Recent research suggests gypsy and traveller children are keen to be engaged by mainstream services as they bid to free themselves from stigma. Camille Warrington reports
Gypsies and travellers remain among those most overlooked by service providers and policy makers. Indicators include low health status and a lower likelihood of accessing services, (1) and a higher likelihood of homelessness.(2) Meanwhile, gypsy and traveller children are described as those most at risk at school.(3)
Yet, despite these facts, the views of gypsy and traveller children remain largely unknown. When Ormiston Children and Families Trust sought to develop their services to young gypsies and travellers, at their Cambridgeshire Travellers
Initiative, it quickly became apparent that outside of education, very little information existed about their needs and how best to support them.
Subsequently, with funding from Cambridgeshire Children’s Fund, Ormiston has undertaken 18 months of research into the views and experiences of young gypsies and travellers, culminating in the recent publication of Children’s Voices: Changing Futures, which documents key aspects of children’s lives through their own words and pictures.
The picture that emerged was one of enormous diversity. Yet despite this there were also many distressing and frustrating experiences, shared by a large number of children. These included exposure to high levels of racism; misunderstanding
about the nature of their identity; and lives lived without the sense of safety which most children in the UK today take for granted.
Of the themes to stem from the research, racism was the issue that concerned children most and the experience they most wanted to challenge. It was viewed as the single biggest problem facing young gypsies and travellers and many expected
to encounter it on a daily basis.
The experiences children talked about varied in severity and the perpetrators were described as both children and adults.
While name-calling was the most common experience children reported, many children reported exposure to racially motivated threats and attacks against both them and their families.
Many revealed they had developed a constant expectation and anticipation of encountering racism which often made them wish to minimise or avoid contact with non-travellers. Public areas such as local parks and shops were actively avoided by some children, indicating how racism contributes to a restriction of children’s movements and their growing isolation.
While it was beyond the scope of this study to accurately assess the full impact of these experiences on children’s well-being, the prevalence with which they were reported must give real cause for concern. As one child says: “It makes
you feel like you’re not worth anything, like you’re not ever meant to fit in, like you’re unwanted.”
What is needed is a challenge to racism towards gypsies and travellers in all its forms, not least the media, and support for children and their families to identify and report racist incidents wherever it occurs.
This should be supported by more education about the culture, heritage and issues faced by gypsy and traveller communities. This must extend beyond specialist services such as traveller education and include all those with a responsibility for delivering services to children, young people and communities.
The lack of positive representations of gypsy and traveller culture and heritage is also a source of real frustration for children. One result of this is the regular misunderstanding they face about their culture and the nature of their identity,
in particular the lack of recognition that being a Romany gypsy or Irish traveller is an ethnic identity. For those living in houses this frustration was particularly acute. A common refrain was: “People say ‘you’re not proper travellers’,
just because we live in a house. Don’t they understand…it’s in your blood, you’re born that way?”
In relation to accommodation, the most startling finding was the lack of security children experienced. Repeatedly children expressed the feeling that wherever they lived they were vulnerable to forces beyond their control that were linked to them being a gypsy or traveller.
For those living on the roadside this often meant fears of eviction or threats from passers-by. Likewise those on unauthorised private sites (land privately owned by gypsy families but without planning permission to park a caravan) lived
with the constant threat of eviction. This resulted in children expressing a feeling of repeated rejection by the settled community which influenced their attitudes to schools.
Surprisingly a sense of vulnerability and exposure to risk was also experienced by those living in houses, who revealed extensive exposure to racism from neighbours. For those on authorised sites, fears were expressed about where they would be able to live when they grew up, given the recognised shortage of sites.
What must be recognised is that the reluctance of policy-makers to impose a statutory duty on councils to develop more sites has a direct impact on children. Without safe and authorised sites and stopping places many children will continue to live with an unacceptable level of risk and fear.
Likewise, policy-makers need to recognise that none of these issues exist in isolation. While the need for additional sites and stopping places is acute, addressing the racism children face is equally important and it is these attitudes that continue to prevent more sites being built. Meanwhile, without addressing the lack of positive representation and increasing awareness, such attitudes are unlikely to change.
Although the picture that emerges from this study may at times appear bleak, the enthusiasm, creativity and sense of social responsibility which children displayed through their involvement was inspiring. At project level, Cambridgeshire Traveller’s Initiative is continuing to build on this engagement and help children bring about real changes. Children themselves are already starting to address some of the issues around representation and education, by taking their views and experiences to both local and national audiences. Alongside this work Ormiston have launched a travellers’ consultancy, with the aim of sharing learning and best practice through training, conferences and events.
The hope is that these voices that have been hidden and marginalised for too long, can now be used to influence real change.
About the Research
Using a range of participatory and artsbased research methods children were invited to express their views. The methods were chosen to ensure the inclusion of as many children as possible, with the flexibility to work with different skills and competencies and in a range of circumstances, be it on the roadside or inside a house.
The process revealed that far from being “hard to reach” these children had an enormous appetite to be consulted and speak out and a real willingness to bring about change in, and for, their communities.
CAMILLE WARRINGTON works for Ormiston Children and Families Trust, based at the Cambridgeshire Travellers Initiative. She is the author of Children’s Voices: Changing Futures and has an interest in research and participation with children and young people. Before joining Ormiston she worked with children who had been looked after.
Training and Learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
This article highlights the findings of new research into the views of young gypsies and travellers, exploring issues of identity, accommodation, racism and learning. Findings include the prevalence and severity of racism children experience
and how a shortage of safe and authorised accommodation impacts on them. The research reveals an appetite for engagement among children that challenges images of young gypsies and travellers as ”hard to reach“.
(1) G Parry et al, The Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England, University of Sheffield, 2004
(2) ODPM, Caravan Count, July 2005
(3) Ofsted, Provision and Support for Traveller Pupils, 2003
● Save the Children Fund, Denied a Future: The Right to Education of Roma/Gypsy and Traveller Children in Europe, 2001
● H Crawley, Moving Forward: The Provision of Accommodation for Travellers and Gypsies, IPPR, 2004
● Chris Derrington, Sally Kendal, Gypsy Traveller Students in Secondary Schools: Culture, Identity and Achievement, Trentham Books, 2004