Travellers on different roads

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Roving workshops are showing schoolchildren there are more similarities than differences between them and Gypsy Travellers

Gathered in a circle around an open box, one by one the children pull out an object: a horse, a caravan, a power tool. Then the class discussion begins. What relevance could these objects have?

The object box is one of the tools used by a group of Gypsy Traveller children who, with the help of Save the Children, are running workshops in Scottish schools in order to raise awareness of their culture and, ultimately, reduce discrimination and bullying.

The idea came about following a peer research project conducted by Save the Children. Of the young Gypsy Travellers who took part, 91 per cent reported they had experienced discrimination. It was clear that they wanted to try and change this, to educate other children and to challenge these prejudices.

And so began a programme which started with a series of displays in museums and has seen the children visit the European Parliament, where they met MEPs and demonstrated their work.

A two-year project entitled "Who We Are" proved popular and resulted in a follow-up, "Don't Judge Us", which is being funded by the Scottish Government's Race Equality Integration and Community Support Fund.

Karen Carrick, Save the Children's Travellers' development officer, co-ordinates the scheme. "We wanted to use the material from our research to work against this discrimination," she says. "The aim of the workshops is to illustrate there are more similarities than differences, and to counter stereotypes."

The children at Dysart Primary in Kirkcaldy, Fife, are younger than those the group normally addresses, but this is not a problem. "What we do is flexible," Miss Carrick says. "The sessions can be adapted to suit the age group."

As well as the object box, photographs are used to open up discussions. The children talk about what they think the pictures mean. Then they learn what the relevance is to Gypsy Traveller life.

Other resources which have been developed for the workshops include DVDs showing "A day in the life of ... ", a poster, leaflets, a booklet, games and quizzes.

The 45-minute sessions often begin by showing a short film clip about everyday life as a Gypsy Traveller. This opens up discussions on the similarities and differences. "We watch TV too," says one child. "You live in a caravan instead of a house," says another. The idea that they may not be very different is sown in the children's minds.

The group then moves on to the fun part, with arts and crafts being used. This may involve making bow tents with pipe cleaners and pieces of cloth. Younger children may make paper flowers, a traditional Gypsy Traveller task.

"I make paper flowers and go round the doors selling them," says Shantelle, "and my granny still makes wooden flowers."

The informality encourages the schoolchildren to relate to the young Gypsy Travellers leading the sessions and ask whatever they like. The group is past being surprised at the questions they are asked.

Ultimately, the project's success is measured by how much attitudes change. Before the workshop, the schoolchildren are asked to fill in knowledge cards and give three words they associate with Gypsy Travellers. These are often far from complimentary, such as "thieves", "dirty" and "earrings". Afterwards, they fill in knowledge cards again. The words are usually more positive: "normal" and "like us".

"By the end of the sessions, 95 per cent of children have changed how they think of Gypsy Travellers," says Miss Carrick.

In some schools, the group have been asked back to address other classes. "Because teachers don't tend to know much about Gypsy Travellers, they find the sessions useful, she says. "It is a fun and creative way of covering the subject and opens up discussions for later.

"Some teachers include it as part of the citizenship curriculum.

"The kids really enjoy the sessions," she adds.

With such positive results, Save the Children is keen to continue the project, but for now, funding is in place until June.

Karen Carrick, Save the Children, T: 0131 527 8200.

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