Schools need to address the last acceptable form of racism

Racism is treated with due seriousness in all schools. Except, that is, for racism against gypsies, Roma and travellers, says Ellie Mulcahy

Gypsies, Roma and travellers are the most underrepresented minority group in UK universities. About 3 to 4 per cent of GRT people aged 18 to 30 access higher education, compared with 43 per cent nationally. In fact, only 200 gypsy and traveller students attended university in 2016.

We recently released a report for King’s College London’s widening participation department, which explores the range of cultural and material barriers that make accessing higher education so difficult for these groups. However, no finding was more shocking than the degree of discrimination faced by GRT pupils at school and university – and the need for urgent change became abundantly clear.

Discrimination against GRT groups was described as the “last respectable form of racism” in 2003 by the chair of the Commission for Race Equality and it seems little has changed in the intervening 14 years. Half of British people have an “unfavourable” view of Roma, and one in three admit prejudice against gypsies and travellers. Pupils feel the effect of these attitudes in schools, where up to 80 per cent report experiencing bullying in the form of racist name-calling and even physical attacks.

The media does little to help, often reinforcing prejudicial views. One gypsy parent told me how her own children were “bullied remorselessly” in school following Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. One pupil I spoke to that “people look at us and think we’re threatening and dangerous” and that people told him “you’re a traveller, you should be fighting”.

One gypsy parent told me how her children were “bullied remorselessly” in school following Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

Disturbingly, it seems that schools’ responses are often inadequate, and almost two thirds of incidents go unreported. Not only are pupils reluctant to report racism because they don’t believe it will be dealt with, half have physically retaliated to bullying and a third believe teachers hold racist attitudes themselves.

This discrimination has long-term impacts on GRT pupils’ educational outcomes. Bullying and subsequent withdrawal from school or low attendance contributes to poor attainment, making it less likely pupils will progress to university. Fear of further discrimination in higher education makes going to university, and leaving home to do so, an unappealing prospect. Interviewees discussed the pernicious effect of rumoured student “pikey parties”, while one GRT young person who made it to university heard a lecturer use a racist term during a seminar.

Other factors that affect GRT pupils’ success at school and access to higher education are complex and efforts should certainly be made to tackle these.

However, when it comes to discrimination and bullying, the situation is clear-cut: prejudice is real and bullying is taking place.

School leaders and staff must recognise derogatory terms. Though some are obvious, one gypsy graduate suggested that many people don’t know which terms are not OK. “Pikey” is a racist term, often used to refer to gypsies or travellers; Roma do not like to be called “gypsy” as it is often used pejoratively in eastern Europe. Once staff understand this, they can ensure that students are also informed.

Second, incidents of bullying must be treated seriously, with the same gravity afforded to racism against any other ethnic minority. Responding appropriately serves not only to reduce bullying but also to encourage victims of bullying to report incidents to teachers rather than retaliating themselves. Due to the isolation of GRT groups from mainstream society, many people know little about GRT groups, which can give rise to suspicious attitudes and stereotypes.

Schools can use bullying incidents as an opportunity to teach pupils about GRT culture and dispel stereotypes. In one school, children who bully a GRT peer spend a detention producing a research project on GRT history which they later present to the pupil they bullied.

Finally, working with and reassuring parents is key. Many parents will have experienced discrimination during their own schooling and have perhaps previously found that schools do not respond effectively when their children are bullied. This is particularly pertinent for recent arrivals from countries where quasi-state sanctioned persecution persists. Schools should communicate with parents to reassure them that the issue is being taken seriously and addressed.

Schools all now need to review their approach, be clear that any discrimination is unacceptable and alter how they address incidents.


Ellie Mulcahy is a research associate at LKMco

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