On the road

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Travellers have not always taken to formal education, but a new unit is building bridges. Phil Revell reports

Jo Thomas likes to fish. He has a scrapbook full of pictures of carp, each one teased from the water long enough to be weighed, recorded and photographed before being set free.

Jo has no GCSEs and spent most of his secondary years bunking off.

"I never used to like school very much," he says. Primary school was "all right"; the problems came in secondary.

"At school, kids would say stuff about me and I'd retaliate and get told off," Jo explains.

And then there were rows at home. Jo's parents wanted him to gain some qualifications, and eventually the West Sussex traveller education unit became involved. The unit arranged for Jo to do work experience with his father, who lays tarmac, for three days a week - on condition that he spent two days in school.

Kim Thomsett is the traveller education officer for the county and has a long history of work with the traveller community.

"I started as a head in Oxfordshire with 10 per cent travellers on roll," she says. "There were Gypsies and Irish roadsiders, New Age and showmen."

Travellers fall into distinct groups, and there is a strict hierarchy. At the top are the showmen, circus performers and fairground workers. True Romanies are relatively rare. New Agers have different values and are often abused by traveller and non-traveller alike.

Jo and his parents live in a house but the decor is reminiscent of a caravan and a picture of their daughter's wedding shows a girl wearing the extravagant jewellery that is part of the traditional travellers'costume.

West Sussex is not a mainstream traveller route, but the seaside towns on the coast draw a regular summer visitation and building work in the area has helped to attracted many more.

Today there are 300 children in 70 schools. There are 12 sites for permanent travellers, but no sites at all for those who "resort" or move around.

Travellers were suspicious of the world into which schools tried to introduce their children. Girls were expected to marry within the community, while boys were often taken out of school to work with their fathers.

Yet inspectors have commented on the successful traveller policy in the county. Graham Newall, Ms Thomsett's line manager and head of the county's inclusion team, thinks he knows why.

"It's your expectation, Kim," he said. "You expect them to be in school."

"I act as a buffer," says Ms Thomsett. "It's drip, drip. If you try to force travellers, that will be counter-productive.

Leanne Searle and her sister go to Westergate School, near Chichester. This is her fourth school and she's doing well, although there have been one or two frank exchanges of opinion about her habit of wearing jewellery. "I'd like to go to college and do hairdressing," says the Year 10 pupil. "But I'm not sure yet."

Richard Hibberd, headteacher at Westergate, says: "In terms of the cultural expectations, there is a wide range. It's changing. Parents are beginning to see learning as a means of opening doors."

One of the interventions the service can offer is that of classroom support. Lesley Norton has worked with traveller children for more than five years. She is currently at Bospam, a small primary with 190 on roll, including nine traveller children.

"We had eleven," says Lesley, "but two moved on last week."

Acting head Alesa Henham had no previous experience of travellers' children.

"We had extra children in every year group,' she says. "That's meant an awful lot of work for staff. It's been a drain on our resources, and if they move before January the school will get no funding for them."

In school, the children have integrated well, although playtimes have been a problem. The traveller children tend to play together and there have been disputes over footballs and ownership of favourite playground spaces. But Lesley Norton is out there too, and her soccer skills are coming along nicely.

"We've had the head and a deputy on duty every lunchtime," she says. "It has taken a while, but things are improving."

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