A secondary where only one Gypsy pupil has ever passed GCSEs signals a community that distrusts school post-14. So how do we break down such prejudice? And ours? Rachel Pugh investigates.It is Wednesday night at MoCoCo's internet cafe in Middlewich, an unassuming mid-Cheshire town. Three 11-year-old girls collapse in helpless laughter round the pool table as one misses the ball completely in attempting an easy shot.
At first sight this is nothing remarkable, until you understand that two of the trio playing pool are Gypsy travellers - as are many of the youngsters at a nearby table taking part in a riotous, supervised art session - and that up to two years ago, neither they, nor the local children with whom they are today laughing, would have dreamt of entering the same room, let alone spend an evening together.
This is Free Spirit, a youth club for nine to 13-year-old travellers and local children started by Middlewich High School as part of a programme to build bridges between the two communities, in the hope that traveller families will start sending their children to secondary school.
The need for it is obvious when you understand that Middlewich, which is sneeringly dubbed "Gypsywich" by some people in Congleton, has two licensed traveller sites, the possibility of a third and many travellers with houses in the town. Gypsy travellers form the largest minority ethnic group in Cheshire. Despite this, Middlewich High's roll of 623 pupils includes only one traveller child.
But this minimal count belies some of the achievements masterminded by Lynda Kappes, assistant head at Middlewich, who has been working with Cheshire's traveller education service, staff at her school, the local traveller community and Middlewich Community Church.
That Free Spirit exists at all is a miracle and that it alternates between the high school and MoCoCo's is another.
Kizzy Price, the first Romany Gypsy pupil in the school's history to gain GCSEs, has just left the school and now helps out at the youth club. Traveller culture has become part of the school curriculum: their children regularly take courses at the school.
"The question we have to address now is: how do we encourage more travellers to stay on in high school?" says Lynda. "The trust is there, the will is there with children, but now we have to persuade parents that high school is valuable."
Joe Hurn, chairman of Cheshire Gypsy and Traveller Voice, says: "School isn't seen as a big deal at primary level but as soon as kids get to high school their parents have the misconception that the places are all about sex and drugs and that their children will learn things such as sex education that they should not do. Then there's the fear of bullying."
Joe, who attends the youth club to help with the boys, believes in education. He loved it, even though his parents took him out after primary school.
His daughter Sian, 12, attends high school in nearby Winsford, but he admits he is unusual. Nationally, around 10 per cent of traveller children go to secondary school. Many parents fear education will erode their cultural values.
Middlewich High used to have up to a dozen traveller pupils on its books, but incidents such as the spraying of a Gypsy encampment with slurry by a farmer trying to get them off his land, and the banning of travellers by certain local pubs, has heightened prejudices. The school suffered a case of meningitis and since then travellers have kept away.
Four years ago, the King's Fund charity gave Cheshire traveller education service pound;40,000 to encourage traveller children to stay at school beyond 14 and build bridges between their community and the local people. Middlewich High was offered pound;10,000, which it used to put a teaching assistant into nearby Cledford Junior School, which is used by travellers.
Middlewich also tried a distance-learning pack aimed at preventing traveller pupils from falling behind because of their nomadic lifestyle. Lynda went round sites building up relationships with parents. She persuaded a Gypsy mother to come into school to explain her community's attitude to education.
She and colleagues had the idea of a youth club at MoCoCo's as a bridge between the two communities. The first night attracted 25 traveller children.
Since then it has started holding half its sessions at the high school, and now opens its doors to children from the mainstream community. Teachers regularly hold science, art and food technology sessions at the club. The laughter from youngsters from both communities indicates they clearly love it.
Middlewich High now has pound;15,000 from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and is incorporating traveller culture into the school. This formed a part of its bid for specialist school status.
Travellers were the subject of the school's first diversity day last June for Year 7 pupils. Members of the community came to undertake music, cookery, wood carving and storytelling with the pupils. They also brought a modern caravan and a traditional Gypsy vardo or caravan.
The plan is to hold the event every year so that knowledge permeates through the whole school. Gypsy history has now been incorporated into the curriculum. Pupils studying the Holocaust in Year 9 also learn about the persecution of Gypsies.
The school has acquired a traditional vardo on eBay, which pupils are helping to restore with Joe Hurn's help. Its decorations are providing an inspiration for key stage 3 art and textiles, and the food technology and music departments have plans to include traveller and Gypsy culture.
Last year, 12 traveller youngsters and a youth leader from Congleton Council went to the school to do Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) bronze challenges making CDs and CD covers. Other groups use the computer room and a drama studio.
"They are not coming into school to do lessons," admits Lynda. "But they are still coming in during school time and having bacon butties at break in the canteen."
Linda Walker, manager of Cheshire's traveller education service, is realistic about the obstacles in encouraging the children to come to school.
"There's not a lot you can do if traveller parents opt for home education, because they are within the law. All you can do is to try projects that will keep them engaged and hope for a change of heart," she says.
"We may lose the children at 11 to 16 but often we are asked for help when they reach 16 and they get a national insurance number and want to get a job."
Middlewich is a largely white British school, with one Asian child and one Eastern European. "We encourage pupils to see that they live in a multicultural society and have a section in our life skills lessons in which we talk about it," says Lynda Kappes. "Bringing in the traveller community is the way to make it real for them."
The project is not without its difficulties. Free Spirit (which has been assessed by Chester University) is still not attracting as many children from the settled community as Lynda Kappes would like. However, some parents are now using it as their own meeting place and some have even taken part in bingo nights at the school.
Jacob Price, a 10-year-old Gypsy, is enthusiastic about the youth club: "Gypsies and non-Gypsies have a chance to get together. I think non-Gypsies are OK."
But bridge building carries its own risk. Another 10-year-old traveller girl shines with enthusiasm as she talks about school sessions, until she is asked whether she is going to high school: "I would love to," she says, suddenly downcast. "But I don't know whether I will be allowed."
Attitudes are changing. A Year 9 traveller boy visits Middlewich High two mornings a week for individual help with literacy and numeracy and there is talk of him becoming a full-time pupil.
Kizzy Price, pushed by a mother who believes in education, hopes that her own success in gaining an A, six Cs and two Ds in her GCSEs will help change minds in the community. She and the school-loving 10-year-old at Free Spirit are proud to belong to it.
She is now training in child care and would like to work in her own community to raise their aspirations.
"In the world we live in, we need education to get about," she says.
"To do anything at all we need the basic ABC, but reading and writing are just not enough any more."
There are more than 8,000 children of traveller heritage in the school system.
- Ofsted considers that about 12,000 of them are not registered with a school.
- Traveller children are the worst performing ethnic group in Britain: 3.9 per cent achieved five top-grade GSCE passes including English and maths in 2006.
- Most of those who live on authorised sites attend primary schools, but only 10 per cent go on to secondary school.
- Frequent changes of school and regular absences for family moves, plus low literacy rates among parents, means that many leave primary school unable to read.
- Irish traveller children are 20 times more likely to be excluded from school than non-travellers.