Hester and her family live in caravans because they want to. For as far back as any of them can remember, their forebears have eschewed bricks and mortar for something on wheels, whether hand-crafted and decorated wooden carriages or, more recently, modern trailers. They are Romany Travellers, otherwise known as Gypsies. Neither Hester nor her mother, Queenie, possesses a single gold-hooped earring or long, flowery skirt, and Hester's accent is more Radio 4 English than anything else; but they live a lifestyle that is undeniably Romany, and they are proud of it.
The Hedges family defies the age-old stereotypes of Travellers as itinerant outsiders, exotic in appearance and shifty in nature. Most fundamentally, Hester has got to where she is today - Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge - because the family has been off the road since she, their youngest child, was six years old. Unlike her parents, her own siblings and most Traveller children past and present, she has had the advantage of regular school attendance with no disruptions. And now Hester is setting a precedent: not only is she one of very few Travellers to have made it to sixth form, but she has no intention of stopping there. She wants to study law, this daughter of an illiterate mother, whose two siblings dropped out of school. If she achieves her aim, she is likely to be the first Traveller in this country to do so.
There are doubtless many among the estimated 50,000 Traveller children who are as clever as Hester. But, unlike her, their education is frequently disrupted and eventually dropped because of migrancy. In its 1996 report, The Education of Travelling Children, Ofsted estimates that at most, one in five Traveller pupils makes it to key stage 3, and that by key stage 4 the figures plummet to one in 20.
Meanwhile, a combination of modern farming practices, technology and new trespass laws under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act have conspired to anchor down a people who for a millennium have moved lock, stock and barrel to where the work is, as often as necessary. Today, the work is drying up and the law has, in the words of Traveller educationist John Day, "criminalised Gypsies' traditional way of life by making trespass on public land a criminal offence".
While a new and largely unwelcome lifestyle has been imposed on many Travellers, one positive result is that their children are staying in school longer. Supporting them are the Traveller Education Services, run by 73 local education authorities around the country. Slowly but assiduously, they have been making inroads into the communities they serve,bridging what has until recently been an unbreachable gap between families who have been seen as awkward because of their lifestyles and an education system that they in turn have regarded as unwelcoming and uncomprehending.
The Traveller Education Services employ the equivalent of 410 full-time teachers, classroom assistants and specialist education welfare officers. Two years ago, government funding (which covers 65 per cent of each project) was cut by 10 per cent, forcing 12 counties to reduce their services. But some authorities have made up the shortfall themselves. Cambridgeshire is one of them. With the second largest number of Traveller families in the country after the West Midlands, its team of 29 has been working throughout the sprawling, largely agricultural region since 1988 supporting the likes of the Hedges family.
That support is vital. Even a success story like Hester is not immune to the fact that for Travellers education is a struggle on a number of counts."There are only a few teachers at college who know that I'm a Traveller," she says. "It's a hard thing to come out with. If I were to tell other students, some wouldn't speak to me again and some would say, 'So?' You just can't tell what their reaction will be, even though, being a Traveller, you come to be a good judge of character."
Traveller parents, too, have a problem with schools. According to the Ofsted report, "Historically, Gypsy Traveller children have been hindered in their access to schools by the attitudes of some headteachers, governors and others in the non-Travelling settled society. Negative attitudes frequently manifest themselves in the refusal to admit Travelling children, or in delay or the imposition of difficult or discriminatory conditions. In some cases, threats and acts of physical violence by members of the settled community have been sufficient to deter Gypsy parents from placing their children in school."
The legacy of this deeply rooted discrimination has meant that, despite Traveller parents' desire for their children to become numerate and literate, they are worried they will be bullied or ridiculed.
Heather Loverage's experience of school is more typical than Hester's. She left school at the age of 13 because of bullying. Now nearly 17, she packs beetroot at a local factory. "The other children called me dirty Gypsy. Sometimes, they wouldn't let me on to the bus and I would have to walk two miles to get home. Another Traveller friend, they used to kick her down the stairs."
Her mother, also named Heather, never went to school. "We travelled all over the country, " says Heather senior. "My father did hawking and my mother told fortunes at fairs and door to door." Because of her own lack of education and her wish
for her children to do better than she had done, she was upset when her daughter dropped out.
"It was hard for me when Heather left school. School's somewhere where you want your kids to be safe. I can't blame the teachers and I don't blame the school. It's the other parents I blame. If they'd mix more, they'd see we weren't different to them. But I'm used to this sort of thing. We've had it all our lives. When I was young, they used to throw bricks at us. Some days we would move six times; people would make us move from one place to the next. You lived your life feeling that nobody wanted you."
Margaret Wood, of Cambridgeshire's Traveller Education Service, works with her team to build understanding. As well as home liaison with parents, she and her team work closely with schools that have Traveller pupils. One of them is Witchford Village College near Ely, which currently has 27 Traveller children attending regularly, most of them from fixed caravan sites although some live in houses. Margaret Wood works alongside a school-based community education worker liaising with parents, children and teachers to make the school more comfortable for Traveller families.
One innovation has made parents' evenings less of an ordeal for Traveller parents, who themselves may have little experience of school and may feel intimidated by speaking to professionals about their child. Headteacher Celia Duffy has organised the evenings so that Traveller parents meet with one person who knows their child, such as a head of year or tutor, instead of having to go from one teacher to another. She explains why: "It can be a difficult experience, especially if parents are getting feedback on a child who is having problems at school. Once they get through that first hurdle and get over their fear of the unknown, they find that we're half-human and feel more comfortable with the school."
Maureen Buchanan, a community education worker, helps to make the school flexible enough to meet the complex and varied needs of Traveller children.To this end, she runs Traveller youth club sessions on subjects as diverse as prejudice and personal hygiene. "Education must be seen to be doing more than just pushing these kids into schools," she says. "We have to look at social issues and meet these young people on their own patches and on their own terms."
Many of these children, even if they do their GCSEs, are likely to join their families' businesses. Alexandra Thurston, aged 14, is as keen to study as her mum is for her and her 12-year-old sister to be educated. When they are working on the fairgrounds during the spring and summer, "Mum comes to the school whenever we're close enough and gets more work for us in all our subjects". But despite her parents' determination for the children to do well at school, "I'll probably wind up travelling with the family".
Whatever Alexandra ends up doing, she will be part of a new generation of Travelling children who have completed school and are literate and numerate. And perhaps she will ensure that her own children do better than her. As Heather Loverage (senior) says: "It's not easy being a Traveller. But life's changing. And our kids have to change with the times."