MPs and Education amongst Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities – 2

What’s been said?

On 12th September, two days after this debate in the Commons, the Women and Equalities Committee held an oral evidence session as part of their inquiry Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Sessions like these can be very informative, as the witnesses frequently have much experience in the area concerned. The focus of this session was education. Two witnesses, Rose McCarthy and Brian Foster, were from The Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers [ACERT]. The others were Professor Kalwant Bhopal, who this year published research on HE and Race, Class and Inequality; David Bishop, Birmingham City Council and Sean Harford, HMI and National Director for Education at Ofsted.

Most of the dialogue concerned the relationship between GRT families and schools. Q460 to 470 however focussed on HE, with none of the witnesses being very positive about it. Forster, who is very experienced in education amongst GRT communities, said that ACERT had supported the Badman Review in 2010. Reporting on specific aspects of such a session necessitates the omission of the surrounding context, but the transcript [PDF] and video of the full session are available on-line, and the BBC and Tes have also published brief reports.

In the wider discussion, those with specific GRT experience emphasised the need for schools to make an effort to understand the culture of families. Different cultures exist amongst Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Because schools often fail to appreciate how much all of these differ from the prevailing culture, this results in curriculum which does not address the needs of GRT children; parents not trusting schools – especially to keep them safe; children being taught moral standards which differ from their own culture; and some families choosing not to identify as GRT, because of fears about bullying, discrimination and racism. All this highlights how school education has moved away from working with parents for the benefit of children, towards expecting families and children to be squeezed into the state’s mould.

Specific comments about HE were varied. Bishop for example said that Birmingham had found an approach “of drawing people to honey” had worked very successfully with both the GRT and HE communities [Q455]. He reported that Birmingham has “mentors” who visit “one hundred percent” of the 1,400 children whom they know are educated at home. For Ofsted, Harford reasserted Amanda Spielman’s desire to see registration established for HE, though not for Ofsted to do the inspections. From their experience within these communities, neither McCarthy nor Foster felt HE was a good option, unless it was supported by outside tutors. Bhopal, whose research is supportive of minorities families who home educate (see here), stated that some GRT families don’t provide their children with an education.

Why does it matter?

Taking time to understand other people’s experiences of HE, rather than the prejudices of lobbyists, is informative. English case law has established that “Education is suitable if it primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member,” provided it does not limit their options later in life, outside that community. What is unclear is who arbitrates that final clause and on what basis. Strong cultural identity can provide lifelong support, as well create tensions to conform. Can education which fails to work with a student’s cultural background be considered fit for purpose?

Less comfortable for many in the EHE community will be the comments that significant numbers of children are not receiving a suitable education “at home”. Not every parent has the background, motivation or aptitude to prepare children for adulthood, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, let’s be clear that this has nothing to do with a parent’s racial background. (The MailOnline carried a report in April 2016 featuring three Caucasian families who tried HE and gave up.) Secondly, there is a need for realism about the demands of “going it alone” outside the school system. Parents do need to be encouraged to count the cost carefully before taking their first HE steps. Educating one’s own children is something of a lost art, and preparing children for life amidst a rapidly changing society is genuinely challenging.

What can I do?

The first thing is be realistic about the political atmosphere in which we live. There are those who care little about nurturing variety in tomorrow’s adults. They want uniform education for uniformed children. Think if that is what you want for your children and grandchildren; if not, consider how you can best protect them from it.

Secondly, be realistic with yourself and others about the demands of effective home education. Though motivated to assist, few HE parents have time and energy to spare to offer in-depth support to families starting a similar journey. It’s easy to assume that every home educator can keep their own heads above water, but that is not always the case. HE is an important freedom for parents and children, but to protect it we need to acknowledge the effort it takes to achieve positive outcomes.