Romany travels a new road to work

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Mark only went to primary school and began working at 10, but he broke with travellers' tradition and has excelled at college

If anybody embodies the virtues of lifelong learning, Mark McKenzie must be a leading contender.

The 17-year-old Romany gypsy, who previously had only five years of formal education, in primary schools, has been named best student of his year group at Oatridge College in West Lothian.

Mark's family has a home at Fauldhouse, but they spend much of the year on the road. He broke with tradition by going to college.

Since the age of 10, Mark has worked in his father's garden landscaping business, which takes the family all over the UK and Europe. He was 15 when he took the decision to go to college.

"I can't think of another traveller who has," he says, "but I just knew that I wanted to better myself.

"I was a bit scared when I went to the Oatridge open day, because I didn't know if I was up to the standard of literacy and numeracy that was needed. But, after talking to Ann Burns (the horticultural team leader at the college), I decided I could give it a try."

He came top of his class after studying for a certificate in landscape construction and design at Oatridge, which specialises in education and training for workers in rural industries, and has now returned to study part-time for an HNC in landscape management.

As a boy, Mark attended four primaries, in the Borders and Ayrshire. The only formal education he received after that was two months of "on and off" distance learning organised by Save the Children.

"I was at a bit of a disadvantage because I had no real secondary schooling. But I had the advantage of a lot of practical experience of working and, in the end, I came through with flying colours."

Ms Burns says: "This award is a great achievement for a remarkable young man. He's a veritable human sponge when it comes to learning. He's enthusiastic about everything and he is great at practical work.

"He's also extremely personable and articulate, and very proud of his background."

The only time Mark missed classes at Oatridge was when he went with a group to Brussels to lobby the European Parliament on travellers' rights, a cause he is passionate about. He spent the summer touring France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxemburg with a caravan, campaigning on the plight of his people.

"I'm very proud of what I am," he says. "We have a long heritage and a culture that has been handed down for hundreds of years.

"Being a traveller means that, within limits, you can go where you want and be what you want. There may be some, a tiny minority, who cause problems, but that's the same in all societies. All I want is to see travellers being treated the same as everyone else."

He may have slipped seamlessly into college life and made friends among non-travellers, but life is not always pleasant. "About a year and a half ago, our caravans at Livingston were stoned by a gang of teenagers," he recalls. "Windows were smashed and so on. That shouldn't happen."

But Mark says he has no intention of renouncing his Romany way of life. "I'm just here to do my best," he says, "and it seems to be paying off. Once I finish this course, I would like to apply to the American embassy to be allowed to go to Ohio." Oatridge has strong links with the state university through its programme for international students.

"Everyone I know - friends, all my uncles, everyone - is involved in landscaping and that's all I have ever wanted to do," Mark adds. "Luckily, all my family and friends are supporting me."

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