Making a Difference in schools for Gypsy and Traveller Children and Young People
By Billie Dolling. Billie is a Training and Development Officer at Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) which is a national charity that works on behalf of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Billie has worked at FFT for over two years and co-authored a number of the organisation’s key research reports in that time, including Last on the list: An overview of unmet need for pitches on Traveller sites in England, A research paper: Suicide Prevention in Gypsy and Traveller communities in England and more.
Young people from Gypsy and Traveller communities can often face disadvantage and barriers in the education system. Information collected by the Department for Education shows that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are the ethnic groups of pupils most likely to be excluded from school and least likely to attain a grade 5 or above in GCSE maths.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, like the majority of Young people across the UK, most Gypsy and Traveller Young people switched to remote education. It became quickly obvious through our organisation’s casework that the switch to digital was likely to worsen existing educational inequalities for Gypsy and Traveller children and Young people and further disadvantages Disabled Gypsy and Traveller children and Young people.
However, as Young people have been asked to return to school, this has also created new inequalities. Within Gypsy and Traveller communities, many people live in multi-generational homes and there is a large amount of respect and care given to older people and people who require support. Because of the communal and sometimes confined nature of nomadic living, this has meant that some parents have been reluctant to send children back to school in case they bring the COVID-19 virus home with them and pass it to relatives susceptible to contracting the virus.
Aside from COVID-19, when we speak to children and their parents, we often hear about the obstacles faced by many Gypsy and Traveller children and Young people within school settings – including low aspirations from teachers, racist bullying, lack of cultural understanding and more. We often find that Disabled Gypsy and Traveller Young people have worse experiences because of the intersectional discrimination. Yet, this is rarely spoken about more widely.
We asked Avril Fuller, who is Outreach and Youth Coordinator at Friends Families and Travellers, about her experience supporting Disabled Young people from Gypsy and Traveller communities in education settings. We also asked for her thoughts about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon learning for Young Gypsies and Travellers. Avril is Romany Gypsy and has over 20 years of experience supporting Young Gypsy and Traveller people in education.
We often find that parents from Gypsy and Traveller communities can feel unsure about what to expect from schools if their child needs additional support, or can feel scared that mainstream services will not be welcoming to them because of their ethnicity or culture. For that reason, having someone like Avril, who is friendly, open and welcoming can help to give parents the confidence to navigate issues which can otherwise feel very challenging. You can read our interview with Avril below:
Avril, can you tell us about your experiences supporting Disabled Young people, and their educational journeys, within the mainstream school setting?
Avril Fuller (AF): “As an example from our casework, one Young person we work with received a placement in a secondary school for pupils with special educational needs, which went well at first, but then the other Young people at the school had more severe special educational needs which meant the Young person was not getting any social engagement. A meeting was set to assess this, and it was decided that the Young person would attend mechanic training. This training proved not possible so it was then decided for the Young person to attend an agricultural college. This college opportunity was also found to be not possible due to the risk assessment being too high for the Young person to take part in learning to drive a tractor. The parents had high anxiety levels, due to the Young person having to travel to school by a taxi, which was also causing the Young person to feel distressed. The Young person’s GP wrote a letter confirming his anxiety, which is allowing them to learn online at home, which they have been doing through lockdown.”
What barriers do Disabled Young Gypsy and Travellers face in schools?
AF: “A barrier is transport to school, as well as the location of the school. Travelling to school by taxi is not always possible. Taxi travel can be used to encourage independence if available, but the taxi is only for Young people meaning they have to travel alone, as parents would not be able to have a return journey alone. Another barrier is multi-floor levels in regular schools. For a Disabled Young person to attend a mainstream secondary school would be a challenge, as an assistant would be needed to help with using the toilet. Mainstream schools should be assessed for Young people with special educational needs to help include them in future.”
Have you any examples of both good and bad practice from schools which you could talk about?
AF: “We have been able to support Disabled Young people to successfully attend mainstream education, up to secondary level, where the school was all on ground level. Sometimes, we can find that Young people with special educational needs, who are waiting on Education Health Care Plans (EHCP), may be expected to remain in a school setting that is not suitable for them until all assessments are completed. If the Young person drops attendance, this can hamper the assessment which then extends the process. This process can create stress, anxiety and panic attacks for Young people, putting pressure on parents which can lead to increasing concerns for parents with their mental health and other health issues. Some schools will push through EHCPs regardless of attendance, due to this evidence that the Young person needs to attend school. Sometimes other Young people are removed from school to prevent attendance issues, detentions and exclusions, and are home educated until they are able to attend college. Admittance to college can also be hampered by a lack of an EHCP assessment, meaning Young people cannot attend because they don’t have 1-2-1 support. Other colleges have to be sourced and found, who can see Young people’s abilities to achieve in a practical manner and can help 1-2-1 with written work. This has happened where the college tutor has enabled Young people to complete training which has led to employment. The aim of education for the outcome of employment for Young people also helps life skills to be learnt. EHCP plans can be for Young people up to 25, and can also include money budgeting, use of public transport, going shopping whilst accompanied at a distance and supportive housing.”
Can you tell us about how COVID-19 has impacted on Young people you work with?
AF: “There was not enough provision of laptops from each school for Young people having to do online education during COVID-19, causing a loss of education. Young people who were home educated also suffered due to the lack of tech support, and libraries being closed which would have been used for computers and printers. Families were going to other family members to access a computer, which meant cases of up to four Young people waiting to use the same computer. This was hampered for some families who had no means of transport, no car access, who were living in isolation or who had breaks in internet access. At FFT, we have had to refer clients to carers support for tech support to access iPads, tables and laptops which are appropriate for age and special educational needs. We were able to access a laptop charity to support home educated Young people, as well as those in school and college, which was funded by FFT. The Children in Need (CIN) Emergency Essentials Programme provided laptops and iPads to Young people, to access the internet – this has led to employment, training, accessing benefits, assisted Young people in caring roles to make appointments and receive follow up letters and accessing housing needs. These laptops and iPads have also allowed for online schoolwork so home educated Young people can access work sheets, follow BBC education and other resources such as Horrible Histories, virtual tours of zoos, museums, and research projects for geography.”
Can you talk about any action you have taken alongside a Young person and family which has resulted in improved educational outcomes for the Young person?
AF: “The devices that FFT were able to get for Young people have really improved educational outcomes by giving Young people online careers support, enabling them to access online courses such as health and social care and enabling work experience opportunities which are good for CVs and possible future employment. This also allowed opportunities to continue construction courses and martial arts training.”
Whilst there is evidence to prove the disadvantages Disabled Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils face when attempting to access the education system, there is also evidence of ways that schools, local authorities and central Government can work to mitigate against these barriers. For example, one school we worked with recently found separate learning space for a pupil whose family were nervous about catching COVID-19 and passing it on to others in his home. As another example, a school we worked with installed a lift and multiple ramps around the grounds to enable better access for a client of ours who needed wheelchair access.
So what is the moral of the story? A meaningful understanding of sociocultural differences and a desire to create a safe and engaging educational environment can often see Disabled Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils thrive in otherwise difficult situations.
About Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT)
Friends, Families and Travellers is a leading national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers regardless of ethnicity, culture or background.