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Travellers settle down to learning

Pupils who would have left school before their teens and moved on now aim to succeed at secondary school. Irena Barker reports

paddy doran, an Irish Traveller living in a deprived part of north Liverpool, wants to become a lawyer. Until recently, this would have been an impossible dream for the 10-year-old, growing up in a culture where most boys leave school before they reach their teens.

But now, thanks to the work of his local school, there is a glimmer of hope that Paddy might just achieve his lofty ambition.

The Trinity RC primary in the former docks district of Vauxhall, opened as an amalgamation of three smaller Catholic primaries in 2004. It has not been an easy merger, as the building of new premises was delayed. So the school has operated largely from 12 mobile classrooms ever since. But over the past three years it has worked some small miracles, changing the negative attitudes of white British parents towards the population of up to 50 Traveller children who attended one of the original schools.

Attendance by the 370 pupils has risen from 91.3 per cent in 2004 to 94.2 in 2007, only just below the national average. Contrary to national trends, Traveller attendance is even higher, at 97 per cent.

Traveller children are the lowest achievers of any social or ethnic group. But recent successes have given teachers here hope that more will now go on to secondary school.

Last year, one Traveller boy left Trinity with level 4s in science, English and maths and one girl left with level 3s across the board. It was the best year so far.

Two former pupils will soon become the first in their family to complete compulsory education. Both have recently returned to The Trinity to finish work experience and may return to work at the school's new children's centre when it opens.

The turnaround has taken some hard work at the school, where 66 per cent of pupils are on free school meals.

A year before The Trinity opened, Johnny Delaney, 15, was murdered in a racist attack while visiting relatives in nearby Ellesmere Port. His brother and sister attend TheTrinity.

Johnny's death made the staff all the more determined to integrate the different communities.

"There was initially ignorance about the Traveller community that leads to fear," said Patricia Deus, 56, the headteacher. "But it didn't take long to raise awareness and help parents understand there was nothing to worry about.

"Once they see that their children are playing happily with Traveller children they become more confident.

"As a school I think we are enriched by the different children we have and they bring a whole interesting culture for the children to learn about."

Since the new school opened, it has held an Irish festival, launched an Irish dancing troupe and invited a gypsy storyteller to speak to children about life on the road.

Pat O'Connor, a family liaison officer, spends around three hours a day working with families on the nearby council-run Traveller site, making sure children are sent to school.

If a family arrives in the area, camping at the roadside, she will approach them too. Many now turn up in the area and come straight to the school asking for their children to be educated.

Often the parents cannot read or write, so Ms O'Connor keeps them up to speed with their child's progress and the different services available to them.

"It has been a long period of building up trust," she said.

If children go off travelling in the summer, she gives them distance learning packs so they do not get too far behind.

"It can be difficult coming back into school after such a long time off, but we make sure they miss as little as possible. Sometimes they even admit they are bored without school."

On the nearby urban Traveller site, a walled collection of tidy mobile homes near the towering concrete air vent of the Mersey tunnel, parents seem very positive about their children's schooling.

Margaret Doran, Paddy's mother, has three other children enjoying learning at The Trinity. She is delighted they are getting the opportunities in life that she has not had.

"They look forward to the breakfast club every morning and they come home to do their homework," she said.

"We are staying around here over the summer so the children don't miss anything."

Patricia Deus, who managed the amalgamation, says the only thing the school needs now is to move into a permanent home.

She will be glad to see the back of the school's 12 mobile classrooms and their weedy grounds when they move into a stunning new building in September.

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