School closed in row over travellers

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

A PRIMARY school was closed until further notice yesterday after its governors claimed that a travellers' camp was making life unbearable for pupils.

Windows were broken and bricks and iron bars were thrown at the pupils of Chigwell County Primary School in Essex after 30 to 40 caravans were parked on fields next to its buildings, the governors said. They claimed a public footpath had been fouled and that a pupil had been hit in the stomach by one of the travellers' children.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday evening they decided to close the school and send the children home until the problem had been resolved. The owner of the land is to go to court on Tuesday to seek try to win an order to move the travellers off the land.

Frank Hawkins, vice-chairman of the governors, said his nine-year-old daughter had had to walk to and from school along a footpath fouled with excrement and used nappies.

'It is cleared by the local authority in the morning but it is clogged up again by the evening. Other parents have been physically threatened. I was there one morning when a mother came to say her son had been punched by one of the travellers' children. The police established that he was under 10 and said there was nothing they could do,' he said.

Another governor, Mrs Katharine Garner, has two sons at the school.

'We are very concerned to have to shut the school but if an incident occurs and someone's head is cracked open by a brick it will be too late,' she said.

A spokesman for the county council said yesterday that children would stay at home next week and the week after, which is half-term. After that the authority would have to look for alternative accommodation if the travellers had not moved on, he said.

The school's problems began last month, when a travelling circus parked on fields next door to it. After 10 days the circus moved off, but last week it was replaced by the group of travellers.

There were complaints that pupils arriving at and leaving the school were being subjected to abuse, and that tension was growing between them and the travellers' children. A classroom window was broken during school hours, but the children were out of the room doing PE at the time and no-one was hurt.

The authority has been to talk to the travellers, but they are on private land and it does not have powers to remove them. Ironically the new Criminal Justice Bill will give them such powers when it comes into effect next year, but Essex County Council is opposed to the measures it proposes because it fears they could be misused.

John Gilliham, the ward councillor and a member of the school's governing body, said he was frustrated that nothing more could be done to remove the caravans.

'There is no way that we can put our kids in danger any more. They have been hit by missiles already. It is farcical that law-abiding, tax-paying, God-fearing people can't go about their way,' he said.