The road to self-help

Sharon Abbott and her daughter Eloise are travellers. Harvey McGavin talked to them about what life on the road can teach. For virtually every one of her 16 years, Eloise Abbott has lived on the road. Travelling from place to place with her mother Sharon in a Leyland Boxer truck, they've gone where the work was or where their fancy took them.

Sharon's nomadic lifestyle goes back to her childhood - and beyond. Twin daughters of an American serviceman and his English wife, Sharon and her sister were shunted from place to place, up and down the country and back and forth across the Atlantic.

It's also in her blood. Her father is half Tlinglit Indian, a native tribe of Alaska. Indian books and artefacts line the bookcase in the front room of their council house in the Forest of Dean. Sharon discovered her heritage four years ago, when she was tracked down by members of the tribe, who had won land rights. "I always knew there was something there, but I didn't know what it was," she says.

Sharon was educated in American schools ("We had to swear allegiance to the Stars and Stripes"), eventually rebelling against her upbringing by joining a peace camp outside the army base in Yorkshire where her parents were stationed.

After art college, she bought and renovated several antique fairground rides, which she now takes to festivals, fetes and shows during the summer months.

School was an occasional feature of Eloise's childhood, as formal education took a back seat to the more gritty necessities of life on the road. Evenings were spent gathering firewood instead of doing homework and watching television. "She had read The Lord of the Rings by the age of six," says Sharon. "When she first went to school the teacher was really impressed that she could read so beautifully."

Eloise can't recall exactly how many schools she has been to - perhaps six or seven. At one they said she was bringing in germs and making the other children ill. At another, where she was given a desk apart from the rest of the class, she only stayed two days. "The kids were no problem but the teachers didn't want to take me at first, they were really snobby," she says.

"I used to like maths until one school where the teacher threatened to expel me because I wore a nose ring. There were a few that picked on me, but then you get kids who are really interested in what your life's like."

After attending several primary schools in Gloucestershire and Somerset she moved to a comprehensive in the Test valley. It was a shock. "I was used to little village primary schools and then suddenly I was at a school with 1,200 kids."

The site where they were living was the subject of a judicial review. Ironically, Eloise's best friend at school was the daughter of the judge. It made no difference. Legal proceedings rumbled on for two years before the eviction notice was served. She hasn't been to school since.

"Over the years Eloise has probably had an average of about 3 months a year in school," her mother says. "We always wanted to put her in school, but it was difficult when we didn't know how long we were going to be in one place. She only got on as well as she did at school because she's bold. She had to learn that people were going to be rude to her and call her names."

Councils don't do enough for travellers, says Sharon. "There was a really good system in Oxfordshire - they had their own traveller's school and it works really well. They should have one everywhere."

From the age of 14 Eloise has been taught by the Traveller's School Bus, which noves around the West Country. It's a mobile classroom run on a voluntary basis by a qualified teacher, Fiona Earle, who is encouraging her to take English GCSE next year. But Eloise already knows what she wants to do.

"I'd like to be a circus performer. I can juggle, do trapeze, tightrope, walk on stilts and ride a unicycle. I'd like to get an apprenticeship with Zippo's circus.

"I don't think I have missed out on anything. A lot of kids who go to school don't enjoy what they learn and they leave as soon as they are 16. I am maybe a little bit more sussed than other kids. When you go travelling you get to know how to look after yourself," she says.

Sharon believes that self-sufficiency will serve her daughter better than paper qualifications. "The best thing I can do for her is to teach her to drive. She already knows the trade, how to run the rides. I've got this business and she can always come back and work for me."

For the last nine months Sharon and Eloise have lived in Broadwell, a village on the edges of the Forest of Dean. They are not settling down - it's a base and a place to see through the winter and nurse Sharon's new baby daughter Rhiannon. Come springtime they will unpack the rides and take to the road again.

Sharon's nine-year-old son Rohan, who lives a few miles away with his father Bernard, has just started school, swapping the open air of his infancy for the closed environment of the classroom.

"When he went for the first time he was really frightened. But now he loves it. He's so quick and clever - one of the teachers said to us that he's university material. Some of them say, 'Is there something wrong, he never talks about his life'. But he doesn't want to be like a freak, he wants to blend in with the other kids."

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