'People brand you': UK universities sign pledge to fight hate against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma
Excluded from birthday parties and falsely accused of being dirty and a thief, at her UK secondary school Sherrie Smith finally gave up trying to fit in. Instead of seeking acceptance, she began to act up and within weeks she was permanently excluded. Though her family was settled and she was being brought up in a house, she was proud of her Romany Gypsy heritage, and the constant calls of “pikey” and “dirty gypo” were too much to bear.
History started to repeat itself when her younger daughter, Ruby Leigh-Smith, began secondary school. “Because she was open about her background she was regularly called pikey and gypo, and even physically attacked three times. You hold a birthday party and no one turns up. That’s the way it was for us and the way it still is, even if we live in a house or flat like everyone else. Her school was wonderful and worked with me to try to tackle the racism, but nowhere was safe, not even her home, because she got hate messages on social media,” says Smith.
It was heartbreaking to watch Ruby’s growing realisation that the family she loved was the subject of such scorn and hatred, but Smith was able to keep her daughter focused on a long-term goal: higher education. For Smith is one of a tiny minority of UK Gypsies and Travellers with a university degree and her daughter, now 18, is holding two university offers to study journalism in September.
Smith, having broken the mould (she went to Goldsmiths, University of London as a mature student and gained a degree in community development and youth work), is now doing a master’s in education at Bucks New University. She is also working as a research assistant and helping to promote The Pledge – the campaign the university has initiated to reach out to Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showman and Boater communities.
Other universities to sign the GTRSB-into-higher-education pledge include Winchester, Hull, Strathclyde and Sunderland, and more plan to join. The universities promise to make it easier for the communities to access courses, through wider participation outreach, year-round accommodation, bursaries, and mentoring and study support, among other initiatives.
It is a scheme that is well overdue. Research in 2019 found only 3-4% of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers aged 18-30 accessed higher education, compared with 43% of other people in that age group. Only 184 Gypsy and Traveller students were registered in higher education in 2018-19, according to the Office for Students. A report earlier this month by the Traveller Movement found children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups most likely to be excluded or “off-rolled”, and least likely to achieve formal qualifications. It said the children experienced “high levels of bullying based on their ethnicity that largely goes unaddressed in schools” and called for the Department for Education formally to adopt the term “anti-Gypsyism” as a form of racism.
Even before the pandemic, a report from the Education Policy Institute said Gypsy and Roma pupils were 34 months behind their peers by the end of secondary school, and Irish Traveller pupils 28.9 months behind, compared with 9.3 months for black Caribbean students. The Roma Support group, in a letter to Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, on 11 March, said Roma children had fallen even further behind and asked for targeted catch-up help and the reinstatement of those taken off the roll before the Covid crisis.
Beyond education, the traditionally itinerant communities now face a new threat. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill going through parliament makes residing on land with a vehicle without consent a criminal offence, punishable by three months in prison or a fine of up to £2,500. It also gives police the right to seize vehicles, trailers or caravans, even if they lack wheels or are otherwise un-roadworthy.
But, Smith says, it does not matter whether you are living in a house or a trailer, people will brand you. “Our tradition is not to be uneducated. Our tradition is to value family and being together. The racism in schools, from pupils and teachers, is the biggest reason why so many of us leave without qualifications,” she says.
“I’m a Gypsy, I’ve got a caravan outside my house, I’ve got a degree, I’m doing a postgraduate qualification, I am a community volunteer, but it doesn’t matter what I do or what I’m paid or where I go, I will still be a Gypsy. The minute I open my mouth I’m immediately labelled and suffer prejudice. The media puts out a stereotype that we are uneducated and wear big earrings, travel around and have gold false teeth. I have a house, dishwasher and a hot tub and I’ve never actually owned a horse, but that doesn’t change who I am. I am proud of my culture, my history, my family and yet for the last 10 years we have had to combat the outrageous stereotypes of the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” she says.
Circus families say they, too, are suffering. Donna*, a circus ring mistress says her experience has been “absolutely unbelievable”.
“When I was 12 I was made to stand on a chair in front of the class so they could see what a thief looks like. That was in the 70s, but just a few years ago my son’s new headteacher banned me from the building saying she didn’t want to be alone in a room with me and I had to ask permission to go to the village hall to watch him in a school play. I was told I had no right to complain because I didn’t hide who I was.” She says at that point she was living in south Angus, in Scotland.
While ethnic groups are protected by human rights legislation, most recently the Equality Act 2010, Martin Gallagher, an Irish Traveller, says racism against people from itinerant communities is not recognised. As is usual practice for young Traveller boys, Gallagher, who was brought up in a caravan, started work with his father, but went back to education in his 20s and is now a PhD student at Northumbria University.
He says low expectations and racism from students and teachers are the biggest reasons for the low university take-up. “I used to try to change my accent so I wouldn’t be stereotyped and unfortunately, 20 years later, I see two of my young cousins still doing that – they speak normally to their mother and change their voices as they walk into school. The Pledge is a massive deal because it says we are welcome at this institution, where we haven’t felt that way before.”
Gallagher did well at primary school, scored highly in his Sats and was told he had the ability to study law, but when he reached secondary school, he says teachers put him in a room with other Travellers “colouring in and joining up dots”.
“It instantly highlighted that we were different to our classmates and made us feel like we were a hindrance to everybody else,” he says. “I remember a teacher stating I had no excuse not doing my homework, as ‘Travellers didn’t have lives and didn’t do anything’. I was confused and angry as this came from a black teacher, who I thought fully understood racism, yet was publicly stating false racial stereotypes about my family and community. Fortunately, there were four teachers who believed in me and pushed me to do my best when the other 90% did not bother – they just cared about getting results and assumed as I was a Traveller, I wouldn’t turn up or would fail,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ruby Leigh-Smith is now in the sixth form and is even friends with one of her former tormentors. She hopes the GRTSB Pledge will persuade more people to choose higher education like she has: “Young people like me can face discouragement at school and feel that university is out of bounds. When we see people in our communities being successful, they are role models that inspire us, and hopefully help to bring about change.”
*Name has been changed as her son is still in school