Access, agency, assimilation: exploring literacy among adult Gypsies and travellers in three authorities in Southern England

McCaffery, Juliet D (2012) Access, agency, assimilation: exploring literacy among adult Gypsies and travellers in three authorities in Southern England. Doctoral thesis , University of Sussex.

PDF - Published Version
Download (1MB) | Preview


This thesis explored Gypsies’ and Travellers’ perceptions of the value and importance of
literacy to themselves and their communities. It examined the political and social factors
that affected the extent and availability of literacy provision for adult Gypsies and
Travellers and their level of participation. It focused on how Gypsies’ and Travellers’ levels
of literacy impacted on their ability to engage effectively with authority. The research
focused on two rural and one urban authority in the South of England but also drew on
information from neighbouring authorities and Ireland.

A qualitative constructivist epistemology was adopted in which ethnography was the main
research tool. The data were collected through in-depth interviews and informal
conversations with Gypsies and Travellers, public officials and local politicians, a survey of
adult education providers, observation of sundry national and local meetings, participant
observation and analysis of the discourse and dialogue of two official forums and data
from a variety of sources including television programmes and press reports.

The research found that Gypsies and Travellers attached little value to textual literacy, did
not view literacy as important to economic success and did not perceive the ability to read
and write as contributing to their status or self esteem. Other skills were valued more
highly. These attitudes challenge dominant education and development discourses which
perceive textual literacy as essential to economic achievement, self esteem and status.

The research also highlighted a vacuum in literacy and education policy and provision for
adult Gypsies and Travellers who were largely invisible in post-school policy documents,
even in those purporting to address equality issues. There was no targeted provision in
the three authorities, only a few short term projects elsewhere and little interest among
providers. Although mainstream provision was available to Gypsy and Travellers as to all
adults, those who wished to learn preferred to teach themselves or be taught by friends
and family.

The research drew on current theories of discourse, power and control. Primary and
secondary Discourses impacted on two areas, the absence of educational opportunities
for adult Gypsies and Travellers and on their communicative practices and agency. The
lack of targeted literacy provision for Gypsies and Travellers was not accidental but a
result of deep seated negative attitudes constructed and maintained through the
secondary Discourses of dominant groups and bureaucratic institutions.

Interviews and observations revealed that language and discourse was more important
to Gypsies and Travellers than the ability to read and write, particularly when
communicating privately or publicly with authorities. In these contexts, their own primary
discourses, learned through home and community practices, were insufficient. The
Gypsies and Travellers who were formally educated and were bi-discoursal were able to
operate within secondary institutional Discourses. Though others had life experiences
which gave them some understanding of the Discourses of power and bureaucracy, they
were not able to communicate or challenge as effectively.

The research critiques current models of literacy provision for adults. Though aspects of
the models can address specific literacy requirements in specific situations, none of the
models including New Literacy Studies and critical literacies, sufficiently address the need
to become bi-discoursal or develop the agency to affect decisions controlling their lives.
Gypsies and Travellers fear formal education will lead to loss of identity, acculturation
and assimilation, but without it they may lose what they seek to preserve.

Different communities have different aspirations and face different tensions in different
circumstances and each will make decisions accordingly. This research on Gypsies’ and
Travellers’ perceptions and uses of literacy provides new insights into complex tensions
and contradictions at both an empirical and theoretical level.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Education
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC0065 Social aspects of education > LC0149 Literacy. Illiteracy
L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC1390 Education of special classes of persons > LC3503 Romanies. Gypsies
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 03 Apr 2012 14:42
Last Modified: 25 Aug 2015 13:30

View download statistics for this item

📧 Request an update