Outreach bus joins Travellers on the road

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Cumbria's Travelling community is fortunate in having a well laid-out permanent site on the outskirts of Carlisle.

The number of parked caravans fluctuates throughout the year but one regular, twice-weekly visitor is the bright red double-decker bus of the SureStart government initiative, which runs mother-and-toddler and pre-school playgroups for Travellers.

SureStart has also made space on the bus for Carlisle college to offer classes for other age groups.

The classes, run by outreach tutor, Margaret Bewley, a basic and key skills lecturer, offer literacy, numeracy and basic computer skills, and are attracting a wide range of women from older teenagers and young mums to middle-aged women and beyond. "We have hooked them with computers, " says Margaret, "but basically we are targeting literacy and numeracy."

The women find it much easier to admit to needing computer skills than admitting difficulty with reading. Ms Bewley tactfully persuades them that improved reading will improve their computer skills and she structures their homework - which they accept quite willingly - to this end.

Joanne, a young married woman, says she cannot spell and is "very bad" at writing. She is attending the classes because "when I have children I want to be able to help them". Her mother, Rose, also admits to poor spelling.

"I am going to learn computing and learn to spell," she says firmly.

"Computing is the future," says another in the group. "You need these skills to be independent."

Modern Traveller women increasingly value their independence. Traditionally they stayed at home, with older girls minding younger ones and doing the cleaning. But now some are talking about working in an office or shop.

"That's a big step for them," says Margaret.

Like the women, the young men tend to stay within the community, working, perhaps, with their fathers doing seasonal labour on farms, gardening, or laying paving. "They don't have career aspirations, so we have to find a different angle," says Margaret. The "different angle" for a group of older teenage boys has been a class offering driving theory linked to computer skills which was set up at the request of one of the lads.

There is a wide range of abilities. One woman could not no read at all when she joined the class. Now she happily reads magazine articles. Another could not use a calendar or tell the time. Now she confidently does both.

At the other end of the spectrum are middle-aged women who have had a good education but whose travelling commitments have prevented them from continuing to use it in paid employment.

Jean, who completed her secondary education and went on to study fashion design at art college, worked for some time as a judge's clerk in the courts in Newcastle. But that was 20 years ago. Now she says, "if I wanted to get back into work I would need computer skills."

She is making real progress in the computer class and talks hopefully of rejoining the civil service "when I am able to say I am computer literate".

Women like Jean are beginning to look beyond their own community, and some are preparing for accreditation in the various skills.

For others it will be enough that they can help their children with reading, calculating and computers. They can also discover for themselves the joy of reading and pass this on to their children.

But for Margaret, "the great thing is that they are coming slowly to the realisation that education is worthwhile and worth pursuing".

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