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An Unknown Hero



School For Scandal
The Guardian, January 15th, 2002

When five new children arrived at St Joseph's it felt like a miracle - the school was facing closure because of dwindling numbers. But there was a catch: the newcomers were Travellers, and soon the local children were gone. Dea Birkett on fear and loathing in rural Galway

You can see the newly painted bright yellow school as soon as you come over the crest of the hill. It stands out proud against the deep, dank green of the sodden fields and flinty grey of the dry-stone dykes. Outside, a handful of children are playing. When Brid Connolly started teaching at St Joseph's in Ballinruane, County Galway 35 years ago, there were 82 pupils. The numbers have been dwindling ever since. Last September there were just a dozen pupils left, taught by Connolly and one other teacher in two cavernous rooms. The village's tiny school was under threat of closure. Then the Wards, a family of Irish Travellers, halted their caravans and sent their five children to Connolly. It seemed like a blessing: with five new pupils, St Joseph's would be saved.

But over the next few days, the village children stopped turning up. Soon, the classrooms were near-empty. Josephine Loftus's 10-year-old son Cathal was one of the last to leave. "I would have been prepared to go back to school if every other parent had. If all the children had gone back, I'd have given it a chance," she says. Within two weeks, all 12 village children had withdrawn. Now, with just the five Traveller children's names on the register, St Joseph's will close down.

"The first day I taught here, 35 years ago, the priest told me a tale about integration - about children of all creeds," says Brid Connolly, who is now principal teacher. "He said you have to take every child regardless. That's been my motto all through. All children would be treated equally. The villagers don't think of the future at all. There are grandparents who won't have a school for their grandchildren. A lot of them will rue it."

Ballinruane, 40 miles from Galway town in the west of Ireland, is a small place - so insignificant that there's not a single signpost to point the way - but far from quaint. The ancient fields are surrounded by newly built homes. It is an area of social ambition; the occasional row of fake ionic columns prop up front porticos that are always too cold and wet to sit on. It's a sprawling place, with no church, no post office, no pub and no petrol pump. It's a village without a heart.This is an unlikely battlefield for the principles of educational integration. But it has found its own place in the long history of what Travellers and Gypsies see as prejudice. Throughout the Roma world, and in the many Gypsy internet newsrooms, everyone has heard of Ballinruane.

In those two classrooms, Connolly is taking down photographs of the former pupils, removing their past work from the pinboards, and replacing it with that of the Traveller children. "I'm only just getting things sorted, putting their paintings up," she says. Five-year-old Tom, the youngest Ward child, has coloured in Humpty Dumpty. Rebecca, 13 and the eldest, is writing her name. "I learnt to do painting. I learnt to do drawing. I learnt my English and my sums. I learnt to spell my name. I like this school," she says. "I can write my name too," chips in Bernie, aged nine. Seven-year-old Debbie, with big gold-loop earrings, points excitedly to a new word on the blackboard for spelling today. She reads it out loud - "school".

There are an estimated 5,000 Traveller children at mainstream primary schools in Ireland out of a total Traveller population of 25,000. But as they get older, they get fewer. The most recent survey, over a year ago, showed there were 38 in the sixth year of secondary school and just one in further education. The Travellers are unwelcome at school and therefore avoid an education. And because they're uneducated, they're unwelcome at school.

"This boy [Martin Ward] boasted how he could write his name. And he'd been sitting next to my son!" says Loretta Brennan, whose 11-year-old Niall was withdrawn from class the day the Wards arrived. "They talk about integration, but how can you integrate a child doing ABCs while Niall's on his geography? The parents can't be that interested in their children being educated, otherwise they wouldn't be where they are today."

Brennan and the other villagers are beneficiaries of the Celtic Tiger's economic strength and are thriving, sophisticated citizens of Europe. They just don't want their kids to be educated alongside too many uneducated tinkers. Brennan heard the Travellers were enrolling when she was at a football match with Niall one Saturday in September, two days before the start of the new academic year. "We weren't consulted. We were usually consulted about everything - we'd have a meeting about the colour of the new carpet," she says indignantly, sitting in her vast modern kitchen under the flickering red electric candle of the Bleeding Heart. "What about our rights? What would you do if, say, nine refugees started working in your Guardian office? Wouldn't you want to be consulted first?" Since that Saturday, Niall, who had been at St Joseph's for six years, has not been back.

But among the many reasons the prosperous villagers give for withdrawing their children from St Joseph's, the fact that Rebecca, Martin, Bernie, Debbie and Tom Ward are Travellers is never one of them: "It's all down to the ratio," says Brennan. "It's the ratio that bothered us. We wouldn't mind two Travellers. But five..."

"The ratio" was a phrase repeated like a mantra by all the parents. "The ratio" was Josephine Loftus's main concern too. Loftus is a parent member of St Joseph's board of management, and teaches business studies in a secondary school in Galway. "I heard the rumour that there were Travellers starting on Monday. I rang the principal teacher to confirm it. I wouldn't consider myself racist, but I would think that five Travellers with 12 local kids..."

It's only a few hundred yards from Loftus's comfortable new home to the three battered caravans, none longer than 14ft, where Anne Ward lives with her 10 children, five of them of primary school age. The ground surrounding their mobile home is littered with discarded hubcaps, sodden blankets are left at the side of the road in the rain, and washing is spread out over the hedges. Their neighbours, renowned for being both tight-knit and friendly, have never visited. "They never said nothing. They done it real quiet. They just did it," she says. "I think it's disgusting. Five little children weren't going to do any harm in the school."

Loftus says she had long been worried about how few boys there were of Cathal's age to play with. "If numbers at school fell further, we were concerned about his social development, his lack of friends, his lack of interaction with his own age group. The lack of a football team," she says.

But when the settled parents talk of needing more children in the school, they do not mean Travellers. Eleven-year-old Martin and nine-year-old Bernie could have been playmates for Cathal. But Loftus says: "I don't think you'd improve the social development of your own children to have children of a different culture. It's not the same as chil dren of your own culture. My instinct was that the situation wasn't going to work." It is an argument the Ward children understand only too clearly. I asked 13-year-old Rebecca why the village kids left school when she arrived. She replies simply: "They don't like us."

In a recent survey by the Citizen Traveller Campaign, 1,000 settled Irish adults were asked about their attitude towards inclusion of 13 different minority groups. Travellers came out second from bottom, just above drug addicts; 70% said they wouldn't accept a Traveller as a friend.

Most of the village children were given places at St Patrick's school, in the neighbouring village of Gorbally, within a week. The department of education did not seek to prevent them leaving St Joseph's. According to Maugie Francis, the department's national education officer for Travellers, "There isn't an issue any more. It's a very strong parental choice here in Ireland. We wouldn't interfere really. All the parents are happy." But she confirmed that with the enrolment figure at five, St Joseph's will be shutting down. Gorbally school has 51 pupils, none of them Travellers.

It is easy to criticise the villagers of Ballinruane and claim it wouldn't happen here. But Gypsies are the most maligned and misunderstood of all ethnic groups, and the most vulnerable to attack. In 1999, an Ofsted report into minority groups in education in Britain said: "The level of hostility faced by Gypsy Traveller children is probably greater than from any other minority ethnic group."

Only one-third of Gypsy children attend school in Britain, often sporadically. By the end of the compulsory schooling age, that figure drops to just 5%. "I suggest Ballinruane is not an isolated incident," says Jacinta Brack, director of the Citizen Traveller Campaign. "It has happened before - we just haven't seen it so clearly."

Cases like Ballinruane blight everyone involved. "This community has recently lost its priest. I've already seen the effect that has. The community spirit is undermined," says Loftus. "What's essential to a community? Having a school, having a church, people coming together. The community doesn't want to see that school go." She knows her children may inherit something even more damaging. "My biggest concern is them remembering, when they've grown up, moving school because there were Travellers. And they'll grow up racists. That's my biggest concern."

All Anne Ward wanted was a basic education for her children. "Martin can read and write his name now. I'm not going to let them run me out," she says. "Even if St Joseph's is closed down, I'll find another school."

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