Background Australian show people traverse extensive coastal and inland circuits in eastern and northern Australia, bringing the delights of 'sideshow alley' to annual agricultural shows. The show people's mobility for most of the school year makes it difficult for their school-age children to attend 'regular' schools predicated on assumptions of fixed residence. This situation requires innovative approaches to educational provision if show children are not to be rendered vulnerable and at educational risk. Purpose The research reported here investigated whether and how the establishment in 2000 of a specialized institution, the Queensland School for Travelling Show Children, was meeting the specialized educational and sociocultural contexts and needs of the show children three years after establishment. Sample Participants in the study included the children, their parents and school and district educational personnel. Design and methods The research employed a qualitative design, highlighting naturalistic inquiry and attending to participants' words as reflections of their worldviews. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in August 2003 in Brisbane and Southport (i.e. the capital city of the state, and a large coastal city in south-eastern Queensland) with 35 people: 20 children in two groups; six parents; seven staff members from the school; and two leaders of state education. Interview data were analyzed by means of close textual reading of the transcripts and through identification of recurrent themes. Results The results presented are that the principal discourses of vulnerability associated with the show children derive from the anti-nomadic assumptions and attitudes that constitute sedentarism'the centuries-old process by which permanent residence is constructed as 'natural' and 'normal' and mobility is positioned as 'deficit' and 'deviant'. The study's findings demonstrate that this process has become allied with a hegemony of riskrhetoric, whereby the uncontested dominance of taken-for-granted assumptions about the vulnerability of certain groups can potentially function to capture and control the show children's 'difference'. By contrast, the Queensland School for Travelling Show Children emerges from the analysis of the interview data as a vehicle for subverting that hegemony through its construction of an alternative system of schooling in which the children's mobility is 'the norm' and their 'difference' is the basis of creating new and transformative understandings of the purposes and forms of education. Conclusions The main conclusion is that identification of children who are 'at risk' or 'vulnerable' needs to be placed in the broader context of their sociocultural positioning. If this positioning constructs them as 'deficit' or 'deviant', as with the sedentarist view of the Australian show children, it must be critiqued and subverted if its practice of schooling is hegemonic rather than transformative.