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Educational needs of travelling children

The nomadic lifestyle of the Jolie-Pitts has cast the spotlight on the educational needs of travelling children, but USQ researcher, Professor Patrick Danaher, was interested in the field decades before it became trendy.

Professor Patrick Danaher

 Professor Patrick Danaher

 Professor Patrick Danaher

“It was 1991 when I was working at Central Queensland University (CQU) and the show was coming to town and some colleagues and I were chatting in the lunchroom and we wondered ‘How do these children get an education?’”.

This simple discussion sparked an ongoing interest and rigorous research in the fascinating field of mobile education.

“The education system is based on people living in one place – mobile learners disrupt those associations.

“But there are an amazing number of people who are mobile at various points of their lives, including people who work in the armed forces and people who are homeless. For Indigenous people and Gypsy Travellers or Roma mobility is a part of their culture. So, because of their work or culture, a lot of people are mobile at some point.”

Professor Danaher’s research has focused on the fairground community and the circus industry.

“In Australia the fairground community is a very organised industry run by the Showman’s Guild, which is a legal entity and, basically, you have two shows that travel in parallel to each other around the country at the same time.”

Travelling with those shows are two mobile schools of approximately 50 students, each staffed by two teachers.

“Despite popular perception, many members of the Showmen’s Guild are very wealthy and they have luxurious caravans and can afford to send their children to boarding school following primary school.

“Then there is the other end of the spectrum, the poorer parents who send their children to local high schools along the circuits following their primary education.

“We’ve visited the travelling classrooms and seen some fantastic lessons – every place they go they take full advantage of the local area and the places of interest.

“Teachers have to be specially trained to do that work because they are living and working in the community all the time. It’s often a husband and wife team and that creates specific opportunities and challenges.

“It takes particular types of teachers to work well, but when it works well it’s educational innovation at its best.”

While there are many similarities, there are also stark contrasts between the fairground and circus communities.

“There are 13-15 circuses with animals in Australia and they are in cutthroat competition with one another and therefore they don’t have the structure of a travelling classroom, so their children do distance education or parents board their children with family members who are not travelling.”

Travelling children also benefit from informal learning opportunities. “Circus and show children learn many specialised skills from a young age, including aerobatic and performing skills or how to operate a ride or give change. “And there is plenty of evidence to show that students who are bright and apply themselves go onto tertiary education.”

Professor Danaher’s research has also led to some travelling on his own, including research in the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands. He now plans to collaborate with fellow USQ researcher, Associate Professor Robyn Henderson, who has done equivalent work with seasonal workers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“We are now aiming to bring our studies together to see if underlying models work well for educating mobile children.”