The Department for Education is currently consulting on proposals to bring Traveller parents in line with other parents whereby they can be prosecuted for their child’s non-attendance at school.
The Department’s purported reason for making these changes is to improve school attendance, which in turn raises education outcomes. This would represent a major change to education legislation which currently treats economically nomadic families in a different way. Existing legislation, under section 444(6) of the Education Act 1996, gives parents a defence from prosecution for a school attendance offence, provided that the child is of no fixed abode and:
• Parents are engaged in a trade or business of such a nature as to require them to travel from place to place;
• The child has attended at a school as a registered pupil as regularly as the nature of that trade or business permits;
• If the child has attained the age of six, that he or she has made at least 200 attendances during the period of 12 months ending with the date on which the proceedings were instituted.
The ‘Improving education outcomes for children of travelling families’ consultation period runs until 22 February 2013.
The Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT) has produced a response to the consultation which is available here and finds that ‘The [DfE] consultation document recognises that attendance of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers is a serious concern, but presents no evidence that this is as a result of s444(6) being available as a defence against prosecution. We are more convinced by studies … which suggest there are significant “push” factors contributing to absence, such as racist bullying, lack of relevance and flexibility in the curriculum and failure of schools to address Special Needs and educational disadvantage.’
Brian Foster, the chair of ACERT told IRR News: ‘The Coalition government’s inter-departmental policy is called “Reducing inequality for Gypsies and Travellers” which sounds good. Unfortunately, people like Eric Pickles, who chairs the Ministerial Working Group, believe these communities enjoy privileges that other people don’t, like applying for retrospective planning permission and defend themselves against court action when their way of earning a living makes it difficult to keep their children in school. So reducing inequality means treating them like everyone else, even if it’s impossible for them to comply with the law. I predict this repeal will be introduced, as a race card, in the run-up to the next election, to reassure core voters the Coalition is tough on Travellers. It will do nothing to improve their educational outcomes.’
IRR News asked Barbara Cohen of the Discrimination Law Association for the implications of the proposed changes: ‘By repealing section 444(6), Traveller parents, with no permanent address, would be in the same position as other parents and liable to a fine, or possibly imprisonment, if they fail to ensure that their child regularly attends school. The exception, recognising the different circumstances of Traveller families, has been in education law since 1944. Applying to Traveller parents the same rule that is applied to all parents could amount to indirect discrimination if, because of the particular circumstances of Travellers, this would not be a proportionate means of achieving the DfE’s aim. The consultation document also leaves unanswered whether the DfE had its equality duty in mind when it decided to propose repeal of this long-established exception.’