School where every pupil (bar one) is a traveller

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The Independent Online

On school days at 8.45am a parade of four-wheel-drives and shiny estate cars sweeps up the drive of Crays Hill primary school in Essex. Little bands of children in red uniforms hop excitedly on to the gravel and race into the playground, shouting goodbyes to mothers.

On school days at 8.45am a parade of four-wheel-drives and shiny estate cars sweeps up the drive of Crays Hill primary school in Essex. Little bands of children in red uniforms hop excitedly on to the gravel and race into the playground, shouting goodbyes to mothers.

Only the accents give a hint that this is the little village school now filled almost exclusively by the children of Irish travelling families. Local parents withdrew their children after the travellers arrived. The roll has fallen from 200 to 51, and only one pupil is not from a travelling family. There were seven classes; now there are only two. Yesterday, only 36 pupils turned up.

"We find ourselves in a unique situation," the acting headteacher, Val Burgess, said yesterday. "This was an extremely sought-after village school. But we want to have a good balance of pupils. It's healthy to have a good mix."

Crays Hill, a 2,000-strong village near Billericay, has boycotted the school. Many residents are furious to have an illegal encampment on their doorstep and say taxpayer-funded services are being used by those who contribute nothing.

Mrs Burgess and her staff are trying to win back their support. A mother-and-toddler group at the school already attracts a mix of families and there are plans to start an "extended school", with a breakfast club and after-school activities. A scheme sponsored by an educational charity has issued a laptop to all six of the school's final-year pupils which they will be allowed to take home.

Inside, the school is like any successful primary, with bright carpets, glossy paintwork and walls festooned with children's work. The classrooms are quiet and calm and the pupils, who appear polite and enthusiastic, engrossed in their lessons. But many rooms lie empty now. Where there were seven classes there are now only two.

The school runs just like any other primary, Mrs Burgess says. But staff have had special training in travellers' culture to give them a better understanding of their pupils' way of life and customs. "Sometimes the children will be reluctant to accept something you want them to do - say, getting the little ones to sit on the carpet for storytime," she says. "You have to realise this is something they are told not to do at home for, presumably, historic cultural reasons. Many of them live in beautiful pre-fab homes with crystal on display and glass coffee tables. But culturally there are differences we have to appreciate."

Toys and books which reflect the travellers' way of life are also used in the school. Judi Embling, the school community liaison officer, said: "The children would still play with doll's houses but they will also play with trailers and caravans."

The travellers' site is two miles away. And despite the positive ethos of the school, nothing can disguise the bitter divide in the community.Until two years ago, Crays Hill managed to exist in harmony with the 12 traveller families who lived on an approved site and whose children attended the school. But 18 months ago, an influx of mainly Irish families began illegally developing a Green Belt site into a sprawling estate that is now home to 500 travellers. As more of their children joined the school, village parents started removing theirs, saying standards were falling and claiming the traveller children were taking up too much of teachers' time.

In April, most of the governors resigned, citing fears about falling numbers and future funding. Essex County councillors accused the villagers of using the school to score political points in a campaign to have the travellers evicted. After a public inquiry, the travellers have been told they must leave by May next year.

Kim Gandy, 44, who removed her six-year-old son in February, said villagers were not prejudiced against travellers but simply wanted the best for their own children. Her son was left "painting pictures and making models" while traveller children got all the teachers' attention, she said.

But Don Morris, chairman of governors and an Essex county councillor, says local people will soon be begging for their children to be admitted. "We are here to educate children," he said. "It doesn't matter what their background is or where they are from. There are one of two people in the community who keep having a pop.

"I think they are doing great harm to the school and I wish they would leave us alone to get on with the job of turning this school around. These children are working damn hard and I think we are going to see some good results."

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