The last ‘respectable’ forms of racism

Kate D’Arcy 

Image © I, mattwj2002

I worry that there’s still no official education policy on race equality, discrimination and exclusion. I am anxious about the children who have intersecting inequalities which the system allows to wreck their educational opportunities. I am troubled that so few people even give such matters thought. Maybe it is because equality policies and procedures are in place that people assume issues of race and racism have been addressed?

It sharpens perception to focus on one community, so here’s information about the educational inequality faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils.
Racial inequality in education isn’t new. Research has shown that Black pupils start school with high achievement levels but perform less well than their peers by GCSE.   Something happens during their schooling. For Travellers — historically described as the most deprived group and at greatest risk in the education system – it’s even worse. Too often they’re out of sight and out of mind. Traveller children are more likely to be identified as having a Special Education Need and while the school attainment for most groups have improved, for Traveller pupils they have deteriorated.

For the past 20 years educational reports have highlighted the persistence of racism and racist name-calling directed at Traveller children in English schools. Showmen pupils who are on the road for most of the academic year find themselves marginalised because of their nomadic lifestyle. Trevor Phillips, when he was Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality famously described racism towards Travellers as ‘the last respectable form of racism’.

This apparent acceptability and the Travellers’ own whiteness means that issues of race are diluted and ignored. It’s true that Traveller children do play White, hiding their ethnicity in order to gain acceptance and be safe. But a worryingly common reaction to racial abuse is for them to self-exclude from school.

Missing from mainstream education

You may know that educational inequality, racism and discrimination is commonly the lot of Travellers, but did you know that many Traveller children resort to home education? The take up of home education is rising by 40% year on year.

And did you know that significant numbers of Traveller children drop out of school and may not be registered in any school provision? In 2003 it was an estimated 12,000 secondary school age Traveller pupils.  We might assume this is because they are mobile – but we would be wrong.  We know from research that mobility is no longer the cause of school drop-out, low attendance or high exclusion rates.

My research on home education and Traveller families confirmed this. The real problem is that the children cannot cope with the barriers they encounter to a fair education, as race equality has all but disappeared from the educational policy.

Home education

Home education is in a way a by-product of these injustices.  Traveller children do not feel respected or safe in school so home education looks like an attractive alternative. Elective home education is something else we know little about. We know that people can home educate but have scant idea of what it looks like or the experiences of the home educated. The lack of research and inadequate data make it difficult to establish the number of children involved, and how they are learning. But the number of home educated children is growing fast and is in excess of 80,000.

Ivatts’ research across 23 local authorities in England, identified a total of 2989 children registered for EHE and about one third were from Traveller communities. That’s a considerable number.

But although elective home education may look like a solution and offer children safety, it brings its own problems. While provision is flexible there is no set curriculum to follow. Neither are there recommendations for how long children should learn for per day, week or year.  Nor do home educators need to be qualified to teach. Officially, local authorities have a responsibility to check that all children in their area receive a suitable education but they cannot insist on entering the homes of those registered as  home educating, and parents are not legally obliged to produce evidence of what they do.

This is not a criticism of home educators – parents who take this on bear full responsibility for the education of their children. My critique is also not directed at the home education of Travellers per se – I am critical of the educational systems which allow, particularly vulnerable groups, including Travellers to miss out on their the opportunity to receive a suitable education, be it at school or at home. With the lack of guidance or professional standards, it is not easy to ensure that the already marginalised children who have dropped out of school with such ease get the education and the qualifications they need to secure a good future.

As Confucius observed, real knowledge requires knowing the extent of one’s ignorance. Until we take cognisance of certain facts that are currently hidden from view, namely that  Traveller children are still not accessing and achieving in education, and that race equality has dropped off the policy agenda, Travellers’ chances of receiving a fair and satisfactory education are miniscule, and they will remain marginalised and disadvantaged all their lives.

These are just some of the issues I explore in my new book – Travellers and Home Education: Safe spaces and equality. I consider the links between Gypsies, Travellers, home education and educational inequality. I reveal unequal educational provision and processes within educational spaces (mainstream school and EHE). Several chapters concentrate upon Gypsy and Travellers’ own voices and their reasons for choosing home education and well as their perceptions of school and EHE.

Within this book I adopt a critical approach to the existing literature on home education and Gypsy and Traveller communities to highlight the overt and covert forms of racism and discrimination that perpetuate educational disadvantage and social exclusion. Dominant, negative discourses about Gypsies and Travellers prevail within mainstream literature and I counteract these with specific research with these communities that portray the reality. I do this to extend understanding about the many ways– both explicit and hidden– by which Gypsies and Travellers are oppressed.

I also stress the importance of linking theory to research practice can highlight and challenge racism and discuss ethical and practical considerations in undertaking research with marginalised groups. Conficius claims that we need to be aware of what we do not know in order to improve knowledge and understanding. Blackmun stated that in order to get beyond racism we must first take account of race.

I agree with both statements but also propose the need for action–once we are no longer ignorant of the issues, we must then take action to work against ending oppression.

Kate D’Arcy’s book, Travellers and Home Education: Safe spaces and equality will be published in the summer by Trentham Books at IOE Press. It can be ordered from the IOE Press website and good bookshops, price £23.99  ISBN 978 1 85856 554 5

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