We talk to the Traveller teacher who’s watching her service disappear.
Illustration: Francesca Hooper
Over the last decade Polly, an education specialist who works with Traveller children, has seen her desperately needed services steadily chipped away by cuts.
She used to be part of a service covering four authorities, supporting some of the most deprived children in the South West. “Now it’s down to just [me] covering a lot more in considerably less time – the network’s gone,” she says.
“It is difficult to see, when you’ve put all that energy in for years.”
Traveller education services weren’t a government priority until the late 90s when New Labour included them as part of its national strategies. Polly has seen them become a life-changing service but believes it is now all going backwards, increasing the risk of social exclusion “for a group already at the bottom of the pile”.
“It was special to be part of something that was having a positive impact,” she says. “You could sense a change in attitudes, within the community and [school] staff. Now you’re seeing that backtrack. And ultimately the worst impact is on the children.”
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But many don’t make the transition to secondary school, says Polly. Fear of bullying and racism and a curriculum that doesn’t feel relevant (most schools don’t have anything about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) history or culture) make children feel unwelcome in school and parents wary of sending them.
“A big part of the experience of being a Traveller today is that you are constantly aware that the media is portraying you in a negative way and that attitudes about you are generally based on the worst examples of your community,” says Polly. “You’re having to answer for anything negative that anybody in your community does. It’s not fair.”
GRT children have the worst educational outcomes of any ethnic group in the UK. In Bristol, they’re far behind the average and have the highest absence rates (5.7%). They’re more likely to drop out of school, more than three times more likely to be excluded and less likely to get good grades or continue on to further education.
Polly’s is a multifaceted role. She no longer teaches but provides cultural awareness training, ensures schools are fulfilling their duty and works directly with GRT families.
“I support the schools with Travellers in them and I go out on the sites and get the kids into schools,” she says.
“This job is constantly evolving and changing. My time – and the service – is getting reduced. I don’t have time to work with individual children in any meaningful way, so I have to work with the management of the school.”
The need’s still there
“The need’s there, it’s still exactly as it was or greater. Nothing about this is about a change in need.” It’s about money, says Polly, and about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers not being a priority for schools.
“[Schools] are facing pressure, from Ofsted and national government, which doesn’t help my job,” Polly says. “Inclusion is not the top thing on their list; it’s data.”
Exams and attendance rates, things GRT children are historically the worst at, are the priorities, she explains. “Some schools can be reluctant to have Travellers because it’s bad for their data.”
That’s why outreach is so important. It takes time and a lot of work to build up trust so outreach is fundamental to successful work with Travellers.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Here’s the door, it’s open’,” she says. “You’ve got to go out and build that trust because there’s such an expectation of prejudice, which is born out of past experience.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity