Skool's Out (And About)
The Travellers' School Charity began in a bus over a decade ago. Sam Beale finds out how it has moved into the '90s.
Squall 15, Summer 1997, p. 40.
"I don't think school is a very good place to educate children really..." These are not the words, as you might imagine, of your average reluctant 11-year old just prior to being starched into a school uniform. It is actually the opinion of a teacher. He goes on: "There are better ways to get kids to learn. At school there's not space for them to develop their own interests, make mistakes and just play."
Howard Allen is the teacher for the Travellers' School Charity (TSC) which began in a bus in the mid-'80s to provide on-site educational support for children on the road. He has worked for the TSC since October last year, following six years teaching in London primary schools. His job now is radically different to the "bits of paper under your nose" and children having "no say at all" which left him highly disillusioned with the state system. He opted out of that system believing that a major preoccupation of large schools is simply "managing a large number of kids who are all in the same place at the same time. It's just about organising it so you don't get a riot".
Howard now works with Fiona Earle, a former secondary school teacher, who taught on sites from the 'Skool Bus' in 1990 and later from a caravan. She carries out the School's correspondence- learning; organises publications, resources and PR; fund raises, and liaises between the Charity and official groups.
The School bus had "a chequered career," says Richie Cotterill, one of the founders of the School and now a trustee of the Charity: "Sometimes it was being run and used really well."
At other times a lack of resources and full-time staff made effective running of the School difficult. Following several lean years at the beginning of the '90s when there was no money to fund on-site provision, the Charity received lottery funding last year which is now paying Howard and Fiona and will provide money for resources for three years.
Howard runs the School from a dome (easier to move and more spacious than the original bus) which he takes onto sites around the country as Travellers request a visit. He aims for a free-school atmosphere: "It's up to me to provide somewhere kids want to be. If they don't want to come then I'm doing something wrong."
Excruciating sunny days spent staring at blackboards and clocks, scoring names in desks with compasses whilst repeating after teacher, pass through the mind as Howard expands his notion of positive, effective learning for younger children: "I'm there and I've got things they can do: stuff for drawing, painting, books to look at, lego, glue and sticking stuff, dressing up clothes and toys. They can all be doing different things at once." He is convinced that the key is to run education "in a child-centred way. I don't try to intervene too much because I think kids learn more like that".
This style of learning, with a number of children of varying ages all gathered in the same place at the same time, sounds chaotic but Howard is convinced: "It's really easy if you let them lead all the learning. The younger kids sit and watch the older ones work and get an idea of how long it takes them to do tasks, so it helps their concentration span." The older children in this scenario learn to tolerate the younger ones, and encourage them.
With this level of freedom it's hard to imagine ever wanting to count or read but, says Howard: "When they are five or six I'll give them an alphabet book, a drawing book and a sticking book; or a writing book at seven or eight. I'll encourage them to do something in one of those books everyday."
The school is equipped with drawing and painting materials and a stack of picture and reading books for kids of all ages. In this way they get used to doing a little bit of writing or colouring each day. "So they've got 'schooly' stuff that they can go to and most of them do go to that," says Howard. "If they play and paint a lot I usually find that they want to do something like that without me having to ask them."
Richie Cotterill says the TSC aims to "help parents do whatever they want to do in terms of their kids' education". This includes putting them in touch with Traveller Education Services, supporting individual home education or facilitating co-operative schooling. At a site in Brechfa, South Wales, where there were around 15 to 20 children last year, the TSC went on site to assist parents who wanted to set up a school. Richie considers this to be very positive: "The teacher helped teach on site and helped give the parents the feeling that they could do it. We spent some of the money we had on training the parents to carry the school on."
Howard believes parental involvement in education is essential: "When children go to school a lot of parents think that the school should be doing all the educating." He believes that education involving parents need not be as time-consuming as it sounds: "It"s just doing a little bit frequently. Just an hour or a couple of hours a day." He recalls the amount of time spent going to assemblies, lining up and taking registers in schools and thinks kids at the Travellers' School may well spend longer actually carrying out 'tasks' than they do at school.
"We are not national curriculum friendly although we have stuff that is. What we produce is culture friendly."
Few people consider educating their children out of school. According to Howard: "There's a big misconception. Most parents assume their kids have got to go to school. Education is compulsory but schooling isn't. They don't have to go." Parents can simply write to a school informing them that they intend to educate their child out of school. Prosecutions only occur in instances where children are registered at a school from which they are continually marked absent. If an education authority does check up (which is unlikely when on the road) parents need only produce some work - writing, drawing, painting - that a child has been doing. Howard also suggests keeping a simple diary.
Fiona agrees but stresses that, although it's easy not to send your kids to school: "You have to be really positive and organised to educate your own kids, especially when you're living on the road and you've got to do water runs and wood runs. It only takes a couple of hours a day but, especially in winter, you don't always have a couple of hours."
Fiona co-ordinates the TSC's support for home education. The Charity produces workbooks to enable parents to organise effectively what little time they may have. These are designed specifically for Traveller kids with tasks relating to travelling, an activity book that asks kids to colour in buses and benders; and an Alphabet Book in which 't' is for truck, trailer, tippee and tent. A new set of four workbooks, provided free to home-educating Traveller parents, include English, Maths, Science, Humanites and technology activities organised into sections relating to Circus, Gypsies, Canal, Fair and New Travellers. These are available at four levels for children aged 4-11+ and each is accompanied by a detailed parents' guide.
In addition the TSC can provide national curriculum material: "We are not national curriculum friendly although we have stuff that is. What we produce is culture friendly," says Fiona. She notes that it is useful to have National Curriculum-based educational material to copy for parents because "people do want to know what level their kids are 'meant' to be at. It's a good idea to be aware what the levels actually are and I think parents want to have that awareness so they know if their kids are going to integrate successfully in school if they have to".
Most requests to the TSC are for children aged seven or under but the Charity also supports older children who want to study specific subjects or take exams. Fiona, a GCSE English examiner, is also qualified to teach to GCSE and is keen to teach on this level. However, she acknowledges it is difficult for older children to study alone: "It's hard to enthuse them if they're not in a group. Motivating yourself and making the time and space to do it isn't easy."
Lynn, who has educated five of her six children in state schools (for about a term and a half each year) over the last 14 years on the road, believes that home education at GCSE level is extremely difficult: "A lot of people come off the road when their kids hit secondary age. We struggled on for a long time but at GCSE I think it's quite critical for them to be in school... for the whole term."
Lynn recommends that Travellers investigate the possibilities of school-based distance-learning schemes which are designed for the children of circus and fairground Travellers. At the Charity's children's camps this summer Fiona plans to work with a few older children who want to take exams out of school: "We're going to try some English and writing together and then hopefully maintain the momentum through monthly contact."
Local authority attitudes towards Travellers and their education have changed in the last ten years. Fiona remembers when the few Traveller education provisions existing within local authorities were entirely Gypsy orientated: "A lot of them had never come across New Travellers at all. There is a lot more awareness now." Fiona has worked to improve liaison between the TSC and education authorities. Nonetheless educational policy regarding the children of Travellers has essentially remained the same. Every authority now has a Travellers' Education Service but, says Fiona, "almost all have an integration policy as opposed to offering support at home".
Lynn has wide experience of local authorities and recalls one Gypsy Education officer who was "more interested in whether you had the proper school uniform or not... It's the same as with schools... some have been brilliant, some are crap. It's the luck of the draw; where you happen to land for the winter".
The difficulties many Travellers have sending their children to school are self-evident. An integration only policy which does not consider out-of-school options suggests not just a lack of governmental understanding of the educational needs of travelling families but also a wider agenda which favours making nomadism as difficult as possible.
Paul Winter, Traveller Education Co-ordinator for the joint Traveller Education Service in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston-Upon-Holt and North Lincolnshire, recognises that often: "Sites are either short-term or inaccessible to local schools." He applauds the work of the TSC as an alternative provision. "It's about a recognition of nomadism. Not every service provided for Travellers should have to be a mainstream service that's bricks and mortar. When you've got parents who are willing and able to be actively involved in their children's education it's viable to have alternatives such as the Travellers' School." However, he stresses this is not always the case: "There would be difficulties for example with Gypsy families who may not have literacy or may be working without many resources."
He also warns of the danger of mobile or independent services such as the TSC becoming considered by education authorities as "a substitution for entitlement of access to mainstream.
"There's got to be pressure on schools and education authorities to continue to provide for all Travellers whether they are just coming briefly into an area or not. The views of Traveller parents are crucial: if the services are there and they decide they want to take up an alternative they should have the freedom to choose."
* In July the TSC is running a four-day conference entitled Insights into New Traveller Culture: an on-site experience. For information about this, the children's camps, publications or to get the school to your site contact: TSC, PO Box 36, Grantham, NG31 6EW.
* For information and advice about education outside the state system send a SAE to: Education Otherwise, PO Box 7420, London N9 9SG. Tel: 0891 518303
GOING ROUND IN CIRCULARS - the affect on travellers of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act - Squall 10, Summer 1995
SCHOOL FOR TRAVELLERS - International conference held in London about schooling for gypsy and traveller children - Squall 10, Summer 1995
TRAVELLERS, FRIENDS AND FAMILIES - travellers' support group view the future - Squall 7, Summer 1994
SOME-WHERE-SET IN SOMERSET - travellers tales from the West Country - Squall 7, Summer 1994