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Personal Perspectives | Travellers in Education and Society

Posted on June 2022

New Age Traveller with pictures from childhood
We recently heard from one of our managers, Riley Garnett, about his upbringing in the New Age Traveller community. Following on from this conversation, Riley shared his experience as a Traveller in the English and French education systems, and his research into how Travellers feel about their place in society.


Growing up within the New Age Traveller community, we experienced a lot of issues with bullying in the UK, which really put a lot of my friends off school. The kids from our community would all turn up to school together in a bus with one of the parents, and you’d immediately arrive to cries of: ‘The Traveller kids are here!’ As a Traveller you were instantly singled out for non-preferential treatment, and my mum fought hard against the open racism we experienced in the UK.

I remember my mother had a very heated conversation with our headmaster about the discrimination we were facing. He was a very nice man, and rather embarrassed this had happened on his watch, so he decided to tackle the problem head on. To do so, he held an assembly to promote inclusion and highlight the similarities we shared with one another. At the end of the assembly I popped my hand up and said, ‘Excuse me sir, but we’re not the same, are we? Because we live in caravans, and you live in houses.’ That was an extremely embarrassing moment for my mother, but sadly also demonstrated the extent to which I felt we did not belong.

After moving to France, I joined their education system and was initially put back a year because I couldn’t speak the language. But there were people that really cared about helping me get to the same stage as everyone else, and so the following year I immediately jumped ahead a class. It was all because there were a set of teachers that didn’t discriminate against us at all, and realised that even if we appeared slightly differently to the other kids on the surface, we were still just kids. Without those teachers I probably would have ended up going down a less academic path.

It’s very unusual for children from nomadic communities to go into higher education. Very few of my friends went to university, not because they lacked intelligence; on the contrary, most of them are bilingual, run their own businesses to extremely high standards, and are a lot smarter than me! I’ve no doubt that if half of them had been given the amount of belief that was instilled in me by my teachers in France, they would have been able to achieve any academic goal they set themselves.

From France, I moved back to England to go to university. I didn’t really want to do it, but I got into a very good university to study Sociology, which I had a great interest in. No one in our family had ever been to university and my mum really wanted me to go; she ended up doing most of my application for me. I had been living in France for twelve years at this point and was feeling very settled, and I still had an image in my head of the English education system I experienced as a child that I didn’t want to associate with again – it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

For my dissertation, I set out to answer: how do second-generation New Age Travellers view themselves and their place in society? The general find was that the participants still felt they were a Traveller, but that not everyone felt part of society as a whole, regardless of their current living situation. I argued that a major reason for this was the damage caused at their earliest stages of life; when we were growing up, you could walk past a shop and see a paper with an extremely derogatory definition of travelling communities and very limited perception of what we had to offer society. As individuals we always knew that wasn’t true, but it’s upsetting that this defamation in the media was allowed.

My friends rinse me for my line of work – whenever I see them after a long day at the office there’s a flurry of jokes because I am wearing a suit, and I got called posh when they found out I was going to university – but a big part of the Traveller culture is humour, there’s no real friction there. When you don’t have much material wealth in life, you find other ways of creating that happiness and joy; a lot of that is from the bonds you form with friends and family, and big facilitator in that process is humour.

If you’re living in a community of fifteen people, it’s a lot easier to build deep, meaningful bonds with every individual there. Putting your family and friends before all else, and a sense of loyalty to each other remains at the centre of our values; if I were in serious trouble and I called one of my old friends or any family member, they would be there as quickly as humanly possible – even if their starting point was the other side of the world! The challenges we’ve faced have taught us to be thick skinned, so that no matter what life throws at you, there’s an inner strength that will bring you through it.

Most recently there have been several protests in response to a new piece of legislation being passed that will make it a criminal offense to park up on land that isn’t yours. Many of my Traveller friends now have their own plots of land and are living in a settled status, but this isn’t the case for all of them, and the new law will be the end for their way of life. I find this heart breaking; looking back, each new legislation has meant radically inhibiting our lifestyle to the point of leaving the country, and there is a lot of beauty in these nomadic communities which are now near “extinction”.

Ultimately I believe all nomadic communities share at least one thing in common, and that’s the idea that you shouldn’t be told how to live your life, but have the opportunity to create your own ideas, and to carve out your own path and future.