School as the starting point
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 the Greek, Romanian and other. 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 UK , 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.
Dean Vine, 16, a Gypsy traveller who left Thamesview secondary school in Gravesend, Kent, south east of London, last term and is now awaiting the results of the nine GCSEs he took, believes passionately in the need to raise educational standards amongst Gypsy pupils and to dispel some of the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes which 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.
Dean is involved with a BBC Voices project that aims to get untold stories on to the airwaves. Groups of young travellers have also been working in Kent schools to produce material for the Voices website. Settled Romany Gypsies are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the UK, but there is little recognition of Romany culture in the school curriculum. It is hoped that teachers will be able to incorporate material from the website about Gypsy culture and history in the classes.
Simon Evans has produced the programme for the BBC and is well known in the Kent traveller community as a Gypsy historian and photographer. His work in schools includes looking at historical photos relating to Gypsy traveller life in Kent and using the Internet to research Roma/ Romany culture around the world. “A lot of people can’t understand the different outlook which the Gypsy population have,” he says. He adds that the project has gone down very well in the schools, where he has been working with teachers and pupils. “A lot of teachers are ignorant about the culture of Gypsy travellers, and the ethnicity of this group is frequently not recognised. One teacher said she had noticed a rise in self-esteem amongst Gypsy traveller pupils as a result of having their culture recognised in an academic environment.”
On the Voices website, Gypsy children have an opportunity to talk about their experiences of prejudice, their attitudes to school and their feelings about their culture. “I’m fed up with the attitude of today’s society towards Romany people,” writes one visitor to the website. “They are treated the way black and Asian people were 50 years ago. They are herded into small, well-hidden caravan sites that are always built near busy main roads, sewage plants or electric pylons... We are a long way from a truly tolerant society.” Another writes: “I’m a Gypsy traveller and I hate the wannabes who try to be like me at school. They try talking like I do and I feel like hitting them.” 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. 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, Dean remains optimistic. “Gypsy history and culture should be taught in the national curriculum,” he says. “As a Gypsy, I would love to be part of the government so that I could educate 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.”