Village school that's the forgotten victim of the Dale Farm invasion

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Village school that's the forgotten victim of the Dale Farm invasion

Post by Guest on Sat Nov 12, 2011 9:37 am

Village school that's the forgotten victim of the Dale Farm invasion

Despite the passage of 75 years, John Head’s memory of standing at the gates of Crays Hill Primary School as he was separated from his mother for the first time is as vivid today as it was when he was five.

‘I was crying my eyes out,’ says the retired plumber, sitting in his Essex home just a short stroll from the imposing red brick school that he remembers being filled with the clamour of playful children.

Pointing at a framed picture of his grown-up son and daughter, the 80-year-old grandfather adds: ‘They went there. In those days that school was the heart of the village. It brought the community together.

‘We knew we had a good school because the headmaster sent his own children there. Folks used to move here just to get their children enrolled.’

But the school that opened in 1924 in the parish of Crays Hill, which is listed in the Domesday Book, is viewed very differently by villagers today.
While more than 200 local children used to cram into classrooms, only three now attend. Rather than enjoying an outstanding reputation as it used to, league tables from 2009 show the school was the worst in the country for the three Rs — and truancy.

Crays Hill Primary School is no longer the hub of village life. Indeed, villagers today drive six miles or more to schools in nearby towns.

Crays Hill serves a very different community now — almost exclusively a specialist school for the children of the hundreds of travellers living nearby at Dale Farm —scene last month of the violent evictions from Britain’s biggest illegal traveller encampment.

Of the 110 children currently on the school register, 80 are from the legal site still at Dale Farm, 27 are from the now cleared illegal plots, with just three from families living in houses in the village.

But the evictions have changed the dynamic at the school, raising the prospect that a good number of children may soon be moving on. And villagers are daring to hope that they might one day be able to reclaim their beloved primary.

Each weekday morning two minibuses, costing taxpayers £30,000 a year, travel the short distance from the Dale Farm encampment to the school which lies midway between Wickford and Billericay.

Because of the high levels of truancy, the exact number of children on board is an eagerly debated point among Crays Hill residents. Some say as few as 20 turn up.

Essex County Council insists that the real attendance figure at the school is in the 50s, reflecting official research that found more than 60 per cent of pupils were persistently absent from school in 2009, and just over 50 per cent last year.

But even more controversial is the amount of public money it costs.

According to Department for Education statistics, each pupil receives £5,864 in annual funding, dwarfing the national average for primary school children of £3,883.

And that figure is based on a full register of 110 children. Since only half of them turn up at best, the reality is that each pupil has more than £10,000 funding a year. That is roughly the same as the fees at Holmwood House, the preparatory school in nearby Colchester that is a feeder school to Eton College.

David McPherson-Davis, 71, a parish councillor and one time governor, says: ‘Crays Hill Primary School is a private school for travellers’ children. It’s a complete and utter misuse of our taxes. And even then, only a handful turn up.’

Andy Peake, chairman of the parish council, struggles to contain his exasperation. ‘People here are so upset over what has happened at that school,’ he says. ‘It has ripped the heart out of this village.’

Mr Peake, 61, was chair of governors and led a mass resignation from the board in 2004 after failing to secure more funding for extra teachers to cope with the demands placed on staff by the initial influx of traveller pupils.

Villagers began removing their children as education standards plummeted. ‘It was a difficult time. Every parent knows how important a child’s education is. And when they saw that the traveller children needed special attention, there were concerns that their own children’s education was consequently being held back,’ he says.

In 2007, an Ofsted report noted how the school had ‘changed significantly’ since the previous inspection five years earlier. The inspector wrote that it serves ‘predominantly children from travelling families of Irish heritage … over half have learning difficulties or disabilities and many more are entitled to free meals’.

According to Sally Aungier — one of the last mums from the village to take her child out of the school in 2004 — as soon as the first pupil was removed, everyone followed suit.

‘When it became a school used mainly by travellers there was a transformation here — it was like the Pied Piper leading the children away from Hamelin,’ she says.

‘I remember people with young kids moving home because they found the six-mile round trip to the school outside the village exhausting. I would almost weep as I drove my daughter past her old school to North Crescent Primary in Wickford. This used to be our school.

‘It’s a terrible shame. The summer fete brought everyone together. There were children from the legal site at Dale Farm who studied there, but we all got on fine.’

As young families moved out, house prices began to plunge. It became rare for new families to move in either because of concerns about the traveller encampment or because the local school contained predominantly traveller children.

Mrs Aungier’s four-bedroom cottage is languishing on the market. ‘Parents would come to view the house and you would dread them asking about the local school,’ she adds. ‘Houses here are increasingly being bought by elderly or middle-aged couples who commute.’

Even her plans to rent her home have hit a snag after an agent warned rental prices would have to be reduced by 15 per cent until the ‘Dale Farm issue’ was resolved.

The tragedy is that Crays Hill is still potentially a good school — particularly so, given the unique challenges it faces.

A 2009 Ofsted report noted how dedicated and hard-working staff are in dealing with children who almost invariably come from backgrounds where parents do not read and write. Pupils can suddenly vanish for long periods on their travels.

On top of that, the inspector wrote how most youngsters had ‘speech, literacy, physical or emotional and behavioural learning difficulties and/or disabilities’.
The teachers there work hard to help the children come to terms with ‘extreme’ resentment they sometimes encounter outside school.

Nevertheless, the exam results for 11-year-olds are appalling. The school came bottom of national league tables after pupils failed to grasp basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills three years ago.

Whether the travellers’ children will move on from Crays Hill Primary is not clear. Jean Sheridan, a 27-year-old traveller and mother of four forced to leave the illegal camp, says she still intends to send her eldest daughter, nearly five, to the school.

After the eviction, she simply parked her 19ft caravan on one of the legal plots on Dale Farm. Of the school, she explained she wants her children to have the education she didn’t get.

‘I don’t understand big words, can’t read a newspaper or magazine or send a text message,’ she said. ‘But I want my children to be able to read and write.’

Scarred? The stress and strains surrounding the Dale Farm scenario may well affect the children in the long-run
Miss Sheridan, who lives off benefit, accepts that truancy rates are high, in part because children ‘have to’ attend fairs with their family to look after the horses.

In the run-up to the eviction, Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England, wrote to the council seeking assurances that it would take into consideration the rights of the children at the travellers’ site.

She maintains: ‘These children, like any others in England, are required by law to be in full-time education from the term after they turn five, and local authorities must have places for every child to be educated.’

But many villagers feel the rights of the travellers have superseded theirs. Few have missed the irony that the rallying cry of travellers fighting eviction on the steps of High Court or on the battle lines drawn with riot police was their children’s right to an education.

‘Funny that. Especially when you consider that the truancy rate is so high,’ said one mother.

Yet there is still hope that Crays Hill Primary can be reclaimed by the local community now the eviction has taken place. Councillor Peake remains determined to return it to its rightful place as the centre of village life.

‘We need to know how many children are actually attending the school. Then we have to start selling it to parents from the settled community to get them back there,’ he said.

Despite everything, former pupil John Head, along with his wife, Elaine, 79, remains proud of the community where his family settled all those years ago.

Sitting beneath an aerial photograph of the house he built himself in 1957, he raises his hands as he considers the school’s future.

‘Village schools are getting few and far between,’ he says.
‘It would be lovely if we could turn the clock back. But we can’t do that. We have to move on and find a solution.’

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God almighty, if anyone else has mentioned behavioural problems, illiterate parents etc they would have at the very least received a stiff talking to from the police.

Yet these Ofsted inspectors actually publish this in a report.

This whole situation has been turned into a complete farce with ordinary English children being disriminated against. I wish the English would actually put their children first occasionally, and they wonder why they riot eh?


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