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date: 20 November 2019

Gypsies, Mobilities, and Schools in the United Kingdom

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

Gypsies are a minority community whose lives are often shaped by multiple oppressions. While their ethnicity can be linked to accounts of migration stretching back over 1,000 years, to Northern India, the historic details surrounding this movement are often contested within academic debates and largely unknown in public discourses. There are similar gaps in knowledge about important moments in Gypsy history, including their settlement, and often enslavement, in many European countries and the devastating impact of the Nazi Holocaust. This lack of knowledge has contributed to the persistence of racist stereotypes about Gypsies, who are often associated with dirtiness, itinerancy, and criminality. Within these stereotypes is a tendency to identify “real” Gypsies as a nomadic, traveling group of people. While movement and travel remain important elements of Gypsy identity, the reality for many families is that they lead relatively settled lifestyles. This should be unsurprising given the history of European settlement and slavery; however, one consequence has been for non-nomadic Gypsies to have their identity called into question.

Schools are one area where Gypsies and non-Gypsies encounter each other closely. Schools are also a field in which Gypsy children and families are under pressure to conform to wider educational policy making. Schools often appear to be a context in which the multiple oppressions experienced by Gypsies are foregrounded. Gypsy pupils regularly experience bullying and racism from their peers, other parents, and school staff. Gypsy parents fear their children will lose aspects of their cultural identity by engaging with schools, a concern exacerbated by beliefs that non-Gypsy adolescent culture is driven by risky behaviors such as promiscuity, drinking, and drug taking. At the same time policy makers have increasingly identified the nomadic Gypsy identity as a category through which to shape and understand Gypsy pupils’ educational experiences. This nomadic identity highlights some specific structural flaws in how education may or may not be delivered to Gypsy pupils. There has been widespread concern for many years that the biggest underlying factor making school attendance problematic for Gypsy children has been homelessness. Many families lack secure accommodation not because they persist with a nomadic lifestyle but because of a shortage of Gypsy and Traveler sites. Recent UK legislation has made the development of new Gypsy and Traveler sites much less likely by requiring Gypsy families to prove their “nomadic” identity. At a more local level, there is evidence that schools understand a distinction between delivering a sedentary and a nomadic education (often in order to demonstrate an awareness of policy making). However, this identification of pupils as nomadic both misrepresents the realities of their identity and also, more troublingly, is often used to explain why pupils no longer attend school.