Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
The subject of this debate may be obscure, but what is at stake is at the heart of this Government’s mission to build community cohesion, to inspire educational achievement and to encourage strong families. My goal this evening is for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who has been generous with her time in her Department and today in this Chamber, to ensure that the consequences of any proposed changes to legislation do not unintentionally damage the fabric of life of some 24,000 people; and that the Government’s drive to improve exam results is not at the cost of close-knit, resilient and independent families in communities where divorce and antisocial behaviour are conspicuously rare.
Let me explain my case in more detail. The origins of section 444(6) of the Education Act 1996 can be traced to section 39(3) of the Education Act 1944—the Butler Act—that remarkable creation of the second world war. Any proposed change to that section would therefore be a change to the Butler Act provision which has endured for 79 years. The reason for such a change may come from the consultation that the Government launched last November—“Improving educational outcomes for children of travelling families”—on whether to repeal the current legislation that protects travelling parents from being found guilty of school attendance offences in certain circumstances.
Those circumstances are where parents are
“engaged in a trade or business of such a nature as to require”—
“to travel from place to place”
“the child has attended…as a registered pupil as regularly as the nature of that trade or business permits”.
On this review, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the fundamental issues is that the report produced by the Government does not make a proper distinction between Gypsies, other Travellers and showpeople? The issues that showpeople have, which I am sure he is coming on to deal with, are fundamentally different on this matter.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has highlighted precisely the point I was coming on to, which is that the consultation document makes specific reference only to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children—indeed, they are defined more precisely as children of Irish Traveller heritage, and the acronym is GRT. The consultation noted that they were among the lowest achieving groups at every key stage of education.
My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point by noticing that the showpeople—the travelling showmen—are a specific group that would be inadvertently affected by the repeal of the legislation, which, we believe, does not apply to them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One size does not always fit all, as he and I know from the different size of suits that we are wearing. Exactly the same is true for the showman community in the case of this section of the Education Act.
The specifics of the showmen are worth noting. They are not an ethnic group as the Romany Gypsies or, arguably, the Irish Travellers are, but a cultural one, united by the fairground industry. They are a community that put on in excess of 200 fairs weekly, many held in winter, too, both here and abroad. They can trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted as early as a fair held near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister in King’s Lynn in 1204. Adjacent to her constituency, the Norfolk fair, held every February since Tudor times, marks the opening of the travelling season. The community will mostly spend the next eight months on the road.
The showmen have one winter base and the whole family is typically on the road for the rest of the year. It is a travelling, traditional family business where the role of women is just as important as that of men. David Wallis, the president of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, said earlier this year:
“Women…are the backbone of the industry, working in every area from accounting to driving, as well as fulfilling traditional roles as housekeepers and mothers.”
His point was that splitting the family unit up would be unthinkable. Educating the children on the road means that studies can be fitted around the demands of the businesses and wives can continue to work alongside their husbands.
The showmen are largely represented by the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, a trade body that has been in existence since 1889 and that is responsible for some 98% of the travelling showmen of Great Britain, representing about 22,000 individuals. There are also three other trade associations, the Amusement Catering Equipment Society, which represents 120 families, the Association of Independent Showmen, which represents 500 families, and the Society of Independent Roundabout Proprietors, which represents 140 families. They would all be equally affected by any change to section 444(6).
The Minister and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would be disappointed if I failed to mention the Gloucester connection to the case I am making this evening. Showmen have been based on and around Alney island by the ancient Westgate crossing of the River Severn, an entrance to our city, for more than 100 years. For example, they participated in a great fair held for Edward VII on Alney island in conditions of a downpour almost as heavy as the one that heralded the great flood of 2007. They contribute to the diversity and unique heritage of a great British city and a constituency that has been represented in this House for more than 700 years. They contribute greatly to their nearest school, Kingsholm primary school, whose deputy head has written to me as follows:
“Over the years we have schooled many of the children from”
“and other sites that house different traveller groups in the Gloucester area…we ask…that our families communicate with us about their travel plans so that we can prepare work packs for the children to take with them. We also ask that our families keep in touch during their travels…so we can facilitate a smooth integration back into school…Kingsholm C of E Primary School is enriched by the varied ethnicity and cultures of our families. Each and everyone is valued and celebrated…A significant majority of our”
“families hold their children’s education in high regard; both their academic and cultural education. In the main the children’s attendance when they are in Gloucester is exemplary and therefore we can maximise the impact of interventions in order to address any gaps the children may have due to their travelling.”
The Minister will be particularly interested to hear that last week, for the first time in its history, Kingsholm primary school was awarded “outstanding” status by Ofsted. This is significant because it is compelling evidence that the travelling showpeople are no hindrance to—indeed, contribute to—outstanding educational achievement.
In addition to the excellent work that schools do with children of showground people, does my hon. Friend agree that with modern technology and the will of the showground people to get their children to learn and to achieve, there is a way in which, when they are away from their base school, showground people can make sure that their children are well educated?
My hon. Friend is right. He understands his own showmen community in Nuneaton so well. What has changed is the way in which remote education can take place successfully. Currently, children with travelling parents are registered with one school in the UK and they keep their place when on the move. The school sets work, which is completed on the road and sent back via a laptop with a mobile internet connection, and the children rejoin the school on their return. This is considered effective and efficient by both the parents and the schools involved. Over recent years there has been a consistent rise in the number of pupils taking GCSEs within the showmen community. These are the children who have benefited most from vast improvements made to distance learning with the help of technology, as my hon. Friend pointed out.
It is fair to say that the educational achievements of all communities vary from place to place. Showmen are a community spread across the whole of the United Kingdom in 10 different regions. I do not have precise statistics for their educational achievements. It is one of the issues that I will mention before finishing my speech, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to, but he is right to raise the question.
Over the past few months I have created an online petition which has attracted almost 4,000 signatures, all opposing a repeal of section 444(6), and innumerable, often moving e-mails from around the country. I hope the Minister will not mind if I quote briefly from a handful of them. This is from James Breeze:
“Being a showman was a massive complement to my formal education. Can you think of a more stimulating environment for a child to live in? How things work? The value of service? The value of money? Social interactions? The list is endless.”
He goes on to talk about his nine GCSEs at A to C level, four A-levels, a 2:1 degree from Durham university and postgraduate diploma from Leeds Metropolitan university. He is now working in a significant role in a multinational company, managing a large team. He comments:
“This reinforces my view that a showman’s life combined with education as it is now gives the best life skills.”
In similar vein, Morgan Robinson comments in an e-mail:
“I come from a travelling showman background and as such have had to spend many weeks away from school in the summer months…I never fell behind, and in some circumstances, I was actually ahead by the time I got back to school!”
He lists his A-levels and GCSEs, and his chemistry degree course at the university of Warwick. He says:
“My hopes for after my degree is to get a job as an intellectual property lawyer”.
There are several such e-mails. I shall finish them with e-mails from two sisters based in Gloucester, Zoe and Olivia Sheldon. Zoe wrote:
“As a young showperson I have relied on this Act”—
“all of my school life. From the age of 4 my parents removed me from my base school…to travel with the fair for 6 months of the year.”
“I was successful in gaining a place at Ribston Hall Grammar School for girls at the age of 11 and went on to achieve 11 GCSEs A* to C grades. My sister Olivia, also a student at Ribston, is now studying with the open university to achieve an English degree.”
“The education of young showpeople is reliant on this Act and its abolition would result in the needless break-up of showmen families and cause a loss in the traditional showmen culture as it would force showmen children to be brought up outside of the showman way of life.”
Zoe’s older sister Olivia wrote:
“my sister and I are not isolated cases. I have several cousins and friends who completed/are undertaking University Degrees after having a similar educational background to mine. Among the Showman Community we are hearing more and more news of great educational achievements…Travelling Funfares can move vast distances to get to their next event and are sometimes only in a town for a couple of days, making the suggestion of registering at a different school at each location inconceivable and even detrimental to the education of Showpeople…such an education was imposed on some elder relatives of mine who found it ‘confusing’ as different schools were doing different subjects at different times. The end result was a poor education.”
She goes on to comment about the importance of forming long-term friendships at one school—people who know showpeople’s children when they come back from their travelling.
I met one or two of their older relations on Alney island, who described to me what it was like moving from school to school, in one case being forced to sit in the corner with a book while everyone else was learning. I cannot believe that that is what the Minister would wish to see among our children today.
I am conscious that time is moving on and we all wish to hear from the Minister. I also had a moving letter from Charlotte Barltrop, who worked in a circus for 10 years before getting a degree in theatre and professional practice at the university of Coventry. She now runs her own business teaching circus skills. She wrote:
“All my achievements wouldn’t have been possible if…I was not educated as a child and…was not able to travel whilst gaining this early education. The skills I learned as a child, both in and out of the classroom, are what has enabled me to have such an amazing career”.
I believe that the Minister’s response to the consultation will be published before long, but not, I hope, before she and the Minister for Schools, who shares responsibility for the response, consider carefully the case for the following constructive suggestions. First, we should make arrangements to measure the education results of different showmen groups as a separate entity from the GRT community on which the consultation has been based. Secondly, I encourage the Minister for Schools to meet me and others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), interested in the case of the showmen, and to visit Kingsholm primary school in Gloucester to see how achievement and remote learning can be combined. Thirdly, and above all, we should exempt the travelling showmen and circus communities from any repeal of section 444(6). That would be a pragmatic, practical and appropriate way to ensure that the lives of some 24,000 travelling showpeople are not unintentionally and dramatically damaged by the Minister’s admirable focus on driving up educational results.
I am grateful to the guild, its representatives, the other associations, my own constituents, and many around the country who have committed their time to sending e-mails and messages of support and information.
I am sorry, but I have very little time left.
Not least, I am grateful to Lisa Deakin Stevens, the family of Matthew Stevens and many others, supported by the Westgate councillors. They have all contributed to my speech this evening, and I look forward to a sympathetic response from my hon. Friend the Minister, in the knowledge that she cannot pre-empt her response to the consultation, but in the belief that this debate may influence her response, and that she will see that what I have raised is a good cause for a valued community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate on an issue of great importance that means so much to travelling families, especially showmen and circus communities, who travel for work for large parts of the year. My hon. Friend represents his constituents with aplomb, and he has done it yet again. I also place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and representatives of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain for their helpful contributions to the meeting that I hosted on 15 April.
The Government’s vision is one of a highly educated society in which opportunity is more equal for children and young people, no matter what their background or family circumstances. The Department’s overall objective is to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to fulfil their educational potential. We are making changes to the national curriculum and reforming our examination system to restore public confidence. These reforms will benefit all children attending school regularly.
We are seeking to improve school attendance. There are clear and tangible benefits for pupils who are registered at school and attend regularly. Only 37% of those who miss between 10% and 20% of school sessions manage to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, which compares with 73% for pupils who miss less than 5% of school sessions. Our country has one of the largest attainment gaps between the highest and lowest performing students, and I believe that big gap in skills is another thing holding our country back.
My hon. Friend made an excellent case about the good practice in his constituency. I am pleased to hear that Kingsholm primary school has just been rated as outstanding by Ofsted, which we of course want many more schools to achieve. I recognise that there are differences in performance between different parts of the travelling community. Of those pupils recorded as absent due to travelling who come from a Roma, Irish Traveller or Gypsy background, only 8.2% achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C, which I am sure we agree is not a good performance. The figure for other parts of the travelling community is 40%, which is not as good as the UK average of 58.8%, but it is significantly better than 8.2%.
My hon. Friend suggested that we should work together to produce more accurate results for the showman community, and in our meeting of 15 April we discussed coming up with more details, which I think would be useful. We do not believe that a child’s aspirations should be limited by their access to education, but I am sympathetic to the arguments he made for showmen and circus members today and on 15 April.
The recent consultation on whether to remove the defence for travelling parents engaged in a trade or business has been helpful in raising some of the issues affecting the various travelling communities. I agree that the issues are different for different travelling communities. I was encouraged that the consultation received nearly 2,000 responses. I would like to thank the individuals and organisations who took the time to respond. I think it is notable that, despite having smaller numbers, the showman community provided the overwhelming majority of responses—73%.
This is clearly a very complex issue. I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be wrong to rush to make any changes before considering the consequences. He made a good point that the legislation has been in law for quite some time. We certainly do not want to make any precipitous decisions on the matter. The reason I started talking about educational attainment, however, is that that is our goal, and we need to reach it one way or another.
I thank my hon. Friend for the due consideration she is giving the matter. I ask her to consider the children of showground people who might suffer from conditions such as autism and find it difficult to change environments regularly. Will she therefore consider the impact that moving from school to school from week to week might have on a child with such a condition?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is certainly something we should take into account when making our final decision on the matter.
The complexity of the issue is the reason why we consulted, but I think that we should focus not only on the legal sanction element in the current arrangements, but on how we can improve the system so that we can better meet the educational needs of mobile families and place no limit on travelling children’s ambitions or potential to succeed. Both my hon. Friends have suggested ways, including the use of technology, in which we might be better able to serve people with different lifestyles.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester confirmed what the responses to the consultation have been telling us—namely, that showmen try to avoid any interruption to their children’s education but that that has become more difficult in recent years, with many local authorities choosing not to run Traveller education services in the same way as they did previously. For some, that has meant the disappearance of peripatetic teachers who would visit fairgrounds. Local authorities should prioritise and run services in a way that is best suited to local needs.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the distance learning packs provided by schools. Many responses from schools and members of the showman community have indicated that they have good relationship with schools and that they are given access to distance learning packs. There are clearly new ways of communicating involving modern technology that could also be used. It is clear that when this works well it is to be encouraged, but this is not always the case and some people do not enjoy the benefits of such arrangements.
I have set out our vision and expectations for all children, and I maintain that, in raising attainment for all pupils, we will drive up attainment for travelling pupils as well. I will consider the responses to the consultation, together with the Minister for Schools, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for raising this matter and for his contribution to the discussion. He has highlighted some important concerns. As a follow-up to today’s debate, I suggest that he has a discussion with officials about some of the more technical issues. I know that he has come up with various proposals, including giving exemption to members of the Showmen’s Guild. There would be issues with that, however, because not all showman proprietors are necessarily members of the guild. There would also be concerns about having exemptions for a particular group, and the loopholes that that could create.
We need to look not only at the current proposal for legislation on attendance but at how we can better support families who are travelling. We need to ask whether there are different ways of doing this and whether we could make better use of modern technology. It would be helpful to explore those questions with the officials from the Department who are considering this matter. As I have said, I am not keen to rush to a precipitate judgment. We all want to raise attainment and to ensure that schools are providing a good service to the communities that they serve.
I will also pass on to the Minister for Schools my hon. Friend’s desire to meet him and discuss the issue further. That would be a good thing, because we have been discussing attainment among the different communities, and that is my right hon. Friend’s responsibility. Comparing the attainment among Gypsies, Roma, Travellers and members of the showman community will be important in reaching the final resolution of this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and for bringing the delegation to the Department for Education in April. It is important that we get this right, and it is a pleasure to be able to work with hon. Members who take such a keen interest in a piece of legislation that might seem detailed but which will have an impact on quite a number of people.
Question put and agreed to.