Early literacies research

Spyros Themelis introduces ROMLIT

What’s the focus?

  • Understanding the original, multiple and diverse literacies of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers
  • Recognising the role that children, parents, siblings, community members and early years practitioners play in early years literacies
  • Identifying and co-creating empowering practices working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

What are we doing?

  • Learning about literacy approaches that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and communities use
  • Exploring the way Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children navigate different levels of literacy
  • Identifying strategies to promote positive relationships across communities and settings

How are we doing it?

  • Working across different regions of England with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities
  • Looking at practice that take place at home, in education and within the community
  • Working in partnership with communities, settings and experts from across the UK
  • Producing materials that celebrate and support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children’s needs.

Poor start to implemention of Government’s equalities commitments

The ACERT president, Lord Avebury, has written to the Education Minister, Nick Gibb to express our concern about the first two education commitments in the Ministerial Working Group progress report, both of which involved OFSTED. ACERT had a positive meeting with Christine Gilbert (the then Chief Inspector) last year, but it would seem that Sir Michael Wilshaw (the current head of OFSTED) has different priorities.

Commitment 1 reads: “Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils are specifically highlighted as a vulnerable group in the revised Ofsted framework, ensuring that school inspections will pay particular attention to their progress, attainment and attendance”.

The 2012 Framework makes no reference to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, or indeed to any other group of vulnerable children! The associated handbook for school inspection from September 2012 refers to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in a footnote (15, p23) as those with protected characteristics, as defined by the Equality Act 2010. The previous version of the same paragraph in the evaluation schedule for the inspection of maintained schools and academies on p.5 explicitly included Gypsies, Roma and Travellers so the new version seems weaker than its predecessor.

Commitment 5 (p10) reads: “In line with its Schools White Paper commitment, Ofsted is conducting a survey on prejudiced-based bullying, which is now under way. 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 will be picked up in this survey, and the results will be published in 2012.”

The survey report “No place for bullying” includes one specific reference to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers:  “A third primary school that had an annual influx [sic] of Traveller children for a short period of time prepared all pupils for their arrival, exploring the Travellers’ culture and aiming to ensure smooth integration and a lack of bullying.”

Not only do we consider the word “influx” as indicative of the standpoint of the authors, but also the opportunity to highlight the concerns of many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller parents about racist bullying has been missed.

The text of Lord Avebury’s letter is below.

Letter from ACERT President to Nick Gibb

Annual Report 2010-11

2010-11 represented the first year of Coalition Government and many challenges for ACERT.
  • The localism agenda resulted in changes to planning guidance which Lord Avebury, President of ACERT, said  would reverse a trend in thereduction in the proportion of the caravan-dwelling Gypsy-Traveller population who are homeless, from a quarter in 2004 to 17% in 2011.
  •  The impact of the Dale Farm eviction, supported financially by the Government, clearly signalled the new climate
  • The gradual extinction of Traveller Education Support Services and the reliance on the Pupil Premium to meet needs
  • The Inter-Departmental Ministerial Working Group on Gypsies and Travellers (but not Roma), led by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

ACERT sought to respond to these challenges providing information to parliamentarians, stakeholders groups and  government consultations. In meetings with ministers, OFSTED and the Children’s Commissioner, we sought to ensure that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils remained on the inclusion agenda. We also worked with other organisations, such as the NATT+, ITMB and RSG, to develop effective and coordinated responses to developing policies.

Download ACERTAnnual report 2010-2011

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?