Diversity Matters: Growing markets in children’s publishing: ‘Books for All’ should include Gypsies, Roma and Travellers
The Bookseller’s supplement ‘Books for All’ published in June 2006 detailed research into the need to improve the range and quality of books available to Britain’s minority ethnic children. This was also the rationale for the high profile conference, sponsored by Arts Council England, entitled ‘Diversity Matters’. Respected author Malorie Blackman, among other esteemed speakers, spoke of the need for children to ‘see themselves in a book’. And yet Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities were missing from the research and from the conference, says teacher Kate Evans.
At present there is a distinct lack of good quality publications that enable Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children to see their lives and experiences valued and faithfully described in reading and learning materials.
For a range of complex reasons the standards of achievement in education for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities still remain significantly below those of any other minority ethnic groups in the country. The absence of high quality, valuing and inclusive reading and teaching materials reflecting children from these groups continues to reinforce the lack of knowledge about these communities and to ensure that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children remain feeling isolated and de-motivated.
‘Traveller pupils are still the group most at risk in the education system. They are the one minority ethnic group which is too often “out of sight and out of mind”.’ (OFSTED, December 2003)
In recent years, curriculum development has been a high priority activity by Traveller Education Services working in schools. Much in-service training has focused on this aspect of school and pupil support. A number of models of good practice have been developed with positive outcomes both in terms of standards of achievement, but also the indirect benefit of improved knowledge and awareness by non-Travellers.
The lack of appropriate books
However, progress has been only modest and a number of factors seem relevant. There are the constraints imposed by the National Curriculum. There is the general lack of appreciation in schools that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils have a cultural heritage that is legitimate and equally worthy of inclusion alongside those of other groups and there is the lack of sufficient and appropriate books and teaching resources and materials that would encourage and allow teachers to teach more inclusively to the benefit of all pupils.
Although schools are constantly encouraged to be inclusive of these vulnerable groups of children, there is such a shortage of appropriate printed material of good quality on the subject that well informed curriculum modifications are frustrated and undermined. In the worst cases, this can lead to presentational inaccuracies and the inadvertent promotion and/or confirmation of negative stereotypes. Prejudice against these communities is widespread in society at large. Without readily available, high quality materials, such attitudes will continue to fester into successive generations.
This dearth of good quality, faithful and realistic representation was the topic of Marian Devons’ research in 2004* . She concluded that, not only is there a lack of positive and accurate reflections of Gypsy and Traveller life but also there are generations of overly romantic, or negative images to dispel. Devons found that ‘From the illiterate savage of Enid Blyton, through to the romantic mind reader of Elizabeth Arnold, Gypsies have been stereotyped and categorised… The lack of mainstream children’s literature containing realistic Gypsy characters tells Gypsy children that their lives and culture are not respected or valued by the non-Gypsy people around them.’
Over the last few years, Traveller Education Services have devoted much time and energy to the production of books and other learning resources which are positively inclusive of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, their parents and their communities. Some notable and high quality books have been produced and are much heralded as having a marked and positive impact on the quality of both teaching and particularly, learning. However, these publications have had modest print-runs which have hampered longer term supply and there have frequently been difficulties with publicity, marketing and distribution.
As a school librarian, Marian Devons describes the difficulties she faces and the shortcomings of the Traveller Education Service publications:
‘…it is my responsibility to ensure that all the children in my school have access to books that, at the very least, reflect some aspect of their reality… I can only do this by ordering books produced by Traveller Education Services… These books are usually well-researched and well-intentioned but do not have the same publishing standards that a book from a mainstream publisher would have… They are usually well-received by the Gypsy children, but often dismissed by non-Gypsies as they might not look like “proper” books.’
The DfES Review
The DfES (Department for Education and Skills) is currently carrying out a review of diversity in the curriculum. The first outcomes reveal the need for schools to purchase good quality publications that include Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities for all children to read. It is therefore essential that publishers be in a position to offer schools a wider list of books and materials for them to purchase. There are over 24,000 state schools in England, and all libraries and school library services will also need copies. DfES regards action about the lack of quality, mainstream publications as a high priority. DfES aims to engage both educational and trade publishers, authors and illustrators to improve the range, quality and availability of books and other teaching resources available for schools, young people and parents, which carry positive and inclusive messages and images about the culture, history and languages of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people.
The anticipated outcomes from the work would include commercial publication, marketing and distribution of existing good quality materials currently produced locally by Traveller Education Services; adding to existing series of books on cultural groups and lifestyles; and the possibility of commissioning books from established authors and illustrators.
If you would like to know more about this work and would like to become involved in driving forward the publication and distribution of high quality resources that value and include children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, please contact me. I am project officer for this study.
To return to Marian Devons’ research, I would like to echo her dedication at the beginning of her work, to all the Gypsy children who used her school library in Surrey:
‘I hope the books get better soon!’
* ‘Romance or Realism: the Representation of Gypsies in Children’s Literature’; Devons, M, 2004
Kate Evans has worked with Traveller communities for 18 years, as a class teacher, peripatetic support teacher, service manager and adviser. She now works in the London Borough of Sutton as Lead Adviser for Equal Opportunities, Traveller and Ethnic Minority Achievement. She was invited to be project officer for the Department for Education and Skills in March 2006, to lead the strategy to engage mainstream publishers to improve the range, quality and availability of books inclusive of the culture, history and languages of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. She can be contacted at the Glastonbury Centre, Hartland Road, Morden, Surrey SM4 6LZ; tel:020 8770 6729 ; fax:020 8770 6747 ; e-mail: email@example.com