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Clown's life is no laughing matter

Gareth Ellis does not clown around in lessons; he leaves that to the evenings when he parades around the big top in Zippos circus as his alter ego, Bippo.

For the past five years the 16-year-old has been a pupil at Woodhey high, Ramsbottom, Bury. But between March and November he joins his family in their caravan and heads off on tour.

Kath Ellis, Gareth's mother, said: "We tried putting Gareth in high schools when he travelled, but they did not value him because he would only be there for a week. They would put him in the naughty set."

Instead Gareth has relied on distance learning packs sent from Woodhey and Traveller Education Service tutors who visited the circus when it was in their areas.

And his hard work has paid off. Last week he was awarded a certificate by Richmond council for sitting six GCSEs, despite his peripatetic lifestyle.

Mrs Ellis said: "Sometimes he was being taught in full clown make-up. He had to grab every minute he could to do his school work."

Gareth sat his English literature GCSE at Alperton high school, Wembley, his science and maths at Hendon Central, English language and history at Cleve Park, Sidcup, Kent and maths, history and drama at Grey Court school, Richmond. He said: "When I sat my exam in Barnes it was a bit tight. I finished at 3.30pm and had to perform at 4pm ."

Linda Roberts, who runs the horse show at Zippos with her husband Tom, had to remove her 15-year-old son from the circus. He now lives with relatives and attends a London school. She said: "We would have liked to keep our son in the circus but it was impossible. Not all schools are prepared to be winter schools. They have to be cajoled to provide the distance learning.

They think circus children will be disruptive. There is a stigma attached to them."

Mr and Mrs Roberts have a six-year-old daughter, Kristina, who goes to different schools each week and spends the winter at Polebrook primary, in Oundle, Peterborough: "Polebrook have been very good. But you cannot put a child in a different secondary school every week. Gareth has done extremely well but distance learning does not suit every child. You have to be disciplined to do it.

"It is difficult for my daughter. There are no other circus children for her to go to school with and she has to make new friends every week. People tell us to settle down, but if you have been in the circus all your life it is difficult."

A 2002 survey by the Circus Parents Association which polled 22 UK circuses found there were 37 circus children in primary schools, 18 in secondary schools and three in pre-school. Three children had left the circus to live with relatives.


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