Children become pawns in gypsy camp battle: Parents plan to boycott a village school in protest over an official travellers' site. Peter Dunn reports

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RESIDENTS of Middlezoy, Somerset, who have lost their pounds 30,000 court battle to stop an official transit camp for gypsies being built outside their village, are targeting gypsy children in an attempt to make their community a no-go area for Romany families.

Parents are now threatening to take their children out of the local primary school if gypsy pupils are enrolled there when the pounds 250,000 camp opens for up to 20 caravans this autumn.

Somerset county council, which has started work on the site after the High Court ended a six-month villagers' picket, is dismayed by renewed fury of the Middlezoy campaign. Officials will meet parents on 29 June in an attempt to allay their fears. 'The whole atmosphere in Somerset has been poisoned by what's going on in Middlezoy,' one senior officer involved in work with gypsy children said. 'There's a sense in which it could become a little Bosnia.'

Discrimination against gypsies is illegal under the Race Relations Act 1976. However, the creation of a Middlezoy exclusion zone continues apace. John Kirk, landlord of the the George pub, says he will not serve anyone from the transit camp. 'I can refuse who I like, can't I? I'm not saying I'm going to bar gypsies, that's more than I dare say, but I bar who I want to bar.'

Norman 'Nobby' Turner, leader of the village campaign, says parents are afraid for their children's future. 'Fears stem mainly from the fact that the gypsies can only stay 28 days on site. Assuming they're reluctant to send their children to school it would take the authorities five days to persuade them, leaving about 15 days in school. People here believe primary school education is very important, the formative years and they're frightened their children will pick up attitudes of, perhaps, the travelling fraternity who don't want to go to school.'

Mr Turner also said some parents were prepared to wreck the gypsy site. 'It's not a question of people getting at the travellers' children. It's what some parents might now start doing, like destroy the place. I believe they've already had a couple of attempts.'

Other rural schools in Somerset, like Churchstanton (103 pupils) and North Curry (135), have long records of assimilating gypsy children. Ralph Bullock, head of Churchstanton, which has 10 children from Culmhead gypsy camp, says: 'What's surprised me since I came here a year ago is the tolerance of life-styles, the way not only the children mixed but the parents too. Here, a child's a child. There's no conflict.' And North Curry's head, Graham Linacre, says: 'We've found having travelling children here to be enriching.'

Officials admit that there can be problems. Four years ago, 30 gypsy children - three times the usual number - turned up at North Curry without warning. The county council now employs specialist staff to deal with such problems.

John Hamlin, head of Middlezoy school, is sad about the conflict. 'Children are children and our role is to give them all the best education we can,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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