Education: Hot-dogs then homework: Fairground children need not miss school each summer, thanks to an innovative correspondence course, says Karen Gold

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The Independent Online
From Easter to October, 13-year-old Jodie Owen is a candyfloss girl. Every week she travels with her family to a new fairground, where she sets up her kiosk and equipment. Each day she scrubs it down and makes the bags of candyfloss. Each weekday evening and from lunchtime at weekends she spins and serves until bedtime.

Only in November, when the Owens return with other fairground families to their winter yard in Bloxwich near Walsall, does Jodie put on her black-and-white uniform and go back to lessons at the T P Riley comprehensive nearby.

Fairground children used to attend school wherever the fair pitched camp. Jodie's mother, Beverley, herself a fairground child, remembers: 'You got to a place on Monday, you booked into school Tuesday, you started on Wednesday. On Friday you were off again. You couldn't do what the other children were doing, and by the time you learnt about it you were gone.'

Children and schools were equally disillusioned, says John Bowman, head of T P Riley, which has 35 fairground children on its roll. 'Schools tend to say, 'if they choose to live like that, that's their problem,' ' he says. 'What we wanted was to show teachers that youngsters with this lifestyle can learn something, and show the families that education is worth having.'

The school designated a special needs teacher, Anita Tremayne, to support fairground children. She began by arranging for the children to be kept on class registers all year, and on their return to be put into their old groups, instead of automatically being transferred to the bottom set.

With pounds 500 from school funds and later a grant from the European Community, she then developed a system of lessons by post. Subject teachers were encouraged to write materials for the 11- to 13-year- olds, first in English, maths, science and history, later in French and geography.

Each child was given a plastic wallet containing a tape recorder and headphones, paper, a work diary, a phone number to call for help, stamped envelopes addressed to the school and one piece of work for each subject - equivalent to three weeks' study in the classroom.

Some non-traveller parents were critical, says Mr Bowman. Fifty per cent of his 1,100 pupils have free school meals, and some families felt the fairground children were getting special privileges. He countered that by pointing to the school's equal opportunities policy: 'We're doing this so each child can do his or her best.'

And the programme worked. Envelopes arrived fortnightly at Mrs Tremayne's office through the spring and summer. Each time a child returned work, she sent them more. Jodie recalls starting hers: 'We leave school a week before we leave the yard, to get ready for travelling. Me and a friend did some then because it was new and it looked good.'

The youngsters work in their trailers, in bedrooms, at the kitchen table, or in front of the television. They try to work for an hour or two a day, says Gemma Cogger, 14, who runs her family hot-dog and hamburger kiosk: 'Some places you're really busy and you don't have time, so then you have to catch up a lot at the end of the week.'

The keenest children finished all the work before they finished travelling. With the exception of two poor readers, when the rest returned to school none of them had fallen behind their peers.

'They're generally in the higher sets,' says Mrs Tremayne. 'They're independent, mature and articulate and they learn quickly. Of course, they've got big gaps. But they pick up a lot of what they've missed.'

Fairground children often disappear from school at the age of 15, she says, but in the last couple of years some of T P Riley's 15-year-olds have stayed on - partly out of enthusiasm for the new system. This puts the school in a quandary: GCSE work is too complex to be taught by post. The only answer is for children to stay behind, perhaps with relatives, for the GCSE year.

It is not a good solution. Gemma and Jodie both want to stay with the fair when they leave school. Jodie's mother is impressed that the school thinks her daughter could get eight GCSEs: 'I haven't got an exam to my name and it would be good if she could get some behind her. But as for her stopping behind for the summer, I don't think that's going to work. We might manage without her for a week . . .'

(Photograph omitted)