The education of Romanies and other Travellers in England and Wales

10 September 1998

Donald Kenrick

The background

After the Education Act of 1902 extended compulsory schooling to the whole population of England and Wales, there was a need to regularise the position of Romanies. This was done in the Children's Act of 1908 by which children of nomadic parents were required to attend for 200 half-days (instead of the normal 400). This provision was rarely enforced and few children attended school. Since most local councils put their efforts into moving Romany families out of their areas, there was little enthusiasm for organising education for them until after the Second World War.

Following the founding of the Romany Council in 1966, the first caravan school in Britain was run by volunteers on an old aerodrome where Romanies went to live in the summer of the following year. Then a number of voluntary short-lived "Romano Drom" (Romany Road) schools were started in England and Wales. In 1967, the Ministry of Education published the Plowden Report which described Romany children as "probably the most deprived group in the country."

In 1968 the NGEC (National Gypsy Education Council) was set up with a committee of Romany activists and teachers. Lady Plowden (chair of the committee which produced the report) was invited to head this new body and the NGEC with its respectable image was able to gain more grants from charitable funds than had the Romany Council's own education committee. Over the years voluntary schemes have gradually been replaced by the Local Education Authority. There are now several hundred teachers specifically appointed to work with Traveller children, many of whom belong to the National Association of Teachers of Travellers.

In 1973 the Department of Education and Science ran the first official course on the Education of Travelling Children. Twenty-three teachers attended. This popular course was repeated every year until 1976 after which, as part of government spending cuts, it was held only every two years. Some of the courses drew over 200 participants. They were cut completely by the last Conservative government. In the same year as the first course, the NGEC split and there were then two organisations, the NGEC and ACERT (The Advisory Council for the Education of Romanies and Other Travellers), both engaged in furthering the cause of Romany education. The NGEC recently recognised its wider brief by changing its name to the Romany Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights.

In 1977 Croydon's Education Committee caused a furore when, in a test case, it refused to admit a mythical Mary Delaney to its schools on the ground that she was on an illegal caravan site. A similar action by the London Borough of Enfield led to joint protests by NGEC and ACERT, together with a threat to take the British Government to the European Court, all of which persuaded the Government to insert a clause in its 1980 Education Act to block the loophole by which Croydon might legally have been able to exclude children from illegal sites.

Circular 1/81 of the Department of Education and Science declared explicitly the right of Romany children to attend school.

"The reference to children 'in the area' of the authority means that each authority's duty extends to all children residing in their area, whether permanently or temporarily. The duty thus embraces in particular travelling children, including Romanies."

A regulation made in 1997 allows Travellers' children to be registered at more than one school at the same time - to facilitate continued attendance during nomadism.

In and out of school

Attendance by Romany1 and Traveller children living in houses or on permanent caravan sites is, for obvious reasons, more regular than that of the offspring of the families who are still travelling. About 5,000 Romany and Irish Traveller children are still nomadic - mainly because their caravans are regularly moved on by police and local council officials. A recent report from the north of England tells how police came to school and removed four children from the classroom at the same time as their colleagues were evicting the parents and their caravan from a roadside site.

Most Romany parents, in theory at least, welcome the chance of basic education for their children. Perhaps a third of all Romany children are attending school regularly, the majority of primary age. However, as their children reach puberty and the subjects on offer seem less relevant to real life (life within their community and earning one's living), attitudes change. Research has shown that as the children get older, attendance drops off. An official survey found that only 5% of Romany and Traveller children were attending school during the final year of supposedly compulsory attendance. Parents, worried that their offspring will learn to take drugs, swear and hear about sex from young house-dwellers, do not discourage their older daughters from staying at home or their sons from going out with male relatives to learn about work at first hand, rather than attend school. It is likely that only the possibility of attending single sex schools and a curriculum more orientated to practical activities will encourage a greater attendance by 11-16 year olds.

The Government has taken a moderate role in all this. In 1983 they published an HMI Discussion Paper The Education of Travellers' Children giving some case histories of good educational practice. A further help has been the establishment of a new fund to which local authorities can apply for educational work with Romany children or adults. Money from this fund has been available from April 1, 1990, replacing an earlier scheme, but as a fixed sum has been allocated nationally, many projects have been turned down or given less than they asked for. The local authority also has to fund a proportion of the total cost. In recent years many mobile teaching units have been cut to save money. The money is currently provided under the 1996 Education Act for 'Travellers' - travellers are defined as nomads and nomadic children who have gone into housing during the last two years. There is no special provision for Romany children who live in permanent housing.

Within schools, prejudice against Romanies continues in many subtle and unsubtle ways. Children told researchers, during an investigation some years ago for a report for the European Community, that they had been left to draw at the back of the class, of exclusion from Christmas parties, even of not getting commemorative spoons on the occasion of Prince Charles's marriage.

The report detailed how a house-dwelling Romany child went to school for less than a week at the age of five. He was rebuked by a teacher for putting some chalk in his pocket and never went back to school. Four years, and three educational social case workers later, home tuition was arranged for the boy.

The government-commissioned Swann report (1985, Education for All) had a section on The Educational Needs of Travellers' Children. It talked of the "extreme hostility" which the travelling community faces from the settled community:

The degree of hostility towards Romanies' and other Travellers' children if they do enter school is quite remarkable even when set alongside the racism encountered by children from other ethnic minority groups.

A survey in Sheffield found that "racist name calling" was what the Traveller children most hated about going to school. Conflict came out into the open in 1994, in a school in west London; Romany children were subjected to name calling and attacks and one day a group of older Gorgio (non-Romany) children blocked the school gate and prevented them leaving school and going home until the police were called. On another occasion the provoked Romany children retaliated and a fight broke out. Three Romany children were suspended but no Gorgio children were punished. This is the most serious incident recorded but regular complaints of racist harassment are made to the Romany organisations. Official figures show that Romany children are more likely to be expelled from school than black or white children. The cause is nearly always retaliation to name calling or bullying. In east London a playground argument started between an Afro-Caribbean pupil and a Romany girl. Each descended into racist abuse of the other. The Romany girl was expelled from the school for making racist remarks - the black girl remained on the roll.

In many London schools the children of Polish Romany asylum seekers report assaults and robbery. Their lunch money is stolen and they have to go hungry. Community workers have been writing to head teachers without success for over two years to find premises where these children can have Romani and supplementary English lessons after school or on a Saturday morning to improve their self-confidence. The Plowden report of 1967 found Romanies to be "probably the most severely deprived children educationally in the country". In the follow up to the Swann report of 1985, Hegerty wrote: "It is clear that there has been a substantial failure to meet the needs of Romany children". Even today we cannot but agree with him.

(This article is partly based on "Education", chapter 4 in Kenrick, Donald and Sian Bakewell, On the Verge: the Gypsies of England, Hertfordshire: University of Hetfordshire Press, 1995)


  1. In the glossary to the book On the Verge: the Gypsies of England, Donald Kenrick provides his definitions of the words Romany and Romani: Romany - As a noun: a member of a generally nomadic people originating in North India, the Romanies. An adjective relating to the culture, customs and language of the Romanies. Romani - The language of the Romanies.


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