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In the past two decades, schools in England and Wales have adopted an increasingly inclusive approach to pupils from a variety of different backgrounds. But there is one group of children whose differences and specific needs are often overlooked - Gypsy traveller children.

Gypsies are thought to have arrived on English soil about 400 years ago. Researchers believe they left the Indus valley in northern India in the ninth century and travelled through Persia, reaching Eastern Europe about 1 000 years ago.
Their language contains Sanskrit, along with parts of Greek, Romanian and other languages.

They have historically moved around the United Kingdom, taking up seasonal work such as fruit- and flower-picking. Travellers say one of the main reasons for conflict between their community and the sedentary one is that British society does not recognise the right to a nomadic way of life.

Many non-Gypsies know little more about Gypsy culture than quaintly painted wagons and women who wear large gold-hooped earrings - although many Gypsies have neither. Although there are an estimated 42 000 Gypsy traveller children in England, they have been very much a poor relation in terms of receiving specialist support in schools and in terms of the recognition of their culture within the curriculum.

As long ago as 1967, UK government reports acknowledged the specific needs of Gypsy traveller children, stating that: ‘The children’s educational needs are ... extreme and largely unmet ... They will require special attention and carefully planned action.”

Other reports in 1996 and 1999 raised concerns about the level of attainment of Gypsy traveller pupils, particularly at secondary school level, where attendance rates are lower than at primary school. ‘In all schools where information was available, over 50% of the Gypsy traveller population were on the special educational needs register, and in one school it was 80%. In half the schools, no Gypsy traveller child has yet sat for GCSE [secondary school examinations taken at age 16],” says a 1999 report.

It adds: ‘Gypsy traveller pupils are the group most at risk in the education system. Although some make a reasonably promising start in primary school, by the time they reach secondary level their generally low attainment is a matter of serious concern.”

Dean Vine (16), a Gypsy traveller who left Thamesview secondary school in Gravesend, Kent, south- east of London and is now awaiting the results of the nine GCSEs he took, believes passionately in the need to raise educational standards among Gypsy pupils and to dispel some of the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that some pupils and teachers harbour.

‘People think Gypsies are dirty and smelly, that they beg and they thieve and walk around wearing lots of gold,’’ he says. ‘I’m a settled Gypsy and live in a house with my family, although we do have a caravan in the back garden and go travelling in it in the holidays.

‘When people say things like that about Gypsies, I say to them that they should come around to my house to have a look at it, and then they’d see that it is probably cleaner than lots of other people’s houses.’‘

He says Gypsies should act as ambassadors to the rest of the community, as building bridges between different cultures is an effective way to dispel stereotypes. ‘It’s true that some Gypsy girls are brought up to cook and clean the house and get married, and some boys are brought up to go round collecting scrap metal to bring money into the home, but I was brought up to believe that I could do anything I want to do,’’ he says.

‘Neither my dad nor my uncles can read or write and all my family are very proud of what I’ve achieved at school. I’m doing a qualification in hospitality supervision at college now and my ambition is to go right to the top in my chosen career and to earn lots of money.’‘

Don Rossiter, a language support teacher with Kent’s ethnic minority advisory service, believes far more needs to be done to incorporate Gypsy history and culture into the national curriculum. ‘Some of [the children] adopt a cloak-and-dagger approach to the fact that they are Gypsies. They are proud of their culture, but if they walk down the road someone might shout ‘Dirty gyppo’ to them. These children are seen but not heard. The Gypsy language is not valued and there aren’t the same kind of learning resources for Gypsy children as there are for children who come to school from other parts of the world and speak other languages.”

But while there is still a lot do before Gypsy children have their needs properly catered for in schools, and their culture and history more fully understood by other pupils, Vine remains optimistic: ‘As a Gypsy, I would love to be part of the government so that I could educate government ministers about what a Gypsy is. If I could educate the government, then they could make sure everyone else was educated on the subject, too.’’ -

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