Case study: Bransgore primary school

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The national primary strategy proudly acclaims that "helping children to develop as confident, enthusiastic and effective learners is a central purpose of primary education". These are core values that as a primary headteacher, I am passionate about. Yet in my leafy corner of Hampshire's New Forest, I have children who face very real barriers to learning success.

These children come from a unique culture that has been in the New Forest for more than 1,000 years, following the horse fairs and working on the forest. Over the years compulsory housing schemes have eroded much of the traditional Gypsy values and way of life. What is left is a disadvantaged white ethnic group that is often racially despised. Place these children into a primary school catering for an affluent, advantaged population, and you have a huge cultural gulf.

The primary strategy also says children are more likely to learn successfully if their basic physical needs are met, and they feel unthreatened and valued, have a sense of belonging to the group and can see the relevance of what they are doing. Many of our Gypsy children, entering school at four years old, face the opposite experience. Many are in poor health, find their culture despised and lack any sense of belonging.

These are basic and open inequalities. But it is difficult to challenge them without offending the very group you wish to support. I have often heard comments along the lines of: "I'm not a Gypsy, I'm a human being".

But if the child is what's important, the issues must be faced.

Prejudice exists on both sides of the cultural divide, and being in the middle has often been uncomfortable. Picture, for instance, two Ofsted inspectors observing collective worship, while the deputy bravely holds back a family of irate Gypsies who are trying to burst in to sort me out.

Their anger is focused on the perceived injustice of our attempt to manage two uncontrollable four-year-olds, by concentrating intervention strategies in one hour, instead of a full morning session. The two characters are now fully integrated, happy and successful learners, a delight to teach.

So what changed? Well, in many ways we did. We refused to accept the status quo. We drew on the support and expertise of charities such as the Forest Bus (a New Forest mobile community centre) and Children in Need, local doctors, health visitors and Traveller advisory teachers.

We now have "vulnerable and fragile" projects for all children identified as at risk of failing to thrive, particularly during the transition from foundation to key stage 1, and from key stage 2 into 3. We also provide targeted support for social, moral and emotional development.

The appointment of a pastoral care assistant to protect the children, be a voice for them, visit them in the early stages of secondary transfer and win the trust of families, has been a vital element of success. Gypsy culture has been built into the English programme of study, and living willow sculptures have reflected traditional Gypsy crafts. A lead teacher is capturing the local heritage to enrich humanities learning for all children.

These children now meet national expectations in Years 2 and 6. But because the system fails to recognise our Gypsy population, the school still loses out when benchmarked against affluent catchments.

Respect is our mantra and it is vigorously insisted upon. A Gypsy family who had heard of our reputation recently booked an appointment with me to be shown around the school for their pre-school child. A first for us.

Imagine my genuine delight to be told: "We felt valued here, respected, not shut out because we are Gypsy."

Peter Pretlove is headteacher at Bransgore primary school, Hampshire

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