David Weston portrait

Written by David Weston

Co-CEO of Teacher Development Trust; Chair DfE CPD group; author, campaigner and speaker.

Last month, an article in The Times argued that Irish Travellers should no longer be recognised as an ethnic group in the UK, and that Traveller families who attempt to maintain traditional customs should have to assimilate into mainstream British culture. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are ethnic groups recognised by UK law, each with distinct languages, traditions and cultural practices. Denying that they are ethnic groups not only erases these communities’ rich histories but downplays the racism they face.

In this blog, I argue that support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) pupils must start with recognition of the racism that they experience day to day. I’ll explain why I believe the discrimination that GRT communities face is relevant to education, and then finish with three key things schools and colleges can do to ensure that pupils are able to spend their time in education learning, rather than dealing with the effects of racism.

Before I joined the team at the Centre for Education and Youth, I ran an education advocacy project for GRT families across England. The discrimination that families I worked alongside faced was shocking, and was a factor in most of the difficult situations families encountered. Sometimes this was explicit, like the young person who was excluded for lashing out after being called racial slurs for weeks, and sometimes this was built into systems, like the family who couldn’t access transport to school, despite living on a site cut off from the local school by a motorway.

More recently, my colleague Ellie Mulcahy and I co-authored a chapter focussing on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils’ experiences for CfEY’s recently published book  ‘Young People on the Margins’. In our chapter we point out that while many GRT pupils excel in education, there are barriers to success that GRT families have little control over. 

Mainstream society is often unfriendly towards GRT people; attitudes towards nomadic families are usually hostile, and families who have settled in ‘bricks and mortar’ housing also face offensive stereotypes and social exclusion. In 2017, a YouGov/The Traveller Movement poll found that:

  • Just a third (34%) of UK adults consider Gypsies and Travellers to be ethnic groups.
  • Less than half (41%) of UK parents would be happy for their child to go to a playdate at the home of a child who is a Gypsy or a Traveller.

Children are affected by these attitudes in the education system too. 

Many families avoid officially identifying as GRT in order to reduce the likelihood of discrimination, and the current categories (Gypsy/Roma or Irish Traveller) used by the DfE do not match how some families identify, so it’s hard to gain a full picture of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils’ outcomes. However, we do know that:

  • Attainment for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils is lower than other groups. In 2019/20, the average Attainment 8 score for Gypsy/Roma pupils was 23, and for Traveller pupils it was 32, in comparison to an average of 50 across all pupils.
  • Exclusion rates are higher for these groups of pupils, with 21.26% of Gypsy and Roma pupils and 14.63% of Traveller pupils receiving fixed-period exclusions in 2018/19, compared to 5.36% of all pupils.

For some people, these statistics confirm racist beliefs that there is an inherent educational deficit in GRT communities. This is something we strongly reject. Decades of research show that it is racism, prejudice and a lack of inclusion that cause poor outcomes for GRT pupils. 

One of the largest barriers to educational success for GRT young people is other people’s attitudes. In a 2019 report from Friends, Families and Travellers, 86% of GRT young people said that bullying was the biggest challenge for them in school.  It is no wonder that engaging in education can be difficult for students in a society where two thirds of adults deny their identity, and over a third of people in their local community would avoid spending time with them, just because of their ethnicity.

Broader problems such as lack of access to quality housing and poor health can make working with schools even harder for parents. When families’ experiences are understood and discrimination is tackled, more pupils are able to leave school with an education that adequately prepares them for the future. Listening to the stories of success we share in our book chapter, we can see that effective support relies on:

  • Tackling racism and discrimination in schools and colleges
  • Building strong relationships between staff and families
  • Allowing flexibility in school and college systems and processes where possible.

These themes are echoed throughout our book, in chapters on the experiences of young people with SEND, who are care experienced and who are homeless. The approaches that make education more accessible for GRT pupils can help bring all young people in from the margins.