Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities Contents


54.There is no lack of aspiration from Gypsy and Traveller parents for their children, but, for some, formal education is not seen as a part of those aspirations. This means that it is too easy for the education system to write off the potential of Gypsy and Traveller children, enabling prejudice to continue. The ability to access high-quality education sets the course for the future success of every young person. In the case of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, a poor start in education may be the catalyst for many other inequalities that we have heard about throughout this inquiry. As we have heard in evidence, the barriers for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in education are severe. Tackling poor educational attainment is vital to tackling other inequalities facing the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

55.Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age than children in other ethnic groups, they have worse attainment standards than any other ethnic group from early-years onwards72 and only a handful are recorded as attending university in any given year (although this may be because they are choosing to hide their ethnicity).73 In addition, levels of both temporary and permanent exclusions are high and almost half of Gypsy/Roma students are classed as persistent non-attenders.74 After key stage 4 (usually aged 16), a quarter of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children go into neither education nor employment.75

Figure 4: Persistent Absence by ethnicity 2016–17 (%)

Source: Ethnicity Fact and Figures, Absence from School

56.We have heard numerous reasons for why outcomes are so poor, ranging from early exit from formal education to problems encountered by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children throughout their schooling. Overall, we have seen a lack of engagement and cooperation between local authorities, schools, regulators and families, which has led to a perfect storm of poor outcomes.

Poor attendance, elective home education and children missing from education

57.We have heard that some Gypsy and Traveller children are taken out of school as early as the end of primary school, some persistently do not attend and some never register at school at all.76 Where these children end up is unclear, although we have heard of successful and unsuccessful home education,77 children starting work at as young as 10 years old,78 and children who simply stay at home without any formal education. While some children may be travelling with their families because of the needs of their parents’ work (as provided for by s444(6) of the Education Act 1996),79 this seems to be a minority. Parents have told us that they take their children out of education for reasons ranging from bullying that they experience in school,80 schools not taking their children’s needs into account,81 and not seeing the relevance of education,82 to, most worryingly, feeling that schools do not educate their children in a way that they would find acceptable.83

58.There are also “push factors” including schools that “off roll” children that are struggling or have challenging behaviour.84,85 Some schools perpetuate stereotypes, assuming that there is little point in educating Gypsy and Traveller children, as they will leave school early anyway and have no use for school-taught skills. A Romany Gypsy young woman told us that this was her experience in school:

I find that, often, teachers will come up to me and say, “Oh, so you’re a Gypsy. Are you going to leave school?” My [subject] teacher actually asked me that in year 7. They said, “We’ve found out that you’re a Gypsy, so does that mean you’re going to leave school, because we can get you to do some other projects?”86

59.Brian Foster of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT) gave us an example of how schools can be so entrenched in their stereotypes that, in their minds, being a Gypsy or Traveller equates to poor attainment:

There was a school that described itself as having 15 children who were Travellers. There were actually 45 Travellers in that school, but 15 had poor attendance and bad behaviour, and they were regarded as the Travellers. The other families, who were quietly getting on and whose kids were progressing through education, were no longer regarded as Gypsies and Travellers, because they were like us.87

60.We also heard anecdotal evidence that schools were treating Gypsy and Traveller girls and boys differently, on the understanding that girls would grow up to be homemakers while boys would be working in elementary occupations.88 While both push and pull factors are clearly exacerbating the problem, it is vital that schools work with families to ensure that children do not simply disappear off the school roll.

The law and the right to education

61.The rights of children to receive an education are enshrined in a number of international documents. Article 28 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child sets out this right and adds that States should:

Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.89

The European Convention on Human Rights, likewise, states that “no person shall be denied the right to education”.90 The Convention also obliges States to respect the rights of parents to ensure education in conformity with their religious and philosophical convictions. However, the UK has entered a reservation to this part of the Convention, which provides that the State will only respect the rights of parents “in so far as it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training,”91 so that the Convention would not extend to allowing parents to opt their children out of education altogether.

62.In England, local authorities have a duty to ensure that children who are not in school are being “suitably” educated, but this duty is limited. The duty under s436A of the Education Act 1996 states that the duty applies “so far as it is possible to do so”.92 Draft guidance from the Government on Elective Home Education states that:

Local authorities must make arrangements to find out so far as possible whether home educated children are receiving suitable full-time education, once that has been established local authorities have no specific statutory duty to monitor the quality of home education on a routine basis.93

Because we heard that Gypsy and Traveller children are often receiving no education at all, we feel that the bar for “so far as possible” should be set high, with local authorities that are not doing all they can to find out if children are receiving a suitable education being held to account. However, we also appreciate the limitations that local authorities have, even when they are able to establish that a child is not being suitably educated at home. Local authorities must serve a notice on parents they believe are not educating their children (either at school or at home).94 The local authority can then serve them with an attendance order, compelling them to return the child to school. Home education must “suitable”.95 There is no statutory definition of what “suitable” education is, but draft guidance (currently out for consultation) suggests that such an education should:

aim at enabling the child, when grown-up to function as an independent citizen in Britain, and outside the community in which he or she was brought up, if that is the choice made.96

63.Ofsted has no jurisdiction to inspect home education settings and Sean Harford of Ofsted was resistant to the idea of Ofsted taking on a role in home education, saying:

I don’t think we want to start going into parents’ homes to inspect them, frankly, because […] this is a wider group than Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils and some parents are better set up to do this than others.97

64.The Children’s Commissioner, in a 2019 report, found that 92 per cent of councils say that they do not have the powers they need to ensure children are getting a decent education and 28 per cent of home-educating families refused an offered home visit from the council, which they are legally entitled to do.98 This means that local authorities, despite their best efforts, are unable to reach children who may be missing education. This problem is exacerbated by parental mistrust and unwillingness to engage with local authorities. Consequently, there is very little, if any, oversight of how Gypsy and Traveller children are being educated at home. While we heard from young people themselves that some have tutors and some are receiving support from council officers and charity organisations,99 our feeling that this is not true across the board. Children that have never been registered at school may simply be lost to the authorities. As well educational concerns, this also raises safeguarding issues.

65.It is intolerable that any child should not be receiving a suitable education. Many parents, schools and local authorities are letting down Gypsy and Traveller children. The first priority for the Government, local authorities and Ofsted must be to ensure that the legal right to an education is not denied to any child, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Home education should be a positive, informed choice, not a reaction to either a poor school environment or family expectations.

66.The Department for Education should carry out a complete audit of all local authorities to ensure that they have robust policies and procedures on children potentially missing from education, as required by section 436A of the Education Act 2006 and the Government’s own “Children Missing Education Guidance”. Any local authorities that are found to have inadequate processes should be required to remedy them within six months of the audit. The audit should also inspect the procedures that authorities have in place for ensuring that home educated children are receiving a “suitable” education, including effective mechanisms for taking action under section 437 of the Education Act.

67.The need for reform affects all home educated children but Gypsy and Traveller children are more likely to be withdrawn from education. We agree with Children’s Commissioner that families that are home educating need more oversight from local authorities. We also recommend that council officers should be given the power and have the duty to visit children being home educated at least once per school term to assess the suitability of their education. Education should only be deemed “suitable” if it provides equal life chances to boys and girls and gives all children the necessary tools to decide on their own futures as adults.

Pupil Passports

68.One of the problems that was raised with us by witnesses was that of children who have irregular educational histories, either due to frequent travelling, moving in and out of schools or, mostly in the case of Roma children, moving from one local authority to another.100 Schools have no way of tracking a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller child’s progression when they change schools. This means that schools cannot ensure any continuity or assess a child’s needs.

69.In 2010, Ofsted expressed frustration that it was very difficult to find out which children were genuinely on a school roll, which were being home educated and which were missing from education.101 Ofsted recommended a single database that would allow local authorities and other education agencies to track children throughout their education and share information for the benefit of the child. Such a system, named ContactPoint did exist,102 but was shut down in 2010 due to concerns about confidentiality and safeguarding.103 The aim of the ContactPoint database was for a child’s basic information to travel with them and for schools to be able to access the record across local authorities, so that they would know where a child had come from and what educational professionals they had had contact with. Witnesses spoke positively about a portable system that would contain a child’s educational record, that could go with them regardless of their location.104 Currently, schools have management information systems that they use to record the progress of each pupil but these systems are internal to the individual school.

70.While we understand that the ContactPoint database was abandoned due to data protection concerns, we feel that technology and the law has moved on. A new database would allow schools to support children who move between councils and ensure the continuity of their education.

71.The Government should consider piloting a pupil passport scheme with rapid evaluation to ensure that, should it be successful, it can be rolled out as quickly as possible. At the same time, the Department for Education should explore how such a scheme could be implemented across England and what the budgetary implications would be. Such a scheme would ensure that when children move schools or move into home education, their records and history travel with them.

Discrimination and bullying

72.Many submissions described experiences of discrimination and bullying in schools. Sherrie Smith, a Romany Gypsy, told us about her daughter’s experience:

My daughter has been called names at her secondary school because it’s known she is a Gypsy. Horrible names. I want her to stay there but it is hard. Teachers don’t take it seriously enough. They might say to the child to apologise but that’s not enough. Any other racism in the school is taken up higher.105

73.Ms Smith’s comments suggest that bullying against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils is tolerated in a way that other bullying is not. The University of Birmingham Centre for Research in Race and Education also identified the problem of schools failing to take such bullying seriously:

Many Gypsy and Traveller parents are often afraid to make complaints for fear of not being taken seriously and when their children do experience name calling in schools, this is often unrecognised by teachers. In many cases, when parents have complained about bullying and racism, schools often fail to use anti-bullying and anti-racism policies and procedures to respond to or investigate such incidents.106

74.David Bishop of Birmingham City Council told us that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students should have parity of treatment with other students:

Schools will treat pupils with equality. The expectations of attendance, attainment and achievement and the aspirations are the same as for any other group. So inclusivity and equality of treatment is the way successful schools deal successfully with any vulnerable group, be it Gypsy, Roma and Traveller or any other group.107

75.Sean Harford of Ofsted confirmed that inspections include looking for signs of bullying and discrimination in all groups, and that any sign of this would lead them to adverse conclusions in any inspection report, providing there was sufficient evidence.108 This seems to be in line with Ofsted’s current policy on gender equality and sex segregation, which we heard about as part of our inquiry into enforcement of the Equality Act.109 It is too soon to know how effective these inspectorate interventions are, but we feel that the same level of scrutiny should be afforded to all protected groups.

76.Schools have a duty to ensure that no group is discriminated against and that they are challenging any inequality and stereotypes that students encounter. They have a duty to ensure that no one is bullied on the basis of their ethnicity while ensuring that children of all genders are enabled to thrive throughout their education.

77.Schools should, as part of their responsibilities under the Public Sector Equality Duty, be challenging race and gender stereotypes wherever they encounter them. Ofsted should ensure that inspectors are actively inspecting schools for gender and racial stereotyping or signs of sexism or racism from either pupils or staff.

Gender roles and their effect on education of Gypsy and Traveller children

78.When we visited Gypsy and Traveller parents, children and young people, we were struck by how frequently we were told that boys would be working with their fathers when they were old enough and girls would be raising their own and caring for extended families from a very young age. The boys we heard from in oral evidence took for granted that they would be working with their fathers (or grandfathers) in the family business,110 that they would get married, and that their wives would not work.111 The girls we spoke to were more positive about their own freedom to choose their futures, but still recognised that certain things were expected in the Gypsy and Traveller communities. One girl told us:

Boys tend to leave school at a younger age than girls, mainly to go out to work with their dad. It teaches them lifestyle things—what they need to learn for when they are older—to be independent and work for themselves. […] I think it is because of what the men think. Quite often, because of the stereotype, what happens in many situations is that the women stay at home—they clean, they look after the children, they cook a meal for their husband. The man goes out and works and gets the money.112

These girls had aspirations to go to universities and develop careers for themselves, although they recognised that they may face disparagement from their community for doing so.113 However, our visit to Leeds and Kent suggested that continuing education may be the exception rather than the rule. Such views had a large role to play in children leaving education as early as primary school.

79.We also encountered other taboos within the Communities. When certain subjects are taught in school, this can lead to parents removing their children. This applied to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children alike. In Leeds, we were told that children should not be in secondary school because the schools were “full of sex and drugs”.114 In general, as we heard in evidence, boys and girls mixing at school beyond a certain age was frowned upon. As Prof Kalwant Bhopal told us:

For some families, boys and girls are expected to do gender-divided tasks, although that is significantly changing. For instance, parents do not want to send their daughters to school because they will be engaging in sex education and PE, and they will be in environments where they feel that their children will be unsafe.115

80.Relationship and sex education was seen as a particular sticking point for families. Szymon Glowacki of the Roma Support Group told us that anything that was related to the body was considered “impure” and was not spoken about in Roma communities, including in relation to sexual health or pregnancy.116 One of the Gypsy girls we heard from told us that, while she did learn about relationships and sex at school, she was given dispensation to study alone. She did not feel comfortable naming the subject and told us:

At school, when they are doing those subjects—when the teachers start talking about it and saying, “Do that subject”—I go to the library. I still learn it, but I don’t think it should be done with a classroom full of boys and girls mixed. I don’t think that’s right. No matter the age, I don’t think it’s right. I think you should learn about it separately.117

In this case, a solution was found that worked for the student, the parents and the school, but the worry is that, rather than schools and parents working together, it is more common for parents to simply remove their children from school due to their objections.

81.We have heard compelling evidence that the education of boys and girls in Gypsy and Traveller communities is heavily gendered, with boys being removed from school to join their fathers in business and girls being removed to look after younger children and to become homemakers. While all young people from Gypsy and Traveller communities may be affected by this, we have spoken to girls and women for whom life chances are particularly limited. However, we have also heard that this situation is changing, with more young women going onto further and higher education. We nonetheless believe that young women from Gypsy and Traveller communities are not able to fulfil their potential and that they are experiencing discrimination by being prevented from accessing education.

82.The Department for Education draft guidance for relationship and sex education in secondary schools makes it clear that the teaching should include an understanding of the religious and cultural context of the children in the school. It also includes the “right to withdraw” a child from sex education classes, should the parent choose to do so. It does not, however, give parents the right to withdraw their children from education entirely. All children benefit from age-appropriate relationship and sex education, but more needs to be done to ensure that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller parents do not remove their children from school because of an objection to it. Schools must have a plan for how to have constructive conversations with parents to explain to them the benefits of relationship and sex education in a way that is reassuring.

83.Schools have a duty to proactively plan for how they will have conversations with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller parents about what relationship and sex education involves and what parents’ options are for their children, short of removing them from school. These plans should be explicit and Ofsted should take them into account during inspections and assess schools accordingly.

Schooling that is inclusive of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage

84.Gypsy and Traveller families can feel that their heritage and identity is not adequately reflected within school curricula. Rose McCarthy of ACERT told us about how the children around her feel that they are invisible when International Roma Day (on 8 April every year) is not marked in their schools:

When it comes to cultural awareness in schools, for instance International Day, many children I know have come back home and said, “Rose, there was nothing about us; there was nothing about our people.” And this is on International Day in schools; there is no celebration there.118

While this may seem like a small omission on the part of schools, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month was mentioned as an important part of inclusion of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage in numerous submissions to the inquiry,119 including by the Minister.120 The feeling was that these small marks of understanding served as litmus tests for whether a school was safe.

Role models

85.It is clear from the large number of impressive Gypsy, Roma and Traveller advocates who spoke to us that the Communities are not lacking in women and men as potential role models. Witnesses have spoken about the need for young people to have role models, as well as being role models themselves. David Bishop of Birmingham City Council told us about his team in the Council:

We have a colleague who heads up our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller service. He does have a number of staff who go out into the community. We feel that one of our successes is that his staff are from the GRT community. He is also from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. We feel that there is an important role there in terms of role models and cultural identity.121

Dave Brown of Migration Yorkshire and Colin Havard of Sheffield City Council told us that, with regard to Roma, role models did exist, but there were not enough of them, nor were they very visible. Mr Havard also told us that being seen as a role model of a community could be burdensome:

The role models are important. The problem at the moment is there are too few of them and we are putting too much pressure on those who are there. We need to broaden that out somehow. We need to start changing that narrative.122

86.Organisations such as Diversity Role Models (working with LGBT communities) train role models to work with schools and foster good relations between communities.123 However, no such programmes currently exist for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

87.There are multiple organisations in other fields that provide role models to speak and work with schools to foster good relations between groups. The Government should increase the capacity of these organisation to provide similar support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller role models.

72 Cabinet Office, ‘Education Skills and Training,’ accessed 19 February 2019

73 Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, University of Sussex (GRT0009) para 3.3

74 Cabinet Office, ‘Absence from school,’ accessed 19 February 2019

75 Cabinet Office, ‘Destinations of school pupils after key stage 4 (usually aged 16 years),’ accessed 19 February 2019

76 ACERT (GRT0010)

78 On our visit to Kent, a teacher told us that a pupil she had taught rarely came to school because he was running a successful horse-trading business

79 Education Act 1996, section 444(6)

80 Surrey County Council (GRT0001), York Travellers Trust (GRT0008), ACERT (GRT0010)

81 Mr Peter Norton (GRT0025), Catholic Association for Racial Justice (GRT0033)

82 London Gypsy and Traveller Unit (GRT0049)

83 Q413[Rose McCarthy], Rene Cassin (GRT0048)

84 Harborough District Children and Young People’s Charity (GRT0014)

85 Children’s Commissioner, Skipping School: Invisible children, February 2019

87 Q445 [Brian Foster]

88 Visit to Kent

89 Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, Article 28

90 European Convention on Human Rights 1950, Protocol 1, Article 2

91 Human Rights Act 1998, schedule 3 part II

92 Education Act 1996, Section 436A

94 Education Act 1996, section 437

95 Education Act 1996, section 7

98 Children’s Commissioner, Skipping School: Invisible children, February 2019

100 Q8, Harborough District Children and Young People’s Charity (GRT0014)

102 The ContactPoint database, Standard Note SN/SP/5171, House of Commons Library, March 2011

103 Foundation for information policy research, ‘IT systems designed to protect kids will put them at risk instead,’ accessed 19 February 2019

105 GATE Herts (GRT0054)

106 University of Birmingham, Centre for Research in Race and Education (GRT0007)

107 Q472 [David Bishop]

109 Oral evidence taken on 30 January 2019, HC 1470 (2017–19), Q186

114 Visit to Leeds

118 Q473 [Rose McCarthy]

119 ACERT (GRT0010), Mr Peter Norton (GRT0025), Q13, Q93, Q473

122 Q583 [Colin Havard]

123 Diversity Role Models, accessed 19 February 2019

Published: 5 April 2019