A move with the times

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Travellers are increasingly realising the vlaue of a formal education in a changing world. And one Nottinghamshire primary is making every effort to accommodate them. David Newham reports.

Many headteachers would be tearing their hair out at this moment. It's Monday morning at Mount C of E primary school in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and a 10-year-old girl has just turned up unannounced.

Her mum hasn't phoned or made an appointment - they have just turned up and walked into a classroom. The first the school secretary knows about the new arrival is when the mother knocks on the office door to check that her daughter will be having dinner.

But instead of getting annoyed at this flagrant disregard for procedure, headteacher David Moulds is rather gratified. For the girl belongs to one of the hundreds of traveller families who traditionally come and go throughout the year, setting up a temporary home at this ancient crossroads of the Fosse Way and the Great North Road.

She attended Mount a year ago, before moving on to a school in Sheffield. Now her family is back at the muddy site down Tolney Lane, between the railway line and the River Trent, and they want her to settle back into her old school.

The girl, too, seems more than happy to take up where she left off. Arriving back, she immediately tracks down her old friends and takes herself along to their class. Now she is sitting next to them, catching up on the gossip and joining in with the morning's lessons.

All of which is good news for David Moulds. For not only is it proof, if further proof be needed, that the traveller families trust his school and feel comfortable leaving their children there, but it is also evidence that they consider their children's education important.

These are matters close to his heart, and he isn't going to jeopardise them by insisting that the proper channels be followed.

"Other schools don't understand," he says. "But we can't worry too much about the paperwork when it's just not applicable. Two weeks ago we had seven children turn up on a Monday morning. Our priority is always to get them in as quickly as possible. It can be rather frightening for them, so it's important that we just say 'no problem' and get it sorted."

At any one time, there might be as many as 60 traveller children in the school. Run your eye down the 250 or so names on the roll and it's easy to spot some of them. There are Codie and Sampson, John-Levi and Lias-John, Naomi-Elli and little John Jo.

Step into one of the big Victorian classrooms, however, and all you see is 35 ordinary children. There's the occasional slicked-back hairstyle, perhaps more shiny earrings and sparkly headbands than you might be used to (the school takes a relaxed line on jewellery). But the chances are that even the class teacher couldn't instantly tell you who among her charges lives "down the lane" and who lives in a house in the town.

But when Vickie Botton steps into a classroom on this particular Monday morning, there's no mistaking where one little girl's affections lie. She comes out and gives the visitor a warm hug before returning to her friends.

For Vickie is herself a traveller, and as one of two traveller parents who are governors, she has become a familiar and reassuring face at the school over the past seven years.

Having married into the close-knit traveller community and sent three of her six children to the school, she has a rare insight into both traveller and "gorger" cultures (gorger, gaujer, gaujo and gorgio are the travellers' terms for non-travellers). Naturally, this makes her an invaluable link between Mount and the 300 or more families who at any one time might be living in Tolney Lane.

"Vickie's word of mouth is better than a letter from me every time," says the head. "If there is a problem, I know I can ring either of the governors and it's sorted." At the same time, her presence on the site persuades other families to entrust their children to the school, trust being the most valuable and hard-won commodity in a culture that is extremely protective of its offspring and unsure of the reception they will get in any new town.

"When travellers become parents, they are parents for the rest of their lives," says Vickie Botton. "Children come first - their stomachs, their shoes. It's very intense.

"But the world is changing fast. It is a world of technology. They've brought in a written test for drivers. So travellers are realising that they need to educate their children."

At the same time, there is anxiety, even among travellers who now live on static sites, or who leave for only short periods, perhaps to visit the horse fair at Appleby, that their children might forget their cultural roots.

"Some families have said they would not be pulling away this year because their children are doing so well at school," says Vickie. "But there is a wariness not to lose a child along the line. Last week a mother said that her girl was going on to further education. She doesn't want her to knock on doors for a living. But her father's advice is not to forget where she comes from - never to forget who she is."

At Mount, traveller children mix easily. Two of them are members of the school council, and if the occasional Romany word slips out in the playground (the traditional language is usually used only at home) chances are that it will be picked up and adopted by non-traveller children.

But while most, if not all, of Newark's younger travellers are receiving primary education at Mount, it is still unusual for them to go on to secondary school, and David Moulds believes this is the next challenge facing both communities.

In the same way as Mount has, over the past four decades, become the school in Newark travellers feel relaxed about (parents frequently ask staff to help them fill in official forms), so Magnus C of E comprehensive has tended to be the secondary school of choice. But although the two schools are working with Nottinghamshire's Traveller Education Service to smooth the way for traveller children, most seem paralysed with fear when it comes to moving on from the safe environment of the primary school.

"Children at Magnus might be wary of the reputation of travellers, but the travellers feel just the same," says David Moulds. Which is why so few children leave his school to transfer to secondary education.

One of Vickie Botton's sons was brave enough to make the leap. But her next youngest "wouldn't go to secondary school for love nor money," she says. The situation is particularly serious with girls, as traveller families are especially protective of their daughters and in the past have been reluctant for them to learn about sex at school - in the classroom or in the playground.

Vickie Botton's 28-year-old daughter, however, is now going into further education. "She knows there's better out there," she says. "We are realising the need for change."

And the situation isn't all bleak outside the confines of Mount. Young travellers living or staying in Newark can now access further education at the Unique Coffee Bar. This 12-month-old internet cafe-cum-social club, funded by a variety of sources and supported by the Traveller Education Service, has recently been set up in a former level-crossing keeper's cottage, strategically located next to the town end of Tolney Lane.

At the other end of the scale, a nursery on the travellers' site takes children from the age of three, traveller parents being more prepared to let their precious young ones attend knowing that they can see them through the nursery windows whenever they feel anxious. And one day every week, the entire traveller nursery decamps and pays a visit to Mount's own nursery up the road, further strengthening the bond between the two communities.

"It's all about building up trust," says Vickie Botton. "And that takes time." Which is why, even on a frantic Monday morning, everyone is prepared to overlook the minor inconvenience caused when a 10-year-old girl turns up unannounced.

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