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Drawing outsiders into the education system: Privileged and marginalised knowledge in Gypsy communities . Dr Martin Levinson University of Exeter Seminar, February, 2014. Constructing the ‘Other’. The ‘acceptable’ Other. The ‘sexualised and exoticized ’ Other .

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Drawing outsiders into the education system: Privileged and marginalised knowledge in Gypsy communities

Dr Martin Levinson

University of Exeter

Seminar, February, 2014

cultural differences
Cultural Differences
  • Nuclear family
  • Marginalization of the elderly
  • Extended childhood
  • Late marriage – (though differences according to ethnicity and class)
  • Extended family
  • Older group members retain status and authority
  • Childhood relatively brief
  • Early marriage – usually by late teens – (and sometimes mid-teens)


  • Weak sense of community
  • Main language – English
  • Literacy expected
  • Education viewed favourably
  • Occupational choice shaped by educational and economic factors
  • Strong sense of community
  • English, some Romani
  • Literacy for a few
  • Education viewed with suspicion
  • Occupations tied in with identity and group membership


  • Belief in job mobility, but sedentarism
  • Annual cycle around work and holidays
  • Increasingly fluid and variable family structures, allowing for interchanging roles
  • Belief in job continuity, but nomadism
  • Annual cycle around weddings, funerals and fairs
  • Rigid social organization with fixed gender roles
identity markers
Identity Markers
  • Traditional:-
  • Nomadism
  • Language
  • Evolving:-
  • Expressions of cultural identity through ‘performance’ (Gay y Blasco, 1999; Levinson, 2005)
gypsy children in the education system
Gypsy children in the education system
  • 1960s -70s – more sustained attempt to bring Travelling community into the system
  • “It must be stated that observations made of travellers regularly in school, who could be expected to have made strides in the direction of literacy, suggested that they were suffering from what can figuratively be described as an acute communal dyslexia. This is worrying not least because literacy is the one area where it can confidently be expected that the children have high motivation to learn . .” (Reiss, 1975:32).
deficit v differences of orientation
Deficit v. Differences of orientation
  • “It might also be that the traveller child has a more specific syndrome of learning difficulties with reading and writing: he may be occupationally long-sighted – with an eye for spotting possible scrap sources and unmetalled roads at a long distance. He may have learnt from parents various strategies for covering up illiteracy or even have developed an emotional blockage to learning the basic skills” (Ibid:32).
psychometric comparisons
Psychometric comparisons
  • Liegeois (1987) – “Village test” – assessed personality structure as well as knowledge
  • MacCallum (1975) – language use = “backwardness and retardation”
  • Childs (1976) - verbal contact = “dysfunctional” social behaviour
  • Davies (1976) – Gypsy culture too “egocentric” for proper engagement with education
barriers to literacy
Barriers to Literacy
  • Attitudes among older generation:
  • “ a skill for servants and secretaries …” (Liegeois, 1987:60)
  • “When you learn to read and write, you lose your memory . .” (Kiddle, 1999:65)
  • Conflicts between home and school learning. See:
  • Levinson, M.P. (2008): Not Just Content but Style: Gypsy Children Traversing Boundaries, Research in Comparative and International Education, 3(3),Special Issue: Early Childhood Education and Care, ed. Cleghorn, A. & Prochner, L., pp. 235-49.
literacy as negative equity
Literacy as ‘negative equity’
  • You can’t get educated and just go back to the old ways. Like getting married. I’d have to meet a very special man now, who’d understand. (Sally,20s)
  • Because I have brothers and sisters who are not literate, they are more able than I am; they have a better quality of life; they are more together; have more security; more direction. Education has divorced me from my community. (Saki, 30s)
risk of being perceived as literate
Risk of being perceived as literate
  • With some people, I try to pretend that I’m doing OK (at school), but no more. I make out, like, that I’m just staying on till I’ve finished exams, not because I like it, or I’ve got mates, or anything. Once, when I was at my Auntie Anna’s, and reading out some story from the newspaper, and all my cousins were there, like Dolly and Crystal-Louise, I deliberately got some words wrong, so they didn’t think I was all, you know . . . well, a bit like some of the gadje kids. (Eve,15)
illiteracy as cultural capital
Illiteracy as cultural capital
  • More than “an expression of cultural autonomy” . . “protection against assimilation” (Liegeois, 1998; Taylor, 1997)
  • Distinct identity asserted through “non-performance”.
  • See: Levinson, M.P. (2007): Literacy in Gypsy Communities: Cultural Capital manifested as negative assets, American Educational Research Journal, 44:1, pp.1-35
alternative social frameworks
Alternative social frameworks
  • “ We just get by as a group. In my own family they rely on each other. Take my niece – she’s eight years of age. Her father and mother get letters and say, “Mary, read that.” And Mary reads it. If they need stuff typed up, someone does it . . There’s always somebody to do your reading and writing. But when it comes to personal letters, it’s not so easy.” (Sally, 20s)
gypsy knowledge alternative literacies
Gypsy Knowledge: Alternative literacies
  • Traditional Gypsy skills include:
  • understanding of local economies and their populations; manual dexterity; mechanical ingenuity; highly developed memory; salesmanship and bargaining skills; home and care skills; knowledge of herbs; skills with horses and other animals; expertise about metals.

(Lee & Warren, 1991; Okely, 1983; Smith, 1987)

alternative literacies
Alternative literacies
  • “How do they get around when they can’t read maps?” (Diney)
what does the state want to achieve through school inclusion
What does the state want to achieve through school inclusion?

The ultimate aim is to get Traveller children socially included and educated. Our prime aim is attendance and inclusion. We want these children to be part of mainstream society. We don’t want them to lose their culture, which is highly valued in schools. It’s inclusion we’re after.

Head of Traveller Education, DFE

and what do gypsy communities want
And what do Gypsy communities want?
  • “You look around here - you see many who could not read or write if their lives depended on it. Fred, Henry . . and they’re all doing very well, thank you very much.” (Jack, 30s)
  • Though this changing:
  • See Levinson, M.P. (2014 [In Press]: “What’s the plan?” “What plan?” Changing aspirations among Gypsy youngsters, British Journal of Sociology of Education
the gypsy way
The Gypsy Way
  • Not just about skills. Mystique of doing things in different ways

“I can sell ‘tatoes for a living, I can sell and do fortunes. Them other people can’t do that. We do trees, tarmac, PVC. That’s real learning, what you can use. At school all they learn is to write down you would do stuff if you were out there; what use is that?” (Julie, 19)

knowledge and identity
Knowledge and identity
  • Ian Hancock: “Just because I work in a university, it doesn’t make me anything less of a Gypsy.”
  • Eli Frankham: “ ‘ow do you cook an ‘edge’og, then?”
  • Ian Hancock: “There are two ways, actually.”
some key themes
Some key themes
  • Patterns across marginal groups
  • Relationships and boundaries between mainstream groups
  • Discourse around assimilation and acculturation
  • Identity theories – multiple, flexible and hybrid identities