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.