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Education: Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Children

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will address the shortfall in the provision of the Teachers’ Education Service for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children.

My Lords, this year the Government have allocated £201 million to schools for ethnic minority achievement via the dedicated schools grant. This is higher than the amount provided in 2009-10 via the former ethnic minority achievement grant. Schools may use this grant to purchase additional support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children or, if schools forums agree, local authorities may retain some or all of the allocation to deliver centralised Traveller education and ethnic minority achievement services.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reasonably sympathetic reply, but is he aware of the NUT report of last November which found that the Traveller education services were taking a disproportionate share of the cuts? Eight local authorities had completely abolished the service. Does he agree that the 20 per cent drop-out rate between primary and secondary school is disastrous for Gypsy and Traveller employment chances and that the school exclusion rate is higher than for any other ethnic group? What can be done?

My Lords, I agree with the statistics mentioned by the noble Baroness. Exclusion rates are, I think, three times higher for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children than they are for the average of the population. Their achievement both at primary and secondary school is far lower. Unfortunately, the attainment gap over the past four years has widened rather than narrowed, despite all the efforts that have been made. There is clearly not a simplistic answer to this problem. I know that the noble Baroness has been concerned and acted in this area for a long time, as have other noble Lords. There is no simple answer. Clearly, the Government hope to go in the direction of devolving more responsibility to schools. As I said in my Answer, schools forums can choose to carry on funding a centralised service if they think that will work better. I hope that the pupil premium will provide additional resources for schools where they have Gypsy and Roma Traveller children. A lot of this is cultural and educational. Ideas that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords may have as to how one can chip away at this problem will be gratefully received.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the best way of hoping to integrate future generations of children from Traveller families is through education? Because of the higher levels of illiteracy in the adults and the low value which is attached to education in many areas, it is necessary not only to support the specialist service but to ensure that children are helped to get ready for school in the morning and to make sure that they are able to attend school on a regular basis. That is why this service is so important.

My Lords, I accept the points that the noble Lord has made. It is the case that we are already seeing that in some parts of the country where the problem is more acute—because it is not geographically equal across the country—it will make sense for school forums to come together and to continue with that kind of service.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, without a framework of targeted support at local and national levels, the outcomes for this group of children are likely to remain unacceptably low? Although he says that additional support is being given to the local authorities for deprived and disadvantaged children, does not experience show that local authorities will not spend this money on Traveller education services because they are busy sacking such staff and getting rid of them?

The difficulty that we have—and one of the questions I asked about this whole area—is in trying to evaluate what in the past has been successful in making progress. As far as I have been able to see, the evidence for what has worked in the approaches that have been tried so far does not seem very clear or compelling. Unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, the gap has widened. So I do not believe that there is a simple answer. I know that many Members of this House know far more about this than I do. If the noble Lord has particular suggestions, I would be keen to discuss them with him.

I wonder whether the Minister is aware, as noble Lords are indicating, that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are much more likely to do better and to get into paid work if they are educated in schools and colleges than if they are not. What assessment has he made of the particular impact on these children of the withdrawal of education maintenance allowance? I ask that particularly in the light of the Government’s equality impact assessment, which I understand now admits that there is likely to be unintended discrimination as a result of the withdrawal of the EMA on certain groups of children, of which these are one.

I clearly accept the noble Baroness’s first point—that if children, wherever they come from, stay on at school and do well there, they are more likely to do better thereafter. As for the education maintenance allowance, one issue that we have with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children is that half of them are dropping out well before they would be entitled to claim EMA. As I have said before, there is a complex of difficult issues to which there does not appear to be a simple answer; if there were a simple answer, I know that the approaches that were in place under a previous Government would have worked in delivering improvements. Sadly, despite the best efforts of all sorts of people, including local authorities, central government and everyone else, with all the tools that they used, that did not appear to work.

My Lords, the Minister has already referred to a large number of the matters that have concerned those of us who have taken an interest in this area, including the high level of exclusions. I might add to the pot the concern about current implications of a large-scale eviction, which can of course threaten the viability of an individual school as well as the pupils’ education. Would he or his department be amenable to receiving representations from across the House to try to get to the bottom of some of these issues and to have a more informed and extended discussion on what are clearly complex issues?

Yes, of course, my Lords. I am glad to say that a group chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is already in existence, but I shall be very happy to do that and to facilitate a meeting with my honourable friend Nick Gibb, who is the Minister responsible. I would be delighted to do that.