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Geetha Marcus on Socioeconomic Status in Education

Author of Gypsy and Traveller Girls

According to UNICEF, Britain was bottom of the list of 21 countries on measures of happiness, health, education and poverty (UNICEF, 2007, 2013, 2016).  The UK has one of the most socially segregated school systems in the developed world, with academic selection – where children are admitted to a school on the basis of ability – and parental choice at its core. The OECD believes this has a negative impact on social equality and a young person’s ability to earn a good income in the future. Their evidence suggests that segregated schools present children with at least two different perspectives of the world and affect their life chances.

There is a strong link between a pupil’s socioeconomic status and how well they do in school. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have a higher chance of failing. Children and young people living in the most deprived communities do significantly worse at all levels of the education system than those from more affluent backgrounds. This is often referred to as the ‘attainment gap’.

With over 4 million children now living in poverty, this scourge remains an ongoing and worsening issue despite laudable efforts, policies and legislation. European Commission figures suggest this is higher than in many other countries in Europe and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts that more than one-third of children in the UK will be living in poverty by 2021/22.

But there are other recurring issues that surround children and childhood in our schools and communities, which makes me question if we are a genuinely child-friendly nation? Issues linked to absence, exclusions, bullying, mental health, physical health, sexual health, food and nutrition have not receded, and have arguably been exacerbated by ongoing intergenerational poverty. Budget cuts and a poverty of hope in some sections of our society have played their active part. There is an increase in the number of young carers aged 5 to 17 years, or children looked after by the State, and many at risk of harm. There are those children missing from education, those unable to attend school due to ill health, and of course those who have complex needs because of dyslexia, autism and other learning difficulties.

The rhetoric around young people’s attainment and achievement tends to focus on class related poverty, often ignoring the complex intersection of inequalities that stem from gender, race, religion, sexuality, disability and, of course, age. Davis (2016: 2) argues that ‘there is a need for greater recognition and action on how intersectional discrimination and inequalities impact on wellbeing and prevent children from participating and learning effectively’. Other studies confirm this argument (Hick et al., 2011; Konstantoni et al., 2014; OECD, 2014; Hopkins et al., 2015). Therefore, closing the attainment gap is by implication complex because there is not one ‘gap’, nor one ‘solution’ for how gaps can be closed’ (Florian, 2016:3).

Using a black feminist postcolonial approach, my work explores the lives and multiple identities of young people who have been marginalised. Concerns around social justice for children and young people, their welfare, wellbeing and human rights form core themes of my professional practice. My research with Gypsy and Traveller children sits firmly within these concerns as they are some of the most marginalised and least achieving in the UK. Their families and communities are relentlessly demonised by the media and in public consciousness, yet little is known about these closed communities. I conducted in-depth interviews with young Traveller women about their racialised and gendered experiences within public spaces of education and private spaces of home, framing ‘the child’ as a distinct group, with their different mix/intersection of social locations.

This book presents the untold stories of Gypsy and Traveller girls living in Scotland. Drawing on accounts of the girls’ lives and offering space for their voices to be heard, I address contemporary and traditional stereotypes and racialised misconceptions of Gypsies and Travellers. My work explores how the stubborn persistence of these negative views appears to contribute to policies and practices of neglect, inertia or intervention that often aim to ‘civilise’ and further assimilate these communities into the mainstream settled population. It is against this backdrop that the book exposes the girls’ racialised and gendered experiences, which impact on their rights and struggles as young people to realise their potential and future prospects. Their narratives reveal the strengths of a distinct community, and the complexity of their silence and agency within the patriarchal structures that pervade both home and school. This study also invites the reader to reflect on how the experiences of Gypsy and Traveller girls compares with young women from other social backgrounds, and questions if there is more that binds us than divides us as women in the modern world.

Teachers, students, scholars and policy makers across a range of disciplines, including sociology, education, gender studies and social policy, will find this research useful as a tool to help navigate discussions about the intersections of gender, race and age in the lives of women and girls at the margins, and to re-appraise how we can shape policy and culture to engage, enable and empower all young people to flourish.

Geetha Marcus is Lecturer of Education at the University of Glasgow, UK. As a sociologist, feminist and teacher activist, her research and teaching interests focus on social inequalities within public education systems, and the training of pre-service teachers to adopt culturally relevant and rights-based pedagogy.