Perceptions of Formal Education among Gypsy/Traveller Students

  • Awarded to: Dr Martin Levinson
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £ 7,305
  • Dates: 1 September 2009 - 1 September 2011
  • Sponsor(s): British Academy

Account of research carried out

The project was set up in conjunction with the Cornwall Local Authority Equality and Diversity team and with Cornwall County Council CPR Success Zone. The study explored the attitudes towards education and the aspirations of youngsters from two GRT (Gypsy Roma Traveller) communities over a two year period. It considered changing aspirations in the context of cultural expectations.

Research was carried out across two Gypsy sites in Cornwall. Utilising Gypsy children (aged 11-17) as co-researchers, the research was radical in design, entailing a synthesis of ethnographic and participatory action research approaches. The youngsters developed skills as researchers so as to be able to explore views among peers and family members, as well as recording and reflecting on their own evolving attitudes and experiences.

Dramatic differences became evident between the two Gypsy sites. In the case of one site, the children were involved throughout data collection stages, and they were willing and able to participate through the analysis/interpretation stages, and to make an active contribution to several workshops held in Cornwall between 2010 and 2011, as well as to a conference on Gypsy education hosted by the University of Exeter in May, 2012. Unfortunately, this element was not possible with the youngsters from Site B, who chose not to engage with the process beyond interviews with the research team.
On each site the youngsters were supported by research assistants. Through a combination of interviews, diary-keeping and the production of reflective power-points, attitudes were monitored towards the curriculum, secondary school, education, in general, along with expectations for the future, and aspirations concerning future jobs/careers.

The children from Site A maintained full involvement throughout the project, participating (as noted above) at a conference /workshop upon the completion of the research. This, in itself, generated further data, highlighting the challenges for GRT youngsters at secondary level.

Advances in knowledge or understanding resulting from the research

The most striking aspect of the research emerged in the stark differences between the two GRT communities involved in the study. Although the two sites are within ten miles of one another, the findings revealed completely contrasting attitudes towards education. While the youngsters on Site A were broadly positive about their experiences - (with a few reservations) - those on Site B had all withdrawn from secondary education, and without exception, negative about schooling. While, in general, they had been fairly positive about their experiences at primary level, they were uniformly negative about secondary school. The feeling was that they were hated by teachers and pupils, and bullied for being Travellers. Moreover, no knowledge or skills acquired at secondary school were deemed to be of any use or relevance for life afterwards. The feeling amongst all the youngsters from Site B was that the only real learning was to be acquired from within their own families.

The study highlighted the impact of school approaches that were built upon the development of positive relationships with GRT families. Successful strategies included the utilisation of a fieldworker/support teacher to act as a link between school and families, and also the recognition of a distinctive cultural identity. This was evidenced through e.g. Gypsy /Roma/ Traveller history exhibitions, and through tolerance of absences resulting from family traditions that expect children to travel regularly in order to attend fairs and other events.

Regarding aspirations, the youngsters on Site A showed interest in a wide range of future occupations. Those on Site B saw no alternative to future work alongside parents, and this was often expressed with resignation. Such differences need to be treated with some caution. The youngsters from Site A may have interest in a far wider range of jobs/aspirations, but they were consistent in stating that they would never leave their families just to achieve them. They had considered careers in isolation of the pathways needed to get there.

The project raised interesting issues around the ideas of e.g. Freire concerning the impact of education upon disadvantaged and/or marginalised communities, and also around issues of empowerment and of cultural identity.  A particularly important aspect to emerge was the need to consider GRT groups (and for that matter all minorities) as heterogeneous communities. There is a need to acknowledge diversity within diversity.

From a methodological perspective, the project raised important issues about the tensions between ethnographic study (favoured by the PI), and the participatory action research approach preferred by the research team. The two are by no means mutually exclusive, but negotiation and compromises are required.

Publications emerging from this research:

  • Levinson, M.P. (2013): Integration of Gypsy Roma children in schools: Trojan or Pantomime Horse. In M.Miskovic (ed.) Roma Education in Europe (pp. 100-110). New York, Routledge.


  • Levinson, M.P. “What’s the plan?” “What plan?” Changing aspirations among Gypsy youngsters, and implications for future cultural identities and group membership (Under Review)


  • Levinson, M.P. Diversity within diversity: Equal rights to heterogeneity, and the right of non-participation (In Preparation)