Travellers feel at home

24th December 2004 at 00:00
School inspires gypsy children to carry on studying. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Terasa Smith was 11 years old when she went to school for the last time.

She was often bullied, but in any event it was more important for young people like her to go out to work to help support the family.

Now aged 30 and the mother of a five-year-old daughter, she is wrestling with the dilemma of whether to allow her daughter to continue her education beyond the same age.

Ms Smith is a traveller, or, as she puts it, a gypsy, and like many people in her community, fears that too much education and mixing can be a bad influence and threaten the gypsy lifestyle.

She said: "I hated school. I was never as good as the other children, who used to tease and look down on us.

"I don't want my daughter, Hannahlise, to be growing up sleeping around... like a lot of young girls, and I am worried she will get that with school.

"I want her to remain a part of our community where we have our own ways. I realise that times are changing and if she wants to go to school I won't stand in her way. But I worry about it a lot."

Hannahlise is a pupil at Lawley primary, in Telford, Shropshire, where there are 17 traveller children, a figure that is expected to rise to 24 out of 260 pupils in January. Lawley has been praised by inspectors for its work with traveller families, integrating services through the Sure Start scheme and persuading parents of the value of educating their children.

Many of the children attending the school live on the Ketley Brook travellers' site, about a mile from Lawley, though the school also attracts transient youngsters who stay for shorter periods.

There are 20 children living on the Ketley Brook site, though not all are old enough to attend school. Of those who are, all are regular attendees at Lawley.

Families are tracked through the West Midlands consortium education service for travelling children, which covers 14 authorities and ensures they can continue schooling in the region.

Sure Start workers encourage families to use nurseries - a policy that has so far ensured that all youngsters start Year 1.

Russell Purslow, Telford and Wrekin council's attainment outreach worker, visits the traveller site twice a week to help youngsters with homework.

"Not all parents feel able to help their children, as many did not complete their education themselves," he said.

Inclusion is at the heart of the school's ethos. The library has books with images of dogs and chickens roaming around trailers, and toy boxes contain tiny caravans as well as cars.

Ms Smith has helped in writing A First Gypsy Alphabet, a letter-a-page booklet containing English and Romany words.

Pupils in Years 5 and 6 take part in science and environmental projects with the local secondary, Phoenix school, in the hope that they will be inspired to carry on learning.

The link with Phoenix certainly helped Dean Riley, 14. "I would probably have ended up with my father working in tree surgery otherwise," he said.

"It was a big step to carry on going to school but I think it had to be done. I want to go to college to do some sort of engineering.

"Going to school has changed my attitudes. I had more respect for people when I was younger than I do now that I mix with gorgers (house-dwellers).

"Some of them take the mickey out of me because I am different. But I tell them we aren't gypsies because we travel around. We are a race."

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