The UK's 'Last Acceptable Form of Racism' Isn't Going Away
Schools need to do more to combat the bullying of kids from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families.
Children on the since-evicted Dale Farm in Essex, in 2011, which was the largest Gypsy and Traveller site in Europe. Photo: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
One of Anastasia’s earliest memories is of being made to stand in front of her class and empty her bag because one of the lambs from the nativity display had gone missing. She was four years old. It was the first time she thought she was maybe unlike other boys and girls her age.
"I didn’t understand," Anastasia, now 15 and living in Nottinghamshire, says. "Why me? I felt really different to everybody else, but in my head I knew I was the same. The teachers made me feel so different, like I was an alien."
This happened, she believes, because she is an English Romany Gypsy. And it marked the first in a catalogue of incidents that would see her ostracised and set apart from her peers.
Anastasia recalls how, when she was six, a boy had walked into the girls' toilets, where she was washing her hands, and tried to crush her behind the door, before clasping his fingers around her throat. She gets emotional when she remembers how he was egged on by other children, who were laughing and shouting at him to "kill her".
Then there was the time two boys pinned her to the playground floor and stuffed leaves in her mouth. "That’s what dirty Gypsies eat," they told her.
The final straw for her time in mainstream education, after passing through 11 schools, came in April of this year. She and her younger brother, Ben, 14, were jumped by a group of 16 boys. Anastasia suffered head to toe bruising, Ben a broken hand. She can’t bear to think about what could have happened if a Year 11 boy hadn’t pulled the attackers off them that day.
"If it weren’t for him, Ben could’ve been the next Johnny Delaney," she says, referring to the 15-year-old Traveller who was kicked to death in Cheshire in 2003. "Ben could have been dead. They were hitting both of us again and again and again, not stopping."
The bullying Anastasia endured, wherever she moved, never ceased. And it always, she says, appeared to be fuelled by harmful stereotypes and prejudice.
"It was always the same scenario, different uniform," she says. "They’d say 'dirty gypo', 'pikey', 'gypo cunt' – loads of really mean and disgusting things with the word 'gypo', and swearing at us. Saying, 'You’re a gypo, so that means your mum and dad must be brother and sister.' My only experience of gorgers [non-Romanies] in school is negative."
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Anastasia is now on an alternative education programme at college, and she is not alone in the challenges she has faced in accessing one of her fundamental human rights. The charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) says Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) young people are bullied more than any other ethnic minority in England, and research published by The Traveller Movement in September found more than two-thirds of GRT children experience discrimination in education. By comparison, 40 percent of young people in the general population have been bullied within the past year, according to the Anti-Bullying Alliance.
Ben – who has also been through 11 different schools and is now taught at home by his parents – says he frequently experienced social segregation, as well as relentless harassment. He would sometimes find himself in fights three or four times a day; each time, he had been put in a position where he felt he had to defend himself because his safety was at risk.
"If I had the option to walk away I always would," he explains, "but if you put a dog in the corner, it’s going to fight back, isn’t it?"
Most troubling for Ben was the fact that people saw him as "competition". Fighting him, he understands, was a way other boys believed they could establish themselves at the top of the pecking order. "Apparently we’re good fighters – people see that as a challenge," he says. "If they beat the Gypsy then they're the hardest in town and untouchable in their own mind. I’ve had that a lot."
The fear of such persecution means it's common practice for GRT children to try to conceal their ethnicity at school, according to FFT. Rosie, now 19 and living in London, was one of them. She spent much of her childhood hiding her Irish Traveller roots, especially after receiving death threats – including being told at 12 years old by some boys at school that they would burn her and her family out of their trailer.
"I was wishing I wasn’t who I was," says Rosie, who went through five mainstream schools, one pupil referral unit and one under-16s college. "I wished I was just like a normal person, but because of who I am I had to keep hiding. I kept real quiet, I didn’t speak to anybody, because as soon as I speak you can hear what I am."
A huge concern for the children is the apathy they say is shown by some teachers in disciplining perpetrators of bullying. Sisters Ruby-Leigh, 14, and Scarlett-Betsy, 13, who are Romany Gypsies and still at school in Hertfordshire, believe tougher consequences are vital to combat the harassment they face daily.
"Teachers might tell people off, but there are not major punishments," Ruby-Leigh says. "It should be if you call someone a 'pikey' or 'gypo', 'Right, that’s it, you’re in isolation.' If you called someone the N-word you’d be suspended, if not expelled, because racism like that isn’t acceptable. We’re not less human, just different."
Dr Geetha Marcus, a sociologist of education, also found when researching for her book, Gypsy and Traveller Girls in the UK: Silence, Agency and Power, that some teachers may be "complicit" in such bullying. "Some of the young Traveller girls I interviewed were called the most appalling racist names that, in an adult world, you just wouldn’t accept; it would be a criminal offence," she says. "But in schools, somehow this sort of behaviour is tolerated at their peer levels, but also because the other children sense that some teachers themselves are prejudiced, they know they have a licence to treat these children badly."
The Traveller Movement also found evidence of school staff overlooking instances of ethnically charged persecution. Horror stories included a 14-year-old being told by their school’s head teacher to "tone down the Traveller thing" when they reported racist bullying.
How, then, do you eliminate a problem so deep-rooted that even some teachers appear to be desensitised to it? Baroness Sal Brinton, UK Liberal Democrats president and Traveller Movement patron, believes better cultural education is critical. "Prejudice and hate is not a characteristic we are born with: it is a learned behaviour," she says.
A Department for Education spokesperson acknowledges that bullying can have a devastating effect on individuals and said it must not be tolerated. "All schools must have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying, and we have given head teachers more powers to take swift action to tackle these kinds of behaviour," they explain. "We are working with schools to continue to tackle this issue, and have produced guidance to help them ensure pupils from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are properly supported. Many pupils are also eligible for the pupil premium, which is designed to tackle inequality and provide extra support to improve education outcomes for those that need it."
For children like Anastasia, Ben, Rosie, Ruby-Leigh and Scarlett-Betsy, change cannot come quick enough. For some, it is already too late. They might have tolerated profound discrimination in their formative years, but they hope future generations will not have to suffer the same fate.
"I struggle with racism daily," says Ruby-Leigh, who is not giving up on her hopes to study at Cambridge or King’s College, and her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon or oncologist – something triggered by her father’s death from cancer when she was 10. "That doesn’t mean that my children or grandchildren should."