"I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism." Kenan Malik

Dale Farm – The View from the Local Primary School


We are proud to have Cray’s Hill Primary School  – ‘the worst school in the England’ – in the family of schools we work with and we invited the school’s chair of governors, Jo Lang, to give the school’s view of the battle raging over the Dale Farm traveller community. This is what she has to say:

There has never been an Irish Traveller eviction in Britain to hit the headlines in the way the Dale Farm land clearance has.  National and international media, the United Nations, the European Union, politicians, police, actors, activists, artists…all of human life is here.

Most of the children on the Dale Farm Traveller site of primary school age come to Crays Hill Primary, and we are happy to have them.  We have other children, some English Travellers, some local non-Travellers, some children who have been given-up on by other schools, but the vast majority are of Irish Traveller heritage.

Ten years ago, a small legal Traveller site near Basildon began to expand on to land the occupants owned but didn’t have planning permission to live on.  The children came to the school, becoming pawns in the village community’s battle to have the pitches without permission cleared and the Travellers moved off. Numbers of Travellers in the school swelled; increasingly village people took their children out, the balance shifted until the Governors walked out in protest. Here we are now, waiting for the bailiffs to start an eviction which will touch the lives of all our children, and strike at the heart of the school community we have built up.

I’ve been chair of governors for the last six years, proud to be associated with the challenges and rewards of a completely unique, very special school, with an amazing, dedicated and child-focussed Headteacher, so with a deep breath and long practice, here is a beginner’s guide to Dale Farm and Crays Hill Primary…

Question 1

Isn’t Crays Hill the pikey school?

Crays Hill is a community school and we take any child whose parents want to send them here.  And, by the way, would you call a school in Stratford a paki school?

Question 2

Pikey isn’t racist.  And anyway, they call us ‘Gorjers’.

‘Pikey ‘is the equivalent of ‘Paki’ or ‘Nigger’.  ‘Gorjers’ is what some Travellers sometimes call non-Travellers.  It does have negative overtones and, of course, that makes responding in kind absolutely OK because we all know two wrongs make a right, don’t we..

Question 3

If they live in one place, they can’t be Travellers, can they?

If I went and lived in France, that would make me French, wouldn’t it?  If an Indian lives in Britain, that makes them British, right?  Being an Irish Traveller is being part of a recognised minority ethnic group. It is a heritage, a way of life, a racial identity and a culture.

Question 4

If they are Travellers, why do they want to live in one place?

There is no room in our society for Travellers to live on the road, roaming from place to place, sharpening knives and helping at harvest.  Our families travel from Ireland, to John O’Groats, across Europe and as far as Australia to work. They also travel to be with family for weddings, births and funerals.  But they need to have a place to come back to, where they can have their kids in school, access healthcare, and live their lives when they aren’t travelling.

Question 5

They’ve broken the law and the law of the land should be applied equally to all. 

Well, yes it should, and they don’t have planning permission to live on one side of the Dale Farm site. Bear in mind, though, that 95% of applications for planning permission put forward by Travellers are turned down, Green Belt or not.  No other ethnic group suffers this much discrimination at the hands of planning authorities, and it is mostly because nothing unites the people of a village like a campaign against Travellers. Do you think this will improve as the Government develops the opportunity for local residents to have a bigger say in planning decisions?

Question 6

Crays Hill School has the lowest attendance rates and the lowest attainment of any school in the country, so it must be rubbish, mustn’t it?

Not one but two Ofsted reports say we are ‘Good with Outstanding Features’. Our attendance rate last academic year was 41%.  Travellers travel and we keep their places open for them so that as soon as they are back they are in school, with no extra forms to fill in and no time lost.  They may only be here for a day, a week, a month, but while they are with us they will get the best possible education. So it knocks our attendance figures. We have data to show that when they are able to attend they do attend, and while they are here their progress is good. Statistically, there are things we could do to improve the data, but actually, isn’t education about children?

The list of questions goes on and on, and so does the discrimination.  Irish Travellers have the worst health statistics of any racial group in the UK, and live, on average, ten years less than the national average.  They have the worst educational outcomes of any group.

Imagine between a third and half the pupils in your school could be made homeless tomorrow.  Think what high levels of anxiety they and their friends and extended family would be feeling and showing. Think what would happen if you lost perhaps 50% of your per capita income next year.  How would you keep staff motivated, passionate and professional when they know the land clearance could cost them their jobs?  Imagine that a third or more of your pupils will be living on the roadside, education limited to travelling packs that are probably meaningless and indecipherable to their parents and then tell us how you would raise their attainment when/if they return to school.

Our vision for Crays Hill is that it is the school of first choice for all parents in our catchment area, where children learn together, play together, respect each other and breakdown the barriers their parents have built.

After six years of trying it doesn’t feel like we are much furter forward (and if you have any thoughts or recommendations from your own experiences then please them on via learn@independentthinking.co.uk) but we will keep trying and stay focussed on what school shod be about – giving every child the best possible opportunity to learn and grow.



One response

  1. Mike

    My own recollections about Crays Hill School are mixed.
    I was a governor there for 6 years in the 1980’s.

    There were always some traveller children on the roll, a dozen or so perhaps.
    They needed more teacher input and time than the other kids but the staff were not overwhelmed.
    The feedback from all parents was generally positive and when the kids went on to secondary schools most of them did pretty well.

    Towards the end of my stint, the county education authority proposed a change in secondary school catchment area boundaries.
    I led a fight against the proposal and uncovered local politics at it’s worst – councillors conspiring to prop up a very poorly performing local comprehensive, where kids parents were voting with their feet.
    The comprehensive’s chairman of governors “sold” his vote on other issues to another party in a NOC council in exchange for their agreement to shift the catchment area boundary, suck in Crays Hill’s children and mask the falling roll numbers at his school and the cause – mostly incompetent leadership.
    That bit of my recollection actually had a good ending ; the minister responsible, Bob Dunn intervened and overturned the county decision.

    From the early 2000’s,long after I’d gone, traveller children arrived in great numbers and the consequent pressures on the staff there proved overwhelming .
    Pleas were made to the education authority for more and specialised staff to help cope with the particular educational and behavioural needs of the traveller kids and to try and make sure that the education of the rest did not suffer. The pleas fell on deaf ears, educational standards fell alarmingly and parents of kids from the settled community took their children away, with cries of racists ringing in their ears .

    Those teaching and running the school in those years could provide reflections too but for many the experience is still too painful.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

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