London Traveller education service cut to ribbons

25 November 2011
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Government cuts are threatening to derail decades of painstaking process in Gypsy and Traveller education. A special report by Mike Doherty

An investigation by Traveller’s Times can reveal that Traveller education in London has been devastated by the government-imposed cuts. With 12 council-run Traveller education support teams abolished since 2007 – out of a total of 32 - and with front-line staff halved from 60 to 30, this makes London the worst affected region in England.

“People need to be told that these services are being threatened,” says Jason McCarthy, an Irish Traveller from Ealing. “I was helped by Traveller education. I have a seven month old son and I want him to get educated too.”

“Every time there was trouble we were blamed for starting it”

“My parents always tried to support me at school,” says Jason. Yet even with his families support, Jason describes the difficulties he had when he first started school: “The teachers didn’t seem to be that bothered about us and we felt alienated from the school. Every time there was trouble we were blamed for starting it,” he says. Jason also says he had problems with basic reading and writing.

Eventually Jason’s family approached Andy Pritchard, who co-manages Ealing Traveller Achievement Service, for help. “Andy came and visited us at the school,” says Jason. “He talked to the teachers, sorted out the trouble between us and the other kids and set up a weekly reading and writing class for us,” he says. “He understands us and the community we come from and worked with us so that we could adapt to school – and with the teachers so that the school could adapt to us. I have known Andy Pritchard most of my life.”

Jason is now a certified football coach working for Queens Park Rangers Football Club and is a prominent member of Ealing’s Irish Traveller community. He is still in touch with Ealing Traveller Achievement Services, which has so far survived the cuts to council funding.

“That’s me finished – and they are gone”

The extent of the cuts to the small London Traveller education teams, often only consisting of a handful of people, is beginning to be realised. “We are getting messages or phone-calls from the people in other teams in London as they are being laid off. A call will come through from someone in a neighbouring London Traveller team that we have known for years saying: ‘That’s me finished’ - and they are gone,” says Mr Pritchard.

With Bexley, Greenwich, Kingston Upon-Thames, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark all abolishing their Traveller education teams, South London has been particularly badly hit. Yet Sutton Council, in south London, is one authority that has kept its Traveller education team. “We have always made a lot of noise about the need for a dedicated team to work with the specific needs of Traveller communities and we are fortunate because we have been listened to,” says Kate Evans, Inspector for Inclusion at Sutton Council.

Sutton currently employs one full-time and one part time primary advisory teachers and one secondary advisory teacher. These visit the Sutton schools and work with the teachers to provide targeted lessons for the Traveller children and to advise the school about how to overcome bullying and prejudice against Traveller children. “There have been some cuts but our priority has always been to protect front-line staff working with vulnerable children,” says Kate Evans. “The Mayor has been to visit us and we have regular visits from councilors who come to see what we do,” she says.

“No one from the community was properly consulted and that’s not fair”

Yet Sutton is surrounded by boroughs that no longer have a dedicated Traveller education service. “Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth – they have all lost their Traveller education teams,” says Ann Marie, an Irish Traveller in her late twenties who works for an organisation which supports Travellers in South London. “No one from the community was properly consulted and that’s not fair,” she says.

Ann Marie believes that the impact of the cuts will be disastrous. “The community will lose faith in the system. There is a lot of distrust of officials from the council and it can take a long time for education support workers to build up trust,” she says. “The mothers need a named person that they can trust. Mr Cannon, our teacher in Southwark, was on site at eight every morning, persuading and nagging the kids to go to school,” says Anne-Marie.

Vanessa, 17, an Irish Traveller from South London recounts how Southwark’s Traveller education services helped her: “Mr Cannon understood us – he knew we had to clean house and look after the younger ones and sometimes might be late. He would talk to the teachers if we had to go to Ireland for a funeral or christening and miss school,” she says.

"My father is proud of me now"

Vanessa also describes the effect that her education and Mr Cannon’s support had on the rest of the family: “My father wasn’t happy with me going to secondary school. I could read and write and he didn’t see the point of me carrying on,” she says. “But my dad completely changed his mind about education when I got my qualifications and got a job,” she says. “He is proud of me now and tells my sisters to go to school to get their papers. And that is a shocking thing to have happened if you knew him,” she says.

“These cuts are so shortsighted,” says Brian Foster, a former Traveller teacher who co-authored the report “Improving the outcomes of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children” for the Department for Education. “If the Department for Education thinks that Traveller education isn’t working properly then they should investigate why and improve the service, not just get rid of it,” he says.

”The dismantling of the Traveller education network isn’t driven by concerns over the education of Travellers, but by the need to cut costs. Yet the amount of money being saved is tiny and at such a cost to the individual life chances of Traveller children and to society. Far too many children are first brought to the attention of Traveller education by youth offending teams as it is. What is going to happen to those children if the service is no longer there?”