Travellers have the lowest school attendance rate of any minority. Michael North meets a man who is raising their aspirations.
When gypsy campaigner Kit Sampson decided to hand back her MBE last week, she said it was in protest at ongoing discrimination against the travelling community. She cited the Government's refusal to reintroduce a legal obligation for local authorities to provide official sites for travellers. Sampson, who received her MBE for providing healthcare for travellers, says that this means they are being denied clean water and other basic necessities. The decision has also been blamed for a rising wave of prejudice and attacks against a group that has traditionally been one of the most excluded in society.
It is against this background that Charles Birch is trying to reach out to travellers and help broaden their career options, fighting both society's and their own prejudices. Birch is certainly a good role model. He was born into the travelling community and although he left school at 16 with barely a GCSE to his name, he fought against the stereotypes that consign many travellers to low-paid labouring work and graduated with a first-class honours in education studies.
"I took the degree to prove something to myself, my family and the teachers who had me down for nothing better than working for the local council spreading asphalt," he says.
In his current post, Birch heads a pioneering scheme to provide careers advice for travellers in Leeds. It is run by igen, a non-profit organisation that supplies personal development services.
Birch's family background gives him an insight into the problems these young people face. His father was a showman and his mother ran away from home to the circus at the age of 15. Birch grew up in a wagon until the age of six, when his father died and his mother became a "flatty", traveller-speak for homeowner. After school, he had a variety of jobs - postman, aspiring rock star (his dance music group Terrorize once played to a crowd of 8,000 people), and editor/creator of a pop music/celebrity fanzine called Swampmuck , "which I sold to students and used to blag my way into gigs". It was while working as a gym instructor that Birch, now 32, realised he had an affinity with youngsters. This led to a job at a children's residential home, his degree at Bradford College and igen.
This diverse and rather glamorous background, as well as his "ethnicity", as he calls it, is important in Birch's work for igen. But it is his empathy, patience and boundless enthusiasm that really enable him to connect with youngsters. In one of his drop-in sessions in Leeds city centre, Birch reassures Craig, a 16-year-old traveller: "Just because you have no GCSEs doesn't mean you're a bad person."
Craig, who has been referred to Birch by another local support agency, the Leeds Traveller Education Service, is typical of the young traveller profile. His attendance at school was sporadic owing to the amount of time his family spent travelling with a funfair, and his literacy is poor (he thinks he'll flunk GCSE English). Craig enthuses about his family's business - he raves about the travelling lifestyle, but he wants more and aspires to be a mechanic. "Mum and dad want me to get a good education and a good life for when I have kids," Craig says. His dream is to work as a mechanic during the week and at the fair during weekends. With Birch's help, he will soon start a course at a local college.
Craig's attachment to the freedom of his travelling life and his obvious pride in the family business are typical sentiments that, according to Birch, can be a barrier to travellers integrating into the nine-to-five world of work. "They are brought up not to accept things at face value and to challenge things that seem unreasonable," Birch says. "If you do that with an employer, he may think you are being difficult. I've had feedback from young travellers saying: 'I'm not working for that arsehole.'"
Birch adds that the travellers' unique marginal culture also makes them wary of establishments - such as schools or local authorities - and of mixing with flatties who they believe to be beneath them. "Some travellers think all flatties are thieves. Many travellers are decent, hardworking and honourable people from very strong families. Family is important, they think the only thing you can rely on is your own kind."
As a traveller who has been settled for some time, one of Birch's main challenges is to help young travellers to drop their prejudices and integrate into the worlds of further training and work.
Birch says that too many bright young travellers are slipping through the education net - out of 600 aged 13 to 19 in Leeds, just six went on to post-16 education in 2003.
Nationwide, the travelling community - made up of gypsies, showpeople and bargees (who live on canals) - numbers 350,000. Average school attendance for traveller pupils is 75 per cent, well below the national average and the lowest of any ethnic minority group. It is estimated that some 12,000 out of 60,000 to 70,000 traveller school-age children are not registered at a school.
A recent Ofsted report spoke of "deep-seated prejudice" against the traveller community and the knock-on effects this had on school attendance.
Birch has met many bright traveller kids who could do well with encouragement and opportunities. "On the fairgrounds the kids learn about the business early on. I know some incredibly articulate and competent young people - nine-year-olds who can tell you how much the ground rent is for the fair and how much the take is on average and what the profit will be."
Birch has been with the igen scheme for only a year, but he knows he is making a difference. He has already been involved with 30 young travellers from the Leeds area.
Among those he has helped is Annabelle, an 18-year-old gypsy identified by Leeds Traveller Education Service for specialist support. She was subjected to racist bullying and violence at school - a common experience among travellers - and left with no qualifications and scant literacy. Birch and igen found a literacy and Clait (computer literacy and information technology) training course for her that provided a creche for her two-year old child. This has enabled Annabelle to pursue her ambition to work as a secretary.
Birch also relates the case of a 16-year-old traveller girl who wanted to study performing arts after school, but was fobbed off by a local college.
"She received bad advice and not a very warm reception," he says. "They told her maybe to look at being a secretary. That was quite disheartening."
Birch intervened and got her on the course.
Birch's background, coupled with educational attainment that makes him unafraid of challenging education authorities, means he is a strong advocate for young travellers who may meet barriers of "misinformation", as he diplomatically terms it. He becomes passionate when talking about the perceptions people have of the traveller community: "Travellers don't steal children and whittle pegs - they are no different to anybody else. This scheme is raising awareness of traveller issues and acceptance of such people. It's turning stereotypical notions on their heads and that's great."
He adds: "I just want to see these young people get on and make the most of what they have because, ultimately, that's what I did."
In addition to igen, the travelling community is also offered advice from Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange. igen is part-funded by Connexions West Yorkshire.
A NOVEL APPROACH
Research into traveller education is growing and most councils have a traveller education service that aims to help get traveller children into school.
Recent initiatives have focused on literacy issues and attendance. For example, the National Association of Teachers of Travellers has produced a teenage novel, The Smiths , based on traveller life, that aims to bridge the gap between early years and adult literacy material and to target secondary school-age children with reading difficulties.
The Department for Education and Skills is also completing a Gypsy/Traveller Project involving six local authorities and focusing on Key Stages three and four, which aims to raise the attendance and achievement of all gypsy/traveller pupils. It involves monitoring and analysing attendance data and involving traveller parents in boosting their children's self-esteem and attendance.
The problem is most acute at secondary-school level, according to research published in March by Paul Harman at Derby University.
He found that, although there was a 95 per cent attendance level at primary school, only one in five traveller children moved on to secondary school.
Harman blames an inflexible secondary-school curriculum and parents' expectations that once their children have basic literacy skills, they can join the family business. He has called for more vocational courses in schools and a liaison officer based in schools who understands traveller culture.