The struggle to get an education: Travellers in the UK

The British education system has excluded and discriminated against Travellers for years. Permanent exclusions are regularly highest amongst Gypsy/Roma and Travellers [1]. However just as often, children from these communities are prevented from ever attending schools in the first place. I have for some years attended school tribunals appealing decisions which don’t allow Traveller children to access the particular school they applied to.

One case in particular sticks in my mind. Three Traveller children, two boys and a girl. Their parent had submitted an application to a local secondary school. The school, as so often is the case, said they had no room for the children. On being asked to They refused to give the numbers in the school at the time of the applications or how over-subscribed they were, leaving the only option for the parent of going to tribunal to let them decide the matter with all the relevant information at hand. On the day of the tribunal to appeal this particular decision I attended with copies of all the necessary paper work, which the school had required for any application to be processed. I was surprised to hear from the outset that the school was claiming not to have received these documents and argued therefore they couldn’t consider the children for the school because their applications weren’t ‘correct’, this although they would of had to have processed the applications to made the decision not to enroll the children in the first place. I showed to the tribunal documentation that I had not only presented to the school at the time of the applications but had done so by hand to be sure they were received. I asked the school representative why this was the first time this lack of documentation had been mentioned and had not been given as part of the reason for the initial rejected applications. There was no attempt to answer this anomaly. 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 county council education clerk, overviewing the tribunal, who I had spoken to weeks beforehand with my concerns about the many ‘misunderstandings’ I had witnessed before in regards to Traveller applications to school’s, produced the paperwork that he had received from the school themselves. This not only proved that the school had indeed been in receipt of the disputed documents, but hastened the decision of the tribunal 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’s 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 children had changed their minds about attending the school.

When I 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 asked 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. Cutting to the chase I asked when the children were to start school, the admissions office said they couldn’t as they hadn’t been added to the school rolls!

Getting nowhere with the school I got in touch with the county education department of the county council again. Within an hour they rang back saying the children had been cleared to attend the school. Yet on contacting the school they denied this was the case saying the Country Education department was dealing with the matter and reiterated that it was ‘nothing to do with them’ as the children had made the choice not to enroll. Again i had to contact the Education department and It took a ‘stern word’ from them to the school 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. Although meaningless apologies were given at this meeting for the “administrating problems” it was never really dealt with to the point of officially placing the guilty hat on the right person.

Thankfully the children were left alone at school after this, they attended every school day of every year, barring illness, 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.

This is only one story i can recite 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 two years in primary school and 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. Education is a long term strategy in fighting discrimination against Travellers in my opinion. Educated Travellers will be aware of more avenues to challenge such discrimination and this is why I fought so hard to get my children, the three children in the story, into school and still fight for others. From my experience challenging unofficial anti-Traveller school procedure through all means available can work, even if it takes a lot of time and effort. Going right through to the stage of tribunal is important for it ‘educates’ the school to know they cannot discriminate against Travellers unchallenged.

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