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Traveller Children. A voice for Themselves

Br2001_09Kiddle, Cathy (1999). Traveller Children. A voice for Themselves.. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Reviewed by Hillevi Torell, M.A in Modern Swedish/ Musical therapist educated at KMH, Stockholm.

Traveller Children by Cathy Kiddle is one in a series of books called “Children in Charge” which concentrate on the themes of children’s rights. It’s written for those who are interested in education and children, and who work to promote the rights of ethnic and other minority groups.

Cathy Kiddle is a teacher who has worked for twenty years with traveller education in England. She has taught children and youth that live a travelling life. There are four different groups she refers to as travellers: Gypsies, Fairground travellers, Circus travellers and New travellers. The New travellers consist of people who for several reasons have chosen a nomadic life as a reaction against modern society. The title of the book indicates that the author writes about all the different groups, however, the primary focus of the book is that of the Gypsy group.

The author has had a rather unconventional career as a teacher, which has given her a special knowledge about her own culture as well as others. Despite the fact that a nomadic life to an immense extent differs among the various kinds of travellers, they all represent groups living on the margins of society. The author herself has felt resentment because of her work. She describes how in 1974, almost overnight, she metamorphosed from a respectable, white, middle-class teacher into a reviled outsider simply by living in a caravan.

Kiddle doesn’t claim to describe any minority group in particular. She wants to avoid stereotypes and generalisations, stating that these are rather common among non-travellers who comment on traveller-groups. According to the author, during the mid-eighties, the new travellers in mass media in the UK were addressed as “New Age Travellers”, “Hippie Convoys”, “Mediaeval Brigands” birthing new negative stereotypes. Society’s antagonism and resentment towards Gypsies and other traveller-groups has existed for a long time in society, which has prevented the children from achieving an education.

Traveller-children can get their education in many different ways. They can have a “base-school” to which they always return; they can alternate between schools depending on where they are travelling; they can be taught by state-school teachers in their home. Further, their own people could teach them or they could participate in distance learning as a solution to the problem of continuity for Travelling children.

Kiddle gives a detailed narrative of many laws and documents that influence the educational situation for Travelling children in different ways. Kiddle names many organisations that work for the rights of this group and their activities are pictured in words. The reader sometimes gets lost and loses the aim of the book.

According to the book, the minority- and majority-culture constitute two different worlds, and this creates problems in education of children and youth. School and home present two separate, distinguished cultures and the travelling itself sharpens the distance between them. The aim of the book is to elucidate the dynamics between representatives of these worlds- parents, teachers and children- and examine if the children’s individual voices can be heard in a better way than before with the help of adults. The text encourages parents and teachers to support the children in the process of taking part of education. The author’s idea of education is that it can never destroy a minority culture, yet it can reduce the degree of marginalisation.

Thoughts and feelings from Travelling-children themselves about their educational situation do not occur to a great extent in the book. Kiddle points out that there is a lack of such documents in society. Nevertheless the author has been one of the initiative takers to a magazine written and illustrated by teenagers who were in the position of having to study alone for at least part of the year. The children’s texts bore witness to feelings of longing for school, lack of friends and wishes to be part of a group. They described the difficulties of coming back to school after a long absence and the hardships of having to study alone at home. Kiddle stresses how important it is for Travelling children to have power to affect their own educational position. The teachers have to find practical ways of letting the children’s voices come out. Teacher training schools must pay attention to these children’s educational needs.

Many examples of parental anxiety and fear are given in Kiddle’s work. She suggests that there can be a fear that assimilation instead of integration will take place at school and that the culture of the group is denied. Parents can be anxious about hostility, bullying and name-calling at school. They can feel uncertainty of sex education and possible access to drugs. The children might not be able to cope with the curriculum if they have poor literary skills. They can pick up different values from non-Traveller pupils. Sometimes parents keep their children from school so that the children contribute to the generation of the family income. There can be a social and cultural desire for girls to take on more domestic responsibility and care for younger children.

One of the main reasons for parents to send their children to school is the desire for literacy. The majority of travelling Gypsies have, for a long time, been illiterate. However, they realise that the ability to read and write is essential in modern society. Another justification for school attendance is the parent’s wish for an upheaval of long-term discrimination and a hope for a better future of the group through their children’s education.

Are the Travelling children welcome in school? Kiddle writes that the schools’ lack of understanding for these children’s special situation sets up a difficult situation. From the first moment of contact that the parents have with the school, they will sense whether their children will be respected or not. The author emphasises the importance of communication that inspires confidence, not only in words but also in the tone of voice and body language. Schools must have sensitivity towards the possible illiteracy of the parents. There must be a certain degree of susceptibility when travelling children and their parents come to school. A true multicultural interchange can never take place where the other holds one group in constant inferiority.

Traveller children maintain that it is not only the travelling itself that obstructs education for children. To a great extent the relationship between the minority- and majority culture in society creates a distance between children and school. Therefore Kiddle’s book deals not only with travelling children, but also the school situation of minority children throughout many countries in the industrialised world. The contents of the book can easily be seen from a more general point of view, and therefore, it has a great deal to give those who have a profession in multicultural contexts among children and youths. Personally, I can easily recognise the situation of many immigrant- and refugee children in the Swedish society.

Cathy Kiddle paves the way for those who have a difficult time to make their voices heard. She is a bridge-builder where different cultures meet. Many music therapists today are involved in such meetings in their work. The book Traveller Children offers them valuable knowledge.

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