Traveller Solidarity Network – THE STRUGGLE TO GET AN EDUCATION: TRAVELLERS IN THE UK

The British education system has systematically excluded and discriminated against Travellers for years. Permanent exclusions are regularly highest amongst Gypsy/Roma and Travellers [1]. However just as often, kids from these communities are prevented from ever attending schools in the first place.

I have for some years attended school tribunals appealing decisions to exclude or not accept Traveller children. One case in particular sticks in my mind. Three Traveller children, two boys and a girl, had submitted an application to a local school. The school, as so often is the case, said they had no room for the children. On the day of the tribunal to appeal this decision I attended with all the necessary paper work, which the school required for any application. Yet they claimed not to have received these and  argued that they couldn’t consider the children for the school because their applications weren’t ‘correct’. I showed to the tribunal documentation that I had not only presented to the school at the time of the application but also done so by hand. Indeed I asked why was this the first time this had been mentioned and had not given as part of the reason for the initial rejected applications. I assured the tribunal that the school had indeed received the paper work. The school representative ignored me and put it to the tribunal that the school did not have the required paperwork.

Thankfully the tribunal chairperson, who I had spoken to weeks beforehand with my concerns about ‘misunderstandings’ I had witnessed before in regards to Traveller applications to school’s, then and there produced the paperwork that he hadreceived from the school themselves. This not only proved that the school had indeed been in receipt of the disputed documents, but hastened the decision to allow the children to attend the school. Management within the school had clearly lied. But the matter did not end there!

With the application allowed, the children were expected to attend school at the start of the summer term. When no contact was made by the school I again rang to find out what was happening. I was advised by the admissions office that the children hadn’t attended an open day for all new pupils and it was considered by the school that the kids had changed their minds about attending the school.

When asked how this open day invitation was made known to the Travellers it was said to have been sent out by letter. The school was then asked to provide a copy of the letter but couldn’t do so and never did. I tried to speak to the headmistress but was told she couldn’t take the call as she was busy and indeed from then on I was unable to speak to her directly. Asking when the children were to start school the admissions office said they couldn’t as they hadn’t been added to the rolls!

Getting nowhere with the school I got in touch with the education department of the county council. Within an hour they rang back saying the children had been cleared to attend the school. Yet the school kept saying otherwise and reiterated that it was ‘nothing to do with them’ as the children had made the choice not to enroll. It took a stern word from the council about the legality [or lack of] of what they were doing for the school to change its tune.

In fact it turned out that the headmistress, a nun, was responsible for the deliberate misinformation and stalling. This came out at a governors complaint meeting I requested, to get to the bottom of the matter and to make the school aware that any discrimination against Traveller children’s applications would be challenged through every process available. 

Thankfully the children were left alone at school after this and the two boys eventually became prefects, while the girl turning down an offer of head girl [she being a little more bolshie than the boys] became part of the school council representing pupils to the school/governors. They were never aware of how the head had fought to exclude them from the school. All three now are either studying, or about to study at university. The progress they have made is astounding and would never have come about if the headmistress had had her way. I know this to be the case because the children in question are my own.

This is only one story about the barriers put in place by secondary schools to exclude Travellers. I welcome others to share theirs in the comments below. I myself had only one year in high school, leaving at the age of 12. After that I had no schooling at all because of circumstances beyond my control and always regretted that. At Dale Farm before the eviction many of the children were the first generations in their families to enjoy uninterrupted schooling. This is why I fought so hard to get my children and still fight for others. From my experience challenging racism through all means available can work, even if it takes a lot of time and effort, and more of us should do it.

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[1] For Gypsies and Roma the figure is 0.56% of the school population. For Travellers the figure is 0.53% (Department for Education, 2010)

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