The education fringe

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Travellers' children often have an interrupted school education as their families are rarely in one place for long. But that does not mean they have to miss out, reports Raymond Ross

Charlotte Stewart is a traveller. She is also the mother of six children, three of whom are at primary school in West Lothian. Her youngest is a two-year-old girl. For now, they are living on a site at Bathgate, one of two official sites in the county.

Mrs Stewart has travelled all her life. "We once settled in Dumbarton for about two years," she says. "But we moved on, because my nephew had his face slashed and one of my sons had his knuckles slashed.

"He was holding hands with two of the weans at the time to protect them. He couldn't let go of them to help my nephew. That's why it was his knuckles slashed.

"They were in the play park and the local kids told them they'd no right to be there."

The attack is the most extreme form of abuse that Mrs Stewart remembers, or will admit to. "Most prejudice is just the usual name calling. In Bathgate the other schoolkids are calling our boys 'smelly skags'. I've never heard the word skag before. I don't know what it means."

Lizzie Kilgallon, an educational field worker with the Travellers' Unit based at Castlebrae Community High school in Edinburgh, says: "Settled people often display shameless prejudice about travellers, saying they're dirty, lazy, live like animals and so on. They have no real understanding."

The Travellers' Unit, which covers Edinburgh and West Lothian, was set up in 1990 to assist the education authorities fulfil their statutory obligations to traveller children and to provide a skilled community outreach service which promotes equality of opportunity and access to a range of community services, primarily educational.

The unit's first report (1996-97) states: "Without intending any offence to those few gypsy-travellers who are known to quietly and ably contribute to, and make full use of, the education system, it is clear to the staff that the majority of gypsy-travellers are, to varying degrees, alienated from the mainstream education system."

The unit's co-ordinator and only other full-time member of staff, Diana Dodd, says: "Our project doesn't come into contact with all travellers. There are highly educated and highly successful travellers and we're reluctant to contribute to stereotypes.

"I know one traveller who is doing a PhD on social exclusion at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh. And then there's Mary Hendry, who is a senior member of Glasgow's education department and was on the recent Scottish Office Advisory Committee for Scottish Travelling People."

Timothy Neat, who made the acclaimed Scottish television documentary film The Summer Walkers (which is now also a book), estimates there are perhaps 20,000 travellers in Scotland, "but the number still living a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, mostly in caravans, will be less than 5,000," he says.

Ms Kilgallon says her unit deals with about 170 children a year. "In the summer months we deal with 60 or 70 travellers' children in Edinburgh and in the winter 40 to 50. In West Lothian the figure remains pretty constant at around 40 to 50, because there is no roadside camping allowed there.

"Most of my job is encouraging access to statutory education, so I do a lot of homeschool liaison. I visit council sites regularly and any new roadside camps and find out if there are any educational issues that we need to be involved in, like access to schools.

"The family might not know where the local school is or be shy of going to register their children themselves. And if they're not staying long, I'll help to organise work and distance learning materials for them to take away.

"With the older children I can do one-to-one literacy work. With the younger ones, I encourage family learning because of the sheer numbers and because there are a lot of strengths in traveller families. They are used to passing on all sorts of knowledge and skills, from mechanics and driving to gardening, paving, basket-making and so on. There's a structure there that we tap into," she says.

"There are a lot of activities going on in traveller families linked to literacy and numeracy: counting games, learning to read papers and packages. Travellers teach their children to spell their own names early.

"We use all these things to encourage numeracy and literacy."

Ms Kilgallon says she encounters "quite a reluctance still" in schools when she calls about access for travellers' children. "The reaction is often abrupt. You hear the 'Oh... Oh...' and can feel the sense of panic about having to make special provisions.

"Schools which have a good multicultural ethos have a more welcoming feel for the children."

Schools can benefit from having travellers' children, says Ms Dodd. "Travellers are a good example for any school to focus on equal opportunities education, to learn about minority cultures and to celebrate diversity. This is of the utmost importance in a culture like ours, which is daily becoming more about conformity.

"Also, in my experience, travellers love authenticity. They like you to be straightforward and direct. So, for example, when a child goes into primary school for the first time and a teacher says 'Would you like to sit on the floor?' and the child says no, he's not being cheeky. A skilful teacher will know this and will rephrase it."

Mrs Stewart has no complaints about the education her children are receiving, but feels that in general schools don't do enough to meet the needs of travellers' children.

"It's half our fault, because we'll take our children out when we're going to travel. So, if a teacher's got a project she knows the child won't be there to complete, she might say 'Why bother?' " "It's because of the gaps in education that we need to give extra support and to provide materials that families can, and do, make really good use of," says Ms Dodd.

Because travellers' children miss some of their schooling when they're young, it's common for travellers to get the teachers to hold the children back a year in P7 to make up for the time lost.

Mrs Stewart wants her three primary age boys, who are in P1, P4 and P7, to learn to read and write as quickly as possible, "because they're not going to be at school for long". None of her older children attended secondary school, which she says is quite common among travellers, particularly for the boys. Those who go to secondary school usually leave by S3.

"Like most travellers, we're worried about drugs and drinking at the secondaries, and my 11-year-old son wants to go away to work with his dad. He wants to go out gardening and odd-jobbing, which is fine by me, because he'll have to learn to look after himself."

Mrs Stewart herself left school at 11. "We had seasons at the tatties and the berries and so on, and only attended school from Christmas to May. I never had any choice. We travelled. It wasn't a decision. I had nothing to compare my life with. It was just the way it was."

Driving and mechanical skills are highly prized among travellers and the written part of the driving test is used consciously by parents to promote literacy.

"We tell them you have to learn to read for that," says Mrs Stewart. "You can get a scribe and things, but we don't tell them that. They'll believe you when they're only 11 or 12, but at 15 or 16 they know better.

"My kids have no interest in books. My family don't go to libraries. They'll read newspapers or comics or romances. I like history stories.

"When you put your kids in a school, the teachers expect them to come every day," adds Mrs Stewart, "but if there's a site near the school and they're used to our ways, they get used to us coming and going. Our kids don't go every day."

"The achievements of travellers' children are not monitored in terms of what can be achieved when education is interrupted," says Ms Kilgallon. "So we don't even have a baseline yet. Though ethnicity monitoring is in place in every school and was recently extended to include gypsy-travellers, the figures have not yet been used to assess attainment."

Mrs Stewart's family travels during the summer months all over Scotland, England and Ireland. "We usually go to the Highlands in August because that's when the midges are really bad!" she laughs. "And we go to see the men in kilts!

"Naw, we do it for fun and because it's important for the kids to see where they come from. My father came from Mallaig and my mother was Perthshire. My husband's people are from Appin, the Stewarts of Appin.

"The way things are going, it's like the indians they put in reservations. They try to force us into sites to force us eventually into houses. If you don't go to a site like Bathgate, they move you on and on until you get tired. So you go to the site eventually. The police have no tolerance of us at all."

Ms Dodd points out that the police are given special courses on dealing with travellers, but Ms Kilgallon says: "Travellers are moved on quite frequently. There's an aura of intimidation in the way police handle travellers, checking their vehicles and searching their vans."

Mrs Stewart continues: "If the site's full and you've six kids and they start getting married, they have to leave. There's no room.

"My daughter got married a year ago and had to leave. She's in England. There's no place for her here.

"I don't even know where she is. It bothers me. She's only 17.

"Years ago we'd travel together or, if we separated, we'd arrange to meet up at different Highland games. You can't travel together now. There's not enough sites.

"My oldest son is 19. He's just left. It's common for the boys just to get up and go. When they're ready, they just go."

Travellers' Unit, Community Education Office, Castlebrae Community High School, Greendykes Road, Edinburgh EH16 4DP, tel 0131 661 4754

Evelyn Gilhaney (right) is a 13-year-old traveller who lives with her family (above) in a caravan, usually on the outskirts of Edinburgh but they are currently staying at the seaside on the west coast. She wrote a short story about travellers, based on her experiences, and this was turned into a play, "The Scaldie Hoose", last year at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. ("Scaldies" are the travellers' term for settled people who live in houses.) "I travel a lot," says Evelyn. "I've been to Wales and England and all over Scotland. I've gathered whelks in Argyll and I've done berry picking at Blairgowrie. I'll always want to travel and I'd specially like to go abroad.

"I only go to school between September and January. I don't think I miss out much by not going to school all year. No, I'm lucky. I like art, writing and German. At theatre workshop I found out how to work a computer, which was good."

Her play, which may now travel to Glasgow, tells of the harsher and less romantic aspects of a traveller's life, such as narrow-minded bigotry.

It tells of when the family moved to a house in Roseneath to get an education for the children. The first week at school was all right, "except that some of the lassies did call us names like gypsies, tinkies and thieves", which she ignored.

"The last straw came when ma wee sister came home wi' a bad word that's never been heard in our family before. My mum immediately packed up the hoose and we went back into the trailer."

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