How my school helped Traveller children

There are simple, practical methods for integrating Traveller children into the education system, as my school has shown, yet local and national government has yet to pick up on them

Travellers are one of the most marginalised and vulnerable ethnic minorities in Britain and far too often their needs – in particular for their education – are overlooked. In Traveller communities it is sometimes accepted that children will not receive a secondary education. It is worrying this acceptance now appears to be shared by local and national government.

Education is one of the strongest methods of successfully integrating minorities into the wider community. It’s time those in power took the issue of education for Traveller children more seriously.

If we fail, we risk condemning another generation of Travellers to a life of poverty, racial stereotyping, and social exclusion. Why am I concerned about this? Over the past 10 years my school, Holy Family Catholic Primary in South Gloucestershire, has welcomed significantly more than the average number of Traveller children through its doors. Some years, almost a third of the children have come from the Traveller community.

Teaching Traveller children is challenging but extremely fulfilling, and we have made significant progress. This has been achieved through the hard work of our staff, reaching out to the community, building relationships and trust with a group still apprehensive about dealing with outsiders.

When you consider that slang like “gypsy” and “pikey” is still culturally acceptable, as is a disdain for Traveller lifestyles, this apprehensiveness about dealing with community structures, such as schools, is understandable.

Traditionally, this nervousness to integrate has resulted in low school attendance. At Holy Family, we have managed to turn this around and achieved it by setting out on an ambitious programme of training and learning about the Traveller community.

We identified a member of staff responsible for visiting homes and building links, and by fostering these attendance has increased, integration of Traveller parents has improved and a governor responsible for Traveller relations has been established. We also looked at the needs of Traveller children and developed a curriculum that makes learning accessible, providing skills needed for further education.

Nevertheless, more still needs to be done above and beyond the actions of one school.

First, the government needs to radically rethink its home-schooling policies. Parents are entitled to educate their children how they see fit. But if children are home schooled, there needs to be considerably more safeguarding and standards checking than is currently applied.

It is far too easy for those in the Traveller community to use the home-schooling argument to opt out of education. Everything we have seen suggests parents who have been to secondary school themselves are more likely to send their children there as well. Toughening up home-school inspection would not only put an end to legalised truancy, but would also send a clear message to the Traveller community that Britain takes their education and integration seriously.

The next is funding. We were able to fund our work on Traveller integration but not every school can. If the government is serious about fostering community cohesion, funding for minority outreach is essential.

Schools must also take a pragmatic approach. Look at small changes you could make with a large impact. Highlight a member of staff responsible for minority relations. Consider adapting the curriculum slightly: for example, Traveller children tend to spend a great deal of time outdoors so we became a Forest School in order to incorporate this into our pedagogy.

Of course, not every school is going to find themselves in the same specific situation as us. The Traveller population varies depending on where you are, but the approach we take is important for two reasons.

Firstly, just because a minority is small, it doesn’t mean you should make a minimal efforts to integrate them. Secondly, the methods we used to integrate with the Traveller community are the same as those we would have used to reach any isolated and marginalised section of society.

“Integration” is a buzzword politicians are particularly fond of using, but the onus of integration should not be left to minorities alone.


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