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Gypsy culture is thriving, despite huge gaps in education, says leading travellers

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 27, 2014

  • Bridie Price in her caravan at the Stow Horse Fair last year – the Cotswolds becomes the centre of gypsy life for the itinerant community once a year as they gather together in one place to buy and sell horses and other commodities

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A leading traveller says the results of analysis of the 2011 Census – which "vastly under-counted" their numbers in the UK – shows that the culture is thriving, despite concerns over the level of education.

Damian Le Bas, editor of the national publication Travellers' Times which is produced in the West Country, described the result that 60 per cent had no formal education or training as "troubling".

But he welcomed the survey for stimulating debate and said it showed the country needed more projects such as that run by a South West company which is imminently launch a digital training programme for gypsies called Travelling Voices.

The Rural Media Company in Herefordshire has recently received lottery funding of £425,000 to continue running their magazine, the media training project and the website for travellers for another three years.

Mr Le Bas said the first-ever analysis of census results, which showed 58,000 of those taking part in the 2011 count identified themselves as a gypsy or Irish traveller, revealed how badly such initiatives are needed. According to the census half of adults are unemployed and three in five have no qualifications whatsoever.

Mr Le Bas said: "The picture painted by the census is troubling and confirms what many public service providers have been saying for years.

"Gypsies and travellers have the worst health of any minority in Britain, one of the lowest life expectancies, and are far more likely to be poorly qualified to participate in the world of work.

"This illustrates the serious need for long-term projects like Travelling Voices, which aim to improve access to a wider range of careers and life paths for gypsy and traveller people."

Mr Le Bas pointed out that in 2004 the Commission for Racial Equality estimated that there were up to 200,000-300,000 gypsies and travellers spread throughout the whole of the UK, with many particularly attracted to the rural areas of the West Country.

He was not surprised so few of those identified themselves in the census, or that only 24 per cent of those gypsies or travellers who did actually lived in caravans and had a travelling existence.

"The figures also show the impact of changing times on the nomadic lifestyle," he said.

"Multiple factors – including a decrease in travellers doing agricultural work, as well as legislation like the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, aimed at stopping people from travelling mean that many ethnic Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, while retaining other elements of their culture, custom and ancestral languages, now live in housing, just like everybody else.

"The fact that as many as 58,000 people identified as gypsy or traveller in the 2011 census surprised some predictors, given a traditional reluctance to self-identify in official forms."

He said the reason for this are varied and complex but included memories of what he described as "the state abduction of traveller children in Scotland" and an awareness that census-type data was used by the Nazis to persecute travellers.

The census did not include Roma but he added: "Recent research done by Salford University also estimates that there are at least 200,000 migrant Roma people now in the UK, meaning the combined Romany and traveller population is fast becoming one of the UK's biggest minorities.

"Yet the UK government still lacks a coherent strategy for Roma integration, which all EU member states are required to have in place."

The Rural Media Company has been working with the gypsy and traveller community since the charity was founded more than 21 years ago and has produced the only magazine of its type since 1998.

Its chief executive, Nic Millington, said: "Having access to the internet is an essential component of 21st century life. The benefits that derive from being online – and the disadvantages that come from not being online – are so significant that increasing digital participation has become a critical policy issue."

Mr Le bas adds that, given the lack of traveller history in the National Curriculum, "it's unsurprising that many still question whether ... an outsider's education can ever really be for them."

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