The primary whose pupils face eviction

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Council's decision to force Traveller families from illegal site leaves school's future in doubt. Joseph Lee reports

It is the school which was boycotted by an entire village after Traveller children arrived.

Now Crays Hill primary, near Billericay, Essex, faces empty classrooms and an uncertain future as the Traveller pupils' parents await eviction.

Around 500 Travellers living on an illegal development about a mile from the school are due to be forced to leave in May, and this week, Essex county council considered what will happen to the school.

Travellers say all but one of the school's 60 pupils will have to go, leaving it deserted.

Anita Sheridan's five-year-old son, David, attends the school and she hoped her 16-month-old daughter, Nora, would join him. "The plan was to stay here for life," she said. "We wanted our children to have an education, because we never did. The teachers are brilliant, they're really good to our kids and they never treat them differently just because they're Travellers."

Most Travellers had no formal education and are illiterate. Many rely on their children to help with reading documents. Their lack of education means their children usually need extra support in school, which was the source of resentment among villagers who felt their own youngsters were being neglected and prompted the school's falling rolls crisis.

The Travellers intend to resist eviction and the council said it would not make a decision on the school's future until it knew what was happening to the families.

Closure will be a last resort. The council may use part of the school site as a community facility while a dramatically-reduced school population is taught in the rest of the building. Privately, the council suspects that villagers who removed their children when the Travellers arrived, complaining about a fall in educational standards, will come back after the evictions.

Councillor Iris Pummell, cabinet member for education in Essex, said the school had a viable future. "It provides its children with a high quality of education and continues to develop well under the direction of the new headteacher, with the full support of the governing body," she said.

Don Morris, chairman of governors at the school, said, "It is very easy for a school to lose its good reputation, but we have good staff in place and we are going to drive up standards. There is no danger that the school will close, as the ones around it are full up. But at this stage I don't know what is going to happen."

If the school is left with no pupils, it could get a much-needed refurbishment and reopen later, he said.

But while Crays Hill seems likely to find new pupils, the Travellers do not know where they will find a new school.

Bridget Flynn, whose daughters Selina and Valen go to the school, said they had only recently been moved from another site in Hertfordshire.

"How am I going to explain it again to a seven-year-old and a five-year-old? Last time Selina thought she had done something wrong and been expelled.

"If you just took them out of school because you couldn't be bothered, you would have the law down on you. But it is the law that's taking my children out of school and there is no law against it."

Travellers' timeline

* 2001 - Travellers set up home on land at Dale Farm, Crays Hill, without planning permission. The population eventually swells to 500 on the seven-acre site, next to a legal development occupied by a dozen families.

* 2001 to 2004 - School population falls from about 200 to just 52 pupils, of whom 40 are from Travellers' families.

* May 2003 - Planning inspector rules the Travellers' development is unlawful.

* February 2004 - Sarah Gallagher, headteacher, hands in her notice, and leaves in July, complaining of falling rolls and budget cuts.

* April 2004 - Nine of the 10 non-teaching governors resign, saying too much teacher time was being taken up giving extra support to illiterate Traveller children.

* October 2004 - The last child from the village of Crays Hill is removed from the local school.

* December 2004 - Millionaire property developer Len Gridley threatens to buy up land for Travellers' sites next to Prime Minister Tony Blair's constituency home in Sedgefield, Durham, unless the evictions go ahead.

* May 2005 - Deadline for evictions.

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