London – Ben Bennett remembers sitting in the back of his family’s car at the age of four, on his way home from primary school, feeling utterly bewildered.
It would be the last day that he would wear his school uniform, and he would never again share the same classroom with his friends. Ben was expelled from his school in Doncaster a decade ago, after trying to defend himself from a physical attack that his family believes was racially charged.
The incident sent Ben, who is an English Romany Gypsy, down a path of educational instability and discontent. In the ensuing years, he passed through 11 different schools, facing harassment and a second expulsion at the age of 12. Eventually, Ben’s parents decided to home-school him after a group of boys attacked him earlier this year, leaving him with a broken hand.
“I’d always get racial backlash for being who I am and I’d always get punished for being myself,” Ben, who lives in Nottinghamshire, told Al Jazeera. “People would call me a dirty, filthy gyppo and say, ‘My mummy and daddy said I can’t play with you because you’re a pikey and you’ll rob my bike.’ Teachers would also say they don’t feel comfortable teaching me.”
His 15-year-old sister, Anastasia, was also expelled twice – at the ages of four and six – and endured persistent racist bullying.
“I was left wondering, at just four years old, what was wrong with me,” she said, noting that her first expulsion was triggered by an incorrect claim that she had stolen a toy from school. “It laid the foundations of an unhappy few years. I felt very low in myself. It was really painful.”
Anastasia also attended 11 different schools, but is now doing well in an alternative education programme at college.
The siblings’ experiences are by no means isolated cases. More than two-thirds of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children experience discrimination in some aspect of their education, and they are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school in the UK than children of any other ethnicity.
In its Race Disparity Audit, published in October, the UK government highlighted the scale of the problem, noting that Gypsy or Roma schoolchildren are more than four times as likely – and Irish Traveller pupils more than three times as likely – as their white British peers to receive suspensions. In addition, Gypsy or Roma children are more than three times as likely as white British children to be expelled, and Irish Traveller children nearly five times as likely.
The UK government has announced an external review to improve the way in which schools execute suspensions and expulsions, with a spokesperson noting that “any decision to exclude should be lawful, reasonable and fair” and citing the need to focus on “the experiences of those groups who are disproportionately likely to be excluded”.
Some observers contend that the high rate of suspensions and expulsions among GRT pupils is not just a result of challenging behaviour by the affected students, but outright discrimination.
Rosie Toohey, a 19-year-old Irish Traveller living in London, remembers spending a lot of time in isolation and completing five-day suspensions on numerous occasions.
“The exclusions are more down to racism and bullying than a child wanting to leave school,” said Toohey, who is now studying at university and working as a volunteer with GRT children facing the possibility of expulsion. “It’s more down to them not being able to go to school because of who they are.”
Sarah Mann, co-director of the charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT), told Al Jazeera that the reasons behind the “shocking and unacceptable” expulsion and suspension rates are complex.
“Every child has the right to an education, but in many cases, the environment in the classroom can mean that GRT children are unsafe and unprotected from racist bullying,” Mann said.
“Many schools are failing to address this bullying, leaving GRT children with an appalling choice to make: either defend themselves or stop going to school. But when they do stick up for themselves, they are labelled as the problem and get the blame.”
Geetha Marcus, an educational sociologist at the University of Glasgow and author of the book Gypsy and Traveller Girls in the UK: Silence, Agency and Power, said there was also evidence of GRT parents removing their children from school because they feared for their safety.
“A strong theme that came through is that the Traveller girls did not feel safe,” Marcus told Al Jazeera. “Why would you go to a space over and over again where you knew you were going to be persecuted, made to feel unworthy? And their parents want to protect their children; they don’t want them to be beaten up, called nasty names, treated badly by teachers in the classroom. It is a legitimate parental concern. What parent wouldn’t want to prevent that?”
The UK’s education department has said it is “working with schools to continue to tackle bullying” and has “produced guidance to help them ensure pupils from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are properly supported”.
Nevertheless, Ben and Anastasia’s mother, Nathalie, says more is needed to ensure other GRT parents will not be forced to choose between a traditional education and their children’s safety.
“I’m happy Ben is in a safe environment at home now, but what is absolutely heartbreaking and devastating is that he’s lost the social aspect of being at school when he has every right to that,” she told Al Jazeera. “But if he was at school, nobody could guarantee his safety. I’ve lost complete faith in the school system. They say ‘every child matters’, but I think it should be rephrased to ‘every child matters unless they’re from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background.’ That would be more honest.”