Teenage gypsy travellers are rarely seen in Scottish secondary schools.
Young members of the West Dunbartonshire travelling community, however, have been reacquainted with the joys of learning, thanks to an ambitious youth group. Henry Hepburn reports. Photographs Ashley Coombes
bubbly, talkative and engagingly cheeky, Megan McDonald is like many teenagers. There's just one difference between the 13-year-old and most girls her age: she doesn't go to school. Megan is a gypsy traveller and, as with many in her community, schooldays ended when she finished Primary 7.
When school is brought up in conversation, Megan's liveliness subsides and is replaced by a wistful air for what she left behind in the summer of 2005. "I used to like school," she says. "I loved maths."
Megan's enthusiasm for maths has, however, been rekindled in the past few weeks. As a member of the Romany Youth Action Group, based in Dumbarton, she has started receiving tuition with a view to sitting Standard grades.
Megan's ultimate goal is to be a doctor or a surgeon.
The tuition is a sign of the remarkable progress made by the group - comprising 12 young people aged 12 to 19 - since its formation in winter 2004. "Some of them took a long time even to speak to me," recalls senior youth worker Tracy Degan, who helps run the group as part of the Clydebank-based youth scheme Y Sort It.
"We were really shy," admits Jacqueline Mathieson, 17. "We just used to stay in the same room and talk amongst ourselves."
This reticence was rooted in wariness among travellers for people outside their community, and matters were not helped by a number of proposed local initiatives for travellers failing to get off the ground.
The community realised something different was afoot when Y Sort It workers took an interest. A converted lorry known as the mobile information cyberstation - it includes computers with internet connections - started visiting the site in spring 2004 and still rolls up every Thursday. From these visits the youth group evolved. "They were only supposed to come down to the site for six weeks, but they kept turning up," says Amanda Cameron, 18. Now the group meets every Monday in a Dumbarton community centre, where a youthful management committee discusses ideas for improving the travelling community.
Running costs are met by West Dunbartonshire Council, but it is up to the group to raise funds for projects; in the past year, it has successfully applied for about pound;7,000 in grants.
There are frequent one-to-one sessions with Mrs Degan and the group's other youth worker, Emma Booth and, if requested, there is access to careers advice and other services. But the group is also a chance to socialise, browse the internet and try arts and crafts in an easy-going atmosphere.
"We mostly have a laugh," says Jacqueline. "We talk and come up with ideas.
We try to make life better for gypsy travellers."
The encouragement of young people to think independently has been crucial to the group's success.
"They would always listen to your ideas," says Jacqueline. "They would always say: 'You could do this if you want'."
The building of links with the wider community has also been significant.
Amanda sums up travellers' frequent detachment from other people: "We just sit among ourselves. We never go out amongst outsiders, as we call them."
That attitude has softened as the group has exchanged ideas with other youth organisations. "It's helped our community a lot," says Jacqueline.
"It's helped build trust."
The young travellers' achievements were rewarded when the Tullochan Trust, a local charity, named their youth group the best in West Dunbartonshire.
They also won high praise at a conference in Glasgow looking at the Neet group (young people not in education, employment or training), where they presented a DVD they had made.
Things moved up another gear earlier this year, when several members of the group attended Clydebank College and earned Scottish Vocational Qualifications in food preparation.
That gave some a taste for education and lives beyond the more traditional route into marriage and domesticity at a young age: their list of career ambitions now includes hair and beauty, journalism, medicine and youth work. Meanwhile, sports leadership training is being planned so that the group can work with younger children.
The return to education stops short of entering secondary school, however; instead, tutors have been taken on to work with those interested in taking Standard grades.
Parents in travelling communities tend to be very protective and often have bad memories of their own school experiences.
"They're feart we'll get involved in drugs and get bullied, so they just don't put their kids to high school, full stop," says Amanda.
Jacqueline explains that schoolchildren sometimes pass the Dumbarton travellers' site and shout insults. Even so, she enjoyed a brief spell at secondary school a few years ago, until she was taken out. "My mum wouldn't let me go," she says. "She was worried about bullying."
Mrs Degan agrees traveller children have often been given a hard time at school, and believes that pride in their culture can work against them:
"They won't lie about it to make things easier."
She stresses that most people are curious about - rather than hostile towards - the travelling community.
Even so, she has a pragmatic attitude to travellers' misgivings about secondary school, and believes it could take a generation for them to disappear.
"We can't force them into school," she says. "It's better to work with the community rather than against it.
"I'd like to see young travellers having the chance, but with this group it won't be an option."
Despite the young people's often long-term absence from traditional education, tutors have not found that their ability to learn has been badly affected.
Aileen Buick, who teaches English and maths, says: "The young people we're working with are so keen and enthusiastic. They're like little sponges.
They must have been keeping up their education somehow."
Older members of the travelling community are also extolling the benefits of education, especially as traditional work, such as farm jobs, is becoming harder to find.
Isabella Sutherland, who is related to some of the group, says: "If they're wanting an education, in this day and age they need it.
"We've never had this kind of help before. We've got to appreciate what we get."
Jacqueline, meanwhile, hopes eventually to gain the qualifications that will enable her to become a youth worker. She is clear about how different her life would have been, but for involvement in the youth group.
"I would have been married by now," she says. "I never had anything else to do."
THE GENDER BARRIER
Boys in the gypsy traveller community have proved harder to connect with than girls.
Although officially open to both sexes, the Romany Youth Action group is widely seen among travellers as being for girls. Few boys attend and only one, aged 12, goes regularly.
"The boys see it as, if they go along, they'll get 'slagged'," says Mrs Degan.
Traditional gender roles have proved an obstacle to boys' involvement. They tend to start work at an early age and many would struggle to get to the late afternoon meetings.
From their point of view, the group is more frivolous than work and better suited to girls.
"The culture is quite different," explains Mrs Degan. "The boys are the bread-winners."
Yet some boys do turn up sporadically at the Monday meetings, looking for advice about training for jobs. Although often skilled in practical work, they are increasingly finding that people want evidence of formal training before trusting them to do a job.
Jamie-Lee Mathieson, 14, a member of the Romany Youth Action Group, writes:
"Starting school is always every kid's nightmare - not knowing anyone, not having any friends, but being a traveller was worse. I first started at five years old in England - Walsall. It was uneasy on me because I was Scottish, young and, well, just didn't want to learn.
But as I grew older I became more confident. My mum wanted to go back to Scotland, so we left and came back to West Dunbartonshire. I was in P4 and in Renton Primary. It was great, and I had lots of friends.
I didn't go to high school, because my mum didn't want us to get bullied.
So I got private tutors, then a while later the Y Sort It bus came down to the caravan site. I came down one Thursday, enjoyed it and kept coming.
I'm going for my Standard grades. What the future holds I don't know, but I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Tracy Degan, my youth worker and friend."