The battle for Dale Farm has been a much debated issue, yet if there is one thing that we can all agree on, it will be that it has been the traveller women who have been fighting on the frontline. The recent media coverage has shown that the female residents of Dale Farm do have a voice and an ability to use it well, yet the Gypsy and Traveller communities are still relying on activists to fight their battles, but why?
There is a long history of educational disengagement within the Gypsy and Traveller communities, indeed education has been viewed as somewhat incompatible with our lifestyle. Traditionally we are considered as nomadic groups, however changes in government policy have restricted our traditional way of life and it can be said, particularly for my own generation, that we now tend to lead a far more sedentary life. While it was typical of my parent's generation to move frequently and thus attend numerous different schools, Gypsy and Traveller children today can expect to grow up and attend school in just one or two locations.
It would be misleading to deny that the Gypsy and Traveller culture inhibits educational engagement. While many of us acknowledge the value of reading and writing, the curriculum in general is believed to be somewhat irrelevant to our lifestyles. Gypsy and Traveller girl's are encouraged to marry young and take responsibility for the household , while there is an expectation that boys will follow their fathers into a trade, thus it is not unusual for Gypsy and Traveller children to have left education by the time they are 14 or younger.
It would be simplistic to suggest that cultural barriers alone have been the cause of such widespread disengagement. I would argue, based on my own experience, that the education system has been founded upon middle class values and expectations – that is, a child's worth is measured on academic achievement alone. Gypsy and Traveller children are likely to start school with very little knowledge of mainstream culture. They are thrust into a curriculum that is foreign to them and they are expected to either assimilate to mainstream values or fail. There remains an idea that education is a meritocracy but when Gypsy's and Traveller's are disadvantaged from the very beginning, can this really be said to be true?
On top of this, Gypsy and Traveller children are likely to face great hostility from their non-Gypsy (or Gauja) peers. I was faced with bullying on an almost daily basis throughout my education and this discouraged me from attending school. While I do still resent those who chose to harass me, I also understand that the hostility of my peer's was ultimately shaped by the ingrained views of their parents. Yet there is suspicion on both sides - while Gauja children are taught that Gypsys and Travellers are 'thieving dirty bastards', our own parents are teaching us that all Gauja's hate us, and I know this not to be true.
Nevertheless, while the suspicion of Gypsys and Travellers is mostly unsubstantiated, the threat to the Gypsy and Traveller population remains real. It was just seventy years ago when 500,000 Roma, including members of my own family, were exterminated by the Nazi's. In recent years there has been a significant rise in neo-Nazism across Europe, indeed there has been countless reports in the media of neo-Nazi attacks on Roma people. It appears that we have grounds to be suspicious, thus it is hardly surprising that we maintain a mostly segregated life.
Segregation is an entirely natural process and everyday people segregate themselves based on their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and social class etc. Yet, segregation unavoidably creates tensions between communities. One only has to look at cities, such as Bradford and London, to see that segregation is damaging social cohesion and breeding intolerance. Still, segregation is very much a part of British society and in fact, the government itself is guilty of funding segregated schooling based on religion. In a supposedly secular country what place do faith schools have in our education system? If our education system can respond to religious needs then surely it can also respond to the needs of Gypsy's and Traveller's? Is there a case for segregated Gypsy and Traveller schools?
I was expelled from a mainstream high school in my final year of compulsory education. I was transferred to a school which catered mainly for Autistic children but also had an intake of students, like myself, who had been unable to integrate into mainstream schooling. The ethos of this school was very much about creating an independent curriculum for each student, one which took into account my culture, my expectations and my values. I maintain that I would not have continued into higher education had it not been for this type of schooling, and thus I argue that while Gypsy and Traveller children remain in the current unresponsive mainstream education system, educational engagement will not increase.
We are living in an age of great financial and technological change and the Gypsy and Traveller communities need to adapt to survive. We can no longer rely on our traditional employment patterns, more and more of our men are failing to find work. The eviction of Dale Farm has highlighted that there is still a battle for equality to be won. Engagement with education can lead Gypsys and Travellers to alternative careers. Perhaps in years to come we will be lawyers, teachers, journalists, government advisers, and politicians, but most importantly, perhaps we will have our own spokespeople and our own voice.