Gypsy and Traveller education suffers from irresponsible programming like this

17 Apr 2020, 18:05

Under the guise of investigation, last night’s Channel 4 programme only further stoked the kind of stereotypes that see Gypsy and Traveller children miss out on school, writes Ellie Mulcahy

“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding happened and all those children that had [said they were Gypsies] were bullied. My own children were bullied remorselessly.” So said one of the parents we spoke to as part of our research back in 2010, after My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding first aired on Channel 4.

During that research into Gypsy, Traveller and Roma (GRT) pupils’ progression to higher education, we heard how the programme incited a wave of racist bullying towards Gypsy and Traveller children. Bullying that robbed some children of their education. And yet, here we are ten years later, in the midst of a pandemic that should see us looking out for the most vulnerable in our society, presented with another programme (from Channel 4 again) that stigmatises a whole community.

Last night ‘The Truth about Traveller Crime’ disguised racism as investigation. It was undoubtedly biased. Vague attempts to question whether all Travellers can be blamed for crimes committed by a few were swiftly undermined before returning to generalisation and sensationalist ‘reporting’. Regardless, the title alone is incredibly damaging. You would hope that a title which uses an ethnicity as an adjective to describe crime wouldn’t make it past the scrutiny of programme directors.

Programmes like this directly impact young people’s experience of school

Coincidentally, I spent yesterday finishing my book chapter on GRT pupils’ experiences of education for our upcoming book ‘Young People on the Margins’ which will be published by Routledge later this year. A section of the chapter looks at how racism and discrimination affects GRT pupils’ education. A 2013 report found that 63% of GRT young people had been bullied or physically attacked, 86% had been called racist names. In recent research nearly half of Traveller girls and a third of boys said bullying was the main reason they left school early.

Last night’s programme cited ‘cultural factors’ such as low attendance at secondary school as related to crimes committed by Travellers. Confusing poor educational outcomes and exclusion from official systems with culture is factually inaccurate at best. Pauline Anderson, Chair of The Traveller Movement, a rare voice of reason on the programme, explained that the biggest barrier to Gypsy and Travellers’ education is ‘the general acceptance of bullying and racist name calling’. The programme then cut to videos of men, presumed to be Travellers, fighting.

Fear of discrimination is the main reason that GRT parents remove their children from school. We should ask ourselves, if not for lockdown, what impact would this programme have on children going to school on Monday? Would their parents send them or would they be too worried about bullying? Are there children right now with a knot in their stomachs at the thought of returning to school after this crisis? I urge all school leaders, in particular those that serve GRT communities, to reach out to parents, to acknowledge this programme and to make it clear that you reject its claims and that any bullying will be dealt with.

There are plenty more flaws with the programme. Not least the questionable use of statistics on crime rates. The programme features an analysis of crime rates that selects a sub-sample of areas with Traveller sites where crime has been reported and compares this to national average crime rates. Yes, that’s right, they select a sample of areas to examine crime rates and their selection is based on the places crime has been reported. When they later look at a larger sample of areas with sites they find that in the majority, crime is lower than the national average. While a Criminologist explains that ethnicity is not a causal factor for crime and that factors such as poverty play a larger role, this is glossed over. The overall message is Traveller sites equal crime.

Of course, we feel concerned for victims of crime and anti-social behaviour. However, you can be angry about this without wanting to see an entire ethnic group scapegoated. Kate Green MP, Chair of the APPG for Gypsies and Travellers, sought to refute the discriminatory narrative: ‘Characterising criminal behaviour by the racial or cultural background of perpetrators is unhelpful. It’s discriminatory to a whole community, stigmatising a whole community.’

History has taught us that programmes like this directly impact children and young people’s experience of school and their educational outcomes. This is unacceptable, but it has already aired. It will now be left to teachers and school leaders to do their best to counteract the damage. Reach out to families and reassure them. Later, address any bullying and racism robustly, dispel stereotypes and make sure your culture is inclusive and your curriculum celebrates diversity. Highlight that your school is a safe community for all.

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  1. Roger Stone

    I taught at a school in Margate which received significant numbers of central European Roma migrants during 1995 – 2015, and I can vouch that in general they had a POSITIVE influence on our other students, and there was minimal friction between the incoming migrants and our longer-term residents. Mutual respect, readiness to learn, rate of progress – we all worked together. No more sign of criminal behaviour from the Roma students than from the rest. I don’t recognise the problems you describe in this programme.

  2. Professor Judith Okely

    Thank you Ellie, I was dreading watching this programme and you have critiqued it well. I lived with the Gypsies in the 1970s and produced a monograph The Traveller-Gypsies. Later, as university professor, on several occasions I discovered that brilliant postgraduates, one at Oxford and another at Edinburgh, whispered to me their ethnic identity as Roma or Scottish Traveller as a shared SECRET. They had to hide their heritage even in those ‘distinguished’ universities until they thought it safe. Now as you say, this arrogant would be sensationalist programme will help continue the racism. Can you imagine a channel 4 programme substituting the label African, Jewish or even Scottish in the title? What has happened to that channel?
    Finally NOONE mentioned that most of the seasonal fruit and veg picking in in the UK was done by Travellers and Gypsies until the 1994 Act which deprived Gypsies of official sites. Now Patel wants to make it legal to confiscate and destroy Gypsy caravans and vehicles off site. She the HOME Secretary plans to destroy the HOMES of these ethnic minorities

  3. I am of Romani heritage, I am an academic, I work in the broad area of social justice and equalities and, as you might expect, I was disgusted at the content and quality of the Dispatches programme. For those still smarting at the first two clauses of my comments, yes, Gypsy, Traveller and Romani people work in academia, indeed we are often also activists for our communities and advocates for equality. From speaking to others from this background and working within the Social Sciences (my field), we are horrified at the Dispatches programme, the lack of evidence, failure to properly outline the issues and utter sidestepping of the real issues at stake around crime and our communities.

    This programme, takes it place in the ‘hall of shame’ of programmes professing to seriously examine key issues for Gypsy, Traveller and Romani communities. Treated as the exotic, a subject for research (without empowering us to speak) or as the archetypal social problem and aberration, there is little space for anyone from the communities to discuss real experiences. All this does is feed the perception of an ethnic minority who cannot, or will not, engage in social discourse and, of course, it means that real experiences from within the community in relation to crime (or whatever the topic in hand) are sidestepped.

    I hope that very serious action and sanction will be applied to those responsible for Dispatches and other similarly ill-informed programmes. The poor quality of the programme was easy to discern for those who know the communities but for those watching with normative assumptions framing their viewing, the programme served as a reaffirmation that Gypsy and Traveller populations are a problem. A few days later we had another programme on Roma people on benefits. I am afraid it is open season on our communities, so easily represented through a lens of social stereotyping, which for other groups might be stamped on immediately as being racist and abusive.

    What are the consequences of these representations? The negative consequences are myriad, some predicable, some less so. But what society thinks it knows about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities certainly found reinforcement in the Dispatches programme and the challenge to this was given little airspace. And yes, there is a challenge to that, it actually does exist but, of course, it would make much less interesting television. For all in the communities there is a consequence personally of repeated experience of humiliation of one’s heritage, community and identity in a public context, which is likely to lead to feelings of low self-worth, anger, depression, helplessness and fear at the possible effects. Increased hate crime and abuse is another consequence, bearing in mind that hate and abuse are commonplace already and need nothing to fan the flames. For children and young people, there is abuse in early years context, schools and colleges, hate speech, online abuse and social exclusion. The ubiquitous representation of our communities as a problem and source of crime finds a ready home in childhood and youth contexts that are already misinformed, slow to challenge this racism and often unsure how to do so.

    Ultimately, this is about power – who has the power to depict others in certain ways, to speak for others and to hold sway over an audience using outdated, incorrect and offensive narratives about relatively powerless ethnic groups. It is important to recognise that this kind of programme is not just bad for Gypsy and Traveller communities – it is bad news for anyone who might find themselves subject to misrepresentation, vulnerable groups, all BAME individuals and groups and to others who do not have the power to narrate their lives on national television. Everyone with an interest in social exclusion, inequalities, fairness, social justice and balanced media reporting should be very concerned (and angry).