefits of the pupil premium, which will cover many of the GRT minority. We believe that the revision of the guidance on CME will be effective but we have not seen it yet. I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the work of the DfE’s stakeholder group, which has a meeting in the coming week at which I am sure we will want to discuss some of the matters that have been covered in today’s debate. We are in the course of responding to the department’s educational funding consultation. That will also have an impact on how we treat this group. I cannot promise that we will not return to this subject on Report. We have not dealt with all the matters that have been raised. Perhaps we shall cover some of them in the later debates, particularly on virtual schools, which have an important role to play here. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 123 withdrawn.

The Equalities Award

The new EQualities Award is a national initiative designed to help all types of schools and children’s centres to review and develop their policy and provision as well as recognising their work in:

  • advancing equality of opportunity
  • eliminating discrimination
  • fostering good relations

See their website for more details and download a pdf flyer below.

Download a flyer to find out more