School transitions and mobile communities: What the research says

The research project

Transitions and Scottish Travelling Communities (STEP 2015) was a research project seeking to better understand transitions from a local and international perspective in order to improve 0-18 transitions for Travelling communities in Scotland. The research reviewed existing national and international models of transitions and involved consultation with Scottish teachers about effective strategies to support transitions. Based on the strategies and approaches which proved most effective across practice, the project developed a model and associated Toolkit for achieving successful transitions.

What is a smooth transition?

Smooth transitions can be described as the successful and positive experience of transitions from home to the education system such as entry into nursery, primary school and successful progression to secondary school, Further Education or work destinations.

Markers of a smooth transition include experiences during pupils’ settling in phase and progression. For the child, a smooth transition should be: a positive experience with smooth integration into school culture, class and routines (Evangelou et al, 2008), with consistent or improving academic achievement, retention and engagement (Cauley and Jovanovich, 2006). For schools and parents, smooth transitions were characterised as parents having no or minimal concerns (Giallo, et al. 2010; Hirst et al. 2011), curriculum continuity, acknowledgment of parents recommendations for transitions, and when the process is managed smoothly (Evangelou et al. 2008). Transitions are also smoother when parents’ choice of schools is received on time and they receive their first choice of school. This means fewer appeals and the transition process can progress more efficiently.

Finally, based on children’s views, smooth transitions meant looking forward to attending the new school, moving to schools with their peers, having older siblings in the school, and finding new schoolwork interesting (Evangelou et al, 2008).

The impact of transitions on children and families

Children and young people experience many forms of transition in their lives such as starting a new school, moving house, new siblings entering the family, puberty and so forth (Young Minds, 2015). These times can be stressful with physical, social and philosophical discontinuities (Fabian, 2002) and can negatively impact children’s wellbeing, everyday routines and academic achievements.  Where non-mobile children contend with one or two major transitions in any given period (for instance, moving to high school and having new teachers), the same move for children from Travelling communities may involve considerably more forms of transitional change.

On account of many children and young people from Travelling communities experiencing frequent changes of schools, children may encounter recursive learning shock (Griffiths et al 2004) and difficulties in establishing the necessary secure attachment relationships with teachers (Birch and Ladd, 1997) which are vital for academic achievement, support, socio-emotional wellbeing and overall positive educational experiences (Bergin and Bergin, 2009; Riley, 2011).

Children entering school for the first time are facing an environment which is qualitatively different from their learning experiences at home (Margetts, 2002). Families as a whole may have to adapt to significant cultural differences (Thomas, 1995) associated with the people, physical context, approaches to communication, values, traditions, expectations, and structure of the day. Children will suddenly experience unfamiliarly long periods of separation from their parents and siblings (Bowlby 1969), first assessments, the pressure and unfamiliarity of new contexts and approaches for learning (Griffiths et al. 2004; Zhou et al. 2008); all of which can negatively impact children’s wellbeing and ability to thrive.

Research examining the learning and health outcomes of children’s transition to school demonstrated that the experience of starting school causes a stress response in children (Turner-Cobb, 2005), and can negatively impact attitudes and pupil progress (Galton et al, 1999, 2003; Padfield, 2008). To this end, transitions, for Travelling communities, may become a stressful, negative experience with little return or visible academic progress (Kerbow et al. 2003).

Travelling communities and education

Travelling communities remain the most socially excluded groups in Scotland, experiencing widespread discrimination and prejudice in their daily lives (Lloyd and McClusky, 2008). Although there is some evidence of increasing economic and educational outcomes for Travelling communities, The Office for National Statistics 2011 census revealed that 60% of Gypsy/Traveller families had no formal qualifications, are more likely to be identified as having special educational needs, and are four times more likely than any other group to be excluded from school (DCSF, 2009). Based on statistics of S4 pupils’ educational attainment, this group were also noted as having the lowest educational achievement and attendance rates in comparison to the average population (Scottish Government, 2013; Wilkin et al. 2010). Statistically these children will always be behind, make slower progress, and achieve less academically.

The issue of improving educational outcomes for Traveller families has been a focus of research and policy for decades. Yet attempts to improve Traveller children’s engagement and retention in education have had little impact. Though pupils may successfully transition to secondary school, their attendance is unlikely to continue beyond the age of 14 (Derrington and Kendall, 2004), with at least half of young people from Travelling communities becoming completely disengaged from education by the age of 16 (Foster and Norton, 2012). Some smaller studies revealed that in some populations the average drop-out rate can be even younger – with children leaving formal education at 11.5 years old (Franks and Ureche, 2007).

Travelling communities and transitions: the key issues

There are a variety of complex and interlinked issues as to why Travelling communities do not experience smooth transitions which can leave families feeling unsupported, excluded and disengaged from formal educational routes.


A complex web of factors such as unpredictable work and mobility patterns (Jordan, 2000 SCRE) and frequent evictions (Richardson, 2007) lead to high mobility among Travelling communities. The transient nature of Travelling communities means that there are continuous and significant interruptions to children’s learning (Padfield, 2008), and family engagement with schools and local services (Cemlyn et al. 2009). This then leads to: a lack of information about educational past (Kerbow et al. 2003; Smrekar and Owens, 2003), gaps in knowledge, unfamiliarity with formal schooling, loss of supportive school peers and friends (Jordan and Padfield, 2003), and difficulties maintaining relationships and communication with schools. The gaps in education children experience as a result of transient school attendance (Estyn, 2011) means that it is difficult to move past adjustment and begin to thrive and gain academic momentum.

Due to the highly mobile lifestyle of Travelling communities, these children may be more vulnerable to the negative factors associated with not only transitions, but on account of the high frequency of these transitional periods.

Literacy and language

Many families from Travelling communities may have poor literacy (Franks and Ureche, 2007), or English as an additional language which can impede effective communication. In the most recent Scottish census analysis, approximately 8% of Gypsy/Travellers do not read or write, have poor English proficiency, and less than 1% were described as having no English skills (Scottish Government 2014).

Without adequate literacy and language support, parents may be unable to access or understand information required during the transition process and may find paper-based induction procedures intimidating. Lack of literacy may also engender in tentative engagement with public service providers if additional measures are unavailable. Parents may also feel unable to provide academic support or home education due to a lack of ability and confidence in their own literacy.   This leads to discontinuities in children’s education and greater gaps in learning during periods of mobility.

School bureaucracy

There are variety of barriers embedded in the educational systems and school structures which can cause concern for parents. For the most part, the formal education system requires a Traveller child to adapt to an established system with majority values (Barnardos, 2002:7). Rigidity of school induction such as choosing schools, registration, and induction periods occurring at set times in the academic year can be challenging for most Travelling communities on account of their unpredictable mobility patterns. Where systems are in place to ensure smooth transfers through effective strategies and protocols (e.g. school visits, social events, information gathering and sharing), occur at set times in the school year. The school calendar and many Traveller communities’ calendars simply do not coincide (Padfield and Cameron, 2009), meaning that many families do not receive the benefits of these established induction and transition procedures. Further complexity is added on account of different procedures being used across different local authorities. Therefore, where families have been supported in on area, they will not receive the same level of support in another which can result in children being lost from Education.

Traveller Education Services have been shown to elicit positive responses and educational engagement of Traveller communities (Bhopal and Myers, 2009). However, many authorities will not have a specific Traveller support service.

Very few authorities, in England, for instance (Evangelou et al. 2008), have training specifically on transition delivered centrally meaning that good practice varies across settings with the majority of schools will have no special transition arrangements for pupils from Travelling communities (Estyn, 2011:14).

The induction process for any school requires particular information and specific practices in order to successfully receive and integrate the pupil.   Subsequently, the absence of necessary information will cause delay or significant challenges for the school and practitioners to ensure a smooth transition for children and families (Kerbow et al. 2003). The absence of birth certificates, for instance, means that schools may not be privy to a child’s chronological age which can be helpful in ascertaining the child’s educational level, especially in the absence of learning history (Evangelou et al. 2008).

Unfamiliarity with school culture and rules of engagement

Children’s induction and successful integration into life at school is greatly influenced by their level of familiarity with schooling itself: in other words, being in the habit of attending school and the routines and practices which this entails. For instance, if a child has little experience of formal educational settings, or these experiences are sporadic, children may be (or become) unfamiliar with institutional conventions. These include (Evangelou et al. 2008):

    • Prolonged periods of time where children must be seated or must remain quiet.
    • Negotiating a large, indoor physical environment.
    • Rules of engagement such as turn-taking, appropriate interaction with adults, raising your hand before offering responses, asking permission to leave classrooms or use equipment, specific meal times, or playground boundaries.
    • Having to socialise with unfamiliar peers.
    • Wearing uniforms and changing in front of non-family members (Gym class).
    • Pressure of homework or not having the facilities or space to complete it at home.

 Cultural differences and discrimination

For some Travelling communities, there are underlying barriers to entering any form of schooling on account of experiences of prejudice and discrimination (Lloyd and McClusky, 2008) and families’ negative perceptions of formal education and curriculum content (Myers, McGhee and Bhopal,, 2010). Histories of social exclusion and discrimination and racism (Foster and Norton, 2012) have resulted in tentative relationships with schools and services. Roma families, for example, may possess views which are embedded in a history of marginalisation as a minority within a minority. Many were unable to access education due to societal attitudes toward bilingualism and cultural differences resulting in the Romani language not being taught in schools and being forbidden in public places (Hristo, 2007). To this end, parents may prefer not to send their children to school on account of fears surrounding them experiencing the same violence and marginalisation (Lloyd et al. 1999). These attitudes extend to their experiences or perceived view of the labour market hence many families cannot see the advantages of work and time spent in school if young people cannot penetrate barriers to employment.
The cultural relevance of curriculum, especially at secondary level, is often questioned by Travelling communities (Padfield and Cameron, 2009).   Parents fear increased risk taking and loss of cultural values and beliefs in the absence of appropriate resources and materials (Jordan and Padfield, 2003).

It is important to note here that due to the heterogeneity of these groups, each of whom is defined by its different history, culture, and lifestyle, communities will have varying levels of engagement with formal education and school-based learning (Padfield, 2008) support seeking efforts, and perceptions of and access to schooling and the curriculum.

Research outcomes

Outcomes from the study including the transitions model can be found in STEP’s ‘transitions toolkit’.