Headteachers have told MPs how families from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds were “very upset” following comedian Jimmy Carr’s controversial comments about their communities.
A clip from Carr’s Netflix special, His Dark Material, sparked a social media backlash when he joked about the horror of the Holocaust and “six million Jewish lives being lost” before making a remark about the deaths of thousands of gypsies at the hands of the Nazis as part of the punchline.
Speaking at the Commons’ education select committee on challenges faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Jo Luhman, head of Kings International College in Surrey, said that Mr Carr’s comments were “exceptionally damaging”.
She said that more inclusion of the history of Roma communities during Holocaust education was “really important” and might help prevent comments like Carr’s being met with laughter.
“It’s (the Roma experience of the Holocaust) very briefly mentioned – it is part of the syllabus but it isn’t necessarily something that’s focused on and then when you get as we’ve seen in the media those sort of jokes and people laugh, actually if that had been embedded in the curriculum, would it have had the response that it had?” she said.
She described Carr’s comments as “exceptionally damaging”.
Paula Strachan, headteacher of St Teresa’s Catholic Primary School in Darlington, said “young children are talking about it and families are very upset at the amount of laughter that circled round after the joke was said”.
“You wouldn’t be able to say it about another racial group,” she added.
She said that parents were more “hurt” by the laughter recorded following Carr’s comments than the remarks themselves, and that young children had discussed the subject at school.
Committee chair, Robert Halfon, said: “I’m from a Jewish background and I know if that had been said about (the Jewish community) there would have been uproar.”
“I found it fascinating – there was a bit of fuss but nothing in comparison to any other ethnic group, I think.”
He said Netflix should take the material down.
“To joke about the Holocaust is just unacceptable,” he said.
Baroness Whitaker, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, said that “the lack of appreciation, understanding or valuing of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma culture in schools” impacted pupils’ attainment.
She said some schools had better practice but they were in a minority.
“There’s a lot of bullying and there’s a lot of prejudice,” she said.
“Now, if you’ve got low self-esteem you tend not to perform well, you tend not to push yourself and very, very often if you’re a Gypsy or a Traveller you drop out, particularly of secondary school,” she said.
Emma Nuttall, Advice and Policy Manager at Friends, Families and Travellers, said that “a lot of our clients are reporting a level of discrimination and racism in schools which is coming not just from pupils but from teachers as well”.
She said more training on Gypsy and Traveller culture was needed for teachers.
“Freedom from racist bullying is really important, and it is all connected,” Pauline Anderson, chair of trustees of The Traveller Movement told MPs.
She said some pupils from GRT backgrounds were very academically successful but felt compelled to hide their ethnicity because of prejudice.
Lisa Smith, committee chair, Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT), said that GRT communities were seen through a “deficit” model.
“Now when we see children who are stable, they have permanent accommodation – they are still experiencing the same difficulties in terms of stereotyping, low teacher expectations, assumptions about that person’s background and family experience,” she said.