Howard Allen's geodesic dome doesn't look like a school. For starters it can be packed into the back of his van. Reva Klein meets the primary teacher who now moves around travellers' sites with his 'mutant turtle'
At the school where Howard Allen teaches, there are no bells. No uniforms. No national tests. No headteacher. No tables. No chairs. In fact, there are no corridors or electricity. And sometimes there are hardly any pupils.
It is not what most people would recognise as a school. The geodesic dome looks more like a giant mutant turtle. But it's actually rather cosy - it's covered by an array of khaki tarpaulins with two small windows. Inside, toys, books and art materials are arranged rather loosely around the periphery and there are rugs and mats to sit on in the middle. A wood-burning stove rigged up to a chimney heats it in winter. From late May through the summer months, it's not used much as a school at all because kids have better things to do, like learning how to mend truck engines or being shown where to find the best hazel branches for building shelters, which both Howard and the parents agree is more educational than what generally passes as education.
Howard is not your average teacher. He was, once. For seven years he taught primary children in Tower Hamlets, east London. He earned Pounds 20,000, had a house, bills, the lot. But since October, he has taken on a job that has meant a 75 per cent salary cut. He now lives in a van. And instead of joining the comatose Saturday morning queues at Sainsbury's, he now peruses the contents of supermarket skips at his leisure. "The bread they chuck out is just one day out of date, and they throw away tins just because they're misshapen," he says. No more tube trains, no more traffic, no more lining the kids up, taking registers, exercising riot control, giving tests, looking smart for work. Howard is a very happy man indeed.
His turtle-like workplace is the Traveller School, run by and for the new (age) traveller community. It packs up into a van and goes trundling with Howard, its only teacher, over hill and down dale to sites around the country that request his services. The successor to the Skool Bus (the spelling of which was designed to emphasise its unconventionality and the function of which was precisely what it sounds like), it was set up by the Travellers' School Charity, an organisation that has been addressing the education needs of the children of new travellers for more than 10 years.
Fiona Earle, who administers the charity and develops distance learning materials and programmes, lives in a truck with her three children but, to supplement her income, from time to time puts on smart clothes and works as a secondary English teacher and GCSE and A-level examiner. "I use teaching to get the money I need to fund my alternative lifestyle," she says. "I love teaching and I love being on the road. The charity allows me to bring the two together. Initially, schools I work in don't know that I'm a new traveller. When I do eventually mention it, teaching colleagues say, 'Oh, you don't look like one of those'."
Dubbed "crusties" by the tabloids, some, like Fiona, are well-educated, literate people, mainly in their 20s and early 30s, whose anti-consumerist, green ideology propels them out on to the road, living in vans, caravans, teepees, domes and yurts. Others opt for the travelling life for different reasons. Some have had their homes repossessed or otherwise fallen on hard times. Many others have a gypsy traveller heritage.
Part and parcel of their way of life is a determination to live as close to nature as the modern world - including the Criminal Justice Act - will allow. They are also in the itinerant, informal labour market andor on benefit, challenging received notions of development such as road building and airport extensions, looking scruffy and loving to come together in large numbers for music festivals.
To some people, they are beyond the pale. And this is as true of teachers, parents and children as it is of shops and pubs that ban them from their premises.
To break down barriers and widen understanding, the charity organised a recent conference in which new travellers and professionals working in traveller education services around the country came together for a week of camping and discussion about the culture, philosophy, concerns and needs of new traveller families. Among them was Arthur Ivatts, HMI with responsibility for traveller education and author of last year's OFSTED report "The Education of Travelling Children".
Ivatts's observations are based on 22 years of experience working with gypsies, fairground and circus people and, latterly, with new travellers. "The new travellers' communities have introduced the rare concept of asking new and different questions about education," he told the assembled group. "Questions such as what are we raising standards for? Who is driving this? Will it result in greater wealth? How will this wealth be distributed? Who will be accountable? Will it improve children's lives or is it about competing with the Pacific Rim? Will it increase the mental and spiritual quality of life?"
That education is a big issue for new travellers is without question. Fiona Earle says that new traveller parents have debated and thought about schooling more than parents in houses, simply because it's such a difficult issue. "Most of us are concerned that too much travelling isn't good for our children's education."
Many have a relatively high level of education. Where gypsy parents generally insist on primary education for their children and withdraw them at secondary age to join in the working life of the family, new travellers, according to Ivatts, do things differently. "While one-third have their children in schools, another third choose to educate them at home and the last third don't opt either way."
New travellers prefer keeping their young ones at home. The crunch comes at secondary age, when many parents decide to come off the road and move into houses so their kids can attend school regularly. But if parents are dependent on nomadism for their livelihood, settling down can be difficult. While the 84 local education authority-run traveller education services around the country exist for all travellers, some new travellers believe that they could do more to instigate on-site education projects rather than concentrate on getting children into schools. "There are some teenagers who aren't getting any qualifications at all," says Fiona Earle. "For them, I'm trying to set up distance learning GCSEs. The charity will be running a camp in September for young people and adults who are interested in doing GCSEs in this way."
And for the litte ones, there's Howard and his mutant turtle, if they're lucky. Because there is only one Howard and many, many sites, the most he can spend with any one community is a couple of months. But when he's there, he makes the most of the time he has. "We do important things that schools don't do well. I sit and read with them and since there are no more than nine or ten kids at a time, I can cater for their individual needs in a way that I can't in a school."
Flexibility is the key factor, he believes, especially when he can have groups ranging in age from two-and-a-half up to nine. "Schools tend to keep teachers in strait-jackets. But working on a site, you can develop your own ways of working. I'm not into national curriculum requirements like projects on the Romans. But if a child happens to be interested in Romans or we're on a site near a Roman settlement, we'll do it." Smiling in a way that says a lot about his own newly-won liberation from the rat race, he adds, without a glimmer of smugness,"I take the lead from the kids."
TRAVELLING THROUGH LIFE
Figures are notoriously difficult to arrive at, but HMI estimates that the total number of travellers in England is about 90,000. New travellers account for around 6,000. But Save the Children's estimates for new travellers is in the region of 50,000.
WHERE DO THEY LIVE?
While gypsies often park up on council sites, new travellers use private land, usually with permission from the owner. They also live in old warehouses and other derelict properties. In the summer, many move around, following seasonal work and festivals.
WHAT THE 1994 CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND PUBLIC ORDER ACT HAS MEANT FOR NEW TRAVELLERS
By making it illegal for more than six vehicles to travel together and to camp without permission, many new travellers have found their nomadic way of life more difficult to follow. Some have gone south to Spain and Portugal. Others have found places where a few vehicles can park in peace. But police evictions are common in some areas because of a shortage of both authorised sites and landlords amenable to renting out their land. Many new travellers have taken to living in houses over winter and only travelling in the summer, to sites and festivals.
Travellers' School Charity, PO Box 36, Grantham NG31 6EW. Tel: 01476 572496 Friends and Families of Travellers, Top Floor, 33 High St, Glastonbury BA6 9HT