From the archive 19 - Educating the Gipsy: portable school in Surrey

21st January 2011 at 00:00
16 January 1926: A first for traveller community; head will live in onsite caravan 'assisted by his wife'

From time immemorial gipsy encampments have been a characteristic of the long line of woods and heaths which curves from Dorking towards Guildford, and it is in Hurtwood - about midway on the loop - that the first gipsy school in England was opened on Monday.

It is the hope of the Surrey County Council, which is responsible for the experiment, that gipsy children will attend school regularly during the day and that evening classes will attract adult gipsies.

The educational venture has been planned on several practical lines. If and when, for one reason or the other, the community served by the school resumes its wanderings, the school will be transported to their next settlement. If not actually on wheels, the schoolroom - a temporary structure of wood and iron, built in sections - is easily portable, and can be taken down and put up elsewhere with the minimum of trouble and expenses. It is the intention of the schoolmaster, Mr AS Milner, who will be assisted in the school by his wife, to live in a caravan beside the school. Obviously the success of the experiment depends largely on the personality of the school master, for attendance at the school, though free, is voluntary, and it is a tribute to his understanding of the gipsy mentality that the school opened today with 40 pupils. There is at present no accommodation for more. The small cloakroom adjoining the school contains two baths, but all the pupils who attended the first class this morning appeared in new or newly washed pinafores. It would seem that this gipsy community has fully appreciated the advantages which the school has to offer them.

The children will be taught the elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, but a great part of their time will be spent learning basketry, woodwork, rug-making, raffia work, and other hand crafts, as well as gardening. Although their ages range from four to 14 years, only four of them could either read or write, but although lacking in literary accomplishments they were obviously not dull-witted, and for the course of work which has been mapped out for them their nimble fingers make them promising pupils. At the night classes it will also be necessary to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but most of the curriculum will be concerned with infant welfare work, boot making, and definitely utilitarian subjects. On Saturday nights the school room will be devoted to singing and dancing.

It is estimated that there are 100,000 gipsy children in the country who have never attended school. Hitherto their vagrant life has defied the wit of educationalists to encompass with a system.

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