Written by: Claire Barker, Specialist Teacher Advisor, Hampshire EMTAS and Sam Wilson, Education Advisor, Hampshire EMTAS with thanks to Alex Clark and Dianne Gair, Greenfields Junior School, Hartley Wintney.
Some Traveller girls find themselves growing up and facing body changes without any idea about what is happening to them. Claire Barker and Sam Wilson, Hampshire EMTAS GRT experts, discuss how this state of ignorance is due to cultural taboos widely held within the Traveller communities.
Tackling taboos without causing offence
It is often scary as a classroom practitioner to raise sensitive issues with parents when you are unsure if you are going to cause offence or not. In our work with the Traveller communities we are aware of some of the subjects that Traveller families find hard to discuss amongst themselves and impossible to discuss with people outside their communities. Schools are under increasing pressure to ensure all children are educated in Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and from 2019 parental choice will be removed and SRE will be made compulsory. This will pose a challenge for schools that have Traveller students on roll.
Many Traveller families do not believe that any sex and relationships information should be shared with their children and these should be learned through experience as they mature and marry. This can seem short sighted to people outside the Traveller communities and difficult for many people to understand in this day and age. It is very important for many Traveller parents to ensure that their girls are kept pure in body and mind and this means no information relating to sex or relationships is discussed within the family. Many Traveller parents withdraw their children from all Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) as they are afraid of what their children may learn. Words like ‘periods’, ‘ menstruation’ and ‘pregnancy’ are taboo in many families and may be replaced by terms such as ‘monthlies’ and when a Traveller woman is pregnant, the pregnancy is not acknowledged by the children.
How do I deal with this as a classroom practitioner?
For a classroom practitioner who has to deliver the advised PSHE curriculum it can be a minefield of taboos and potential to offend if you have Traveller children in your setting. It may sometimes even lead to Traveller children being withdrawn to be Electively Home Educated (EHE). Traveller parents seek to protect their children from outside influences they feel may be damaging to their child. There are sensitive issues that can sometimes be difficult for the non-Traveller population to understand but in our diverse society in the 21st century we as professionals need to be aware of the issues and to have considered ways of dealing with them in order to avoid offending the GRT communities and contributing to the rise in EHE statistics.
Taking the first step
The first step in tackling the taboos is to speak to the community involved so you gain a better understanding of why something may be considered offensive or forbidden and the rationale behind the thinking. It is important not to be judgemental as often cultural beliefs may not mirror our own but we must look at ways to work together to reach a common ground and understanding to benefit the children.
To this end myself, an EMTAS colleague and two school based colleagues met with some Mums from Traveller communities to ask them what they knew about PSHE and what it was that worried them. We did this in an informal coffee event and it generated a great discussion with both sides learning lots. The Traveller Mums agreed that when they heard PSHE they withdrew their children and kept them off for the whole day. They were surprised by some of the topics covered by PSHE and agreed their children would really benefit from sessions on topics like Stranger Danger and Road Safety.
We invited the Mums back to see all the resources used from Years 3 to 6 and to look at power points and schemes of work. They loved bits of it, hated bits of it and were totally shocked by bits of it.
We then discussed how their girls found out about their body changes and they said they didn’t – it just happened. Sometimes if they have an older sister or a close cousin they may have told them but it wasn’t a Mum’s place to talk about it. We asked if they would consider us doing it without mentioning sex or relationships just what to expect from their bodies. The Mums were thrilled with this idea providing we taught them the lesson first.
Our school based colleagues thought about how to tackle this and came up with the idea of a ‘Girl’s Bag’. They made up a lovely drawstring bag in a pretty print filled with everything a pre-teenager may use. It had dry shampoo, deodorant, false nails, nail varnish, shower gel, a razor, hair remover, a trainer bra and a packet of sanitary towels.
We invited the Traveller Mums back in and told them how the Traveller girls and any other girls who had been withdrawn from SRE/PSHE for what ever reason would be invited to the session with parental permission when we delivered it in school. The Mums then did the lesson with us, it is important to note that this was done with only female staff present as this topic is totally taboo for GRT men. We each drew out an object and we discussed if we used it and what we used it for and if we liked the colour, smell etc. When the sanitary towels were taken out of the bag, the packet was opened and the teacher explained what it was used for and why every girl would need them. It was talked about in generic, practical terms with no mention of why this happens to your body apart from it being part of becoming a woman. The Traveller Mums loved the lesson and said how they wished someone had done this for them.
However in another school the Traveller Mums felt it was too late for their girls and in their family older sisters had helped their younger siblings. They asked what we were doing for boys and to be honest, the answer was nothing. So we decided to go with the same idea and create a bag to explain to the boys what they needed to do to be sweet smelling and hygienic. The Traveller Mums liked this but said they wanted some information included about self examination and testicular cancer which could happen to a teenage boy.
Never deterred by a challenge, we acquired prosthesis testes that had been created with a lump so the boys could feel what they were looking for. The sample lesson with the Traveller Mums had to be carried out by me as a woman but the session for the Traveller boys had to be carried out by a man as it wouldn’t be acceptable for a woman to discuss anything sexual or body related with boys. Again it was a great success.
It is still quite an innovative idea; there is a lot of work and relationships to be build with the Traveller communities to make this part of the SRE curriculum in schools. Will it ever truly take off and be acceptable? This is doubtful as schools need to be culturally aware and the GRT communities are slower moving with regards to education and their children but it is a step in the right direction of offering support whilst fully respecting the culture. The continuing work has to be the building up of trust between schools and the GRT communities so a relationship can be established to allow taboo subjects to be discussed in the interest of the GRT children while staying within the boundaries of cultural acceptance.