I haven’t had as much contact with schools as I had expected, although schools have provided the venue for a range of events. In October we spent a memorable evening in North Street Primary School, Leigh-on-Sea, attending a performance by N-Act Theatre in Schools of ‘Invisible’, which explored issues relating to mental health in young people. They perform the play to audiences of children in both primary and secondary schools, but this evening was for parents (partly to help them spot early signs of something not being right with their children) and teachers. The plays are powerful, very well performed with just a few props to support the acting, and are followed by discussion led by Dr Sharon Williams, N-Act’s founder and artistic director. We’ve since seen another of their plays, ‘Friends’, which tackles the subject gangs in an equally engaging and thought-provoking way.
Then in January I visited the Heybridge Co-Operative Academy, only a couple of miles down the road from where we live and therefore somewhere I’ve driven past many times, but also an institution I’d heard about (as a pupil referral unit) from my time as a Youth Panel magistrate. I’d imagined something rather run-down, where hopeless cases are contained during school hours, but instead I found a bright, well-equipped school, with artwork on the walls and children in uniform much like any other school, the difference being that it’s all on rather a small scale (it was built in 1913 as a village primary school) with a total of about 115 students in classes of four or five. Although it caters mainly for disruptive pupils who have been excluded from mainstream school (and may well have been in trouble with the police), the school also provides for children who have medical conditions which make mainstream schooling difficult, and for young carers. Of course the behaviour of some of their students continues to be challenging, but some return to mainstream schooling and others go on to college (and may already be studying one or two days a week before they leave Heybridge). Some of their students have gone on to university and they told me of one who is now a doctor. In 2015 (then Heybridge Alternative Provision School) they were rated Outstanding by Ofsted.
It was surprising, then, to find myself visiting two schools on the same day earlier this week. In the morning I went to Hamilton Primary School in Colchester at the invitation of the headteacher, Nick Hutchings, to speak at their assemblies – first juniors, then infants. I was probably more worried about this than anything else I’ve done as High Sheriff, anxious as to how I would manage to explain to a young audience what the High Sheriff is and does. But one good thing about the High Sheriff’s outfit is that it is a very good icebreaker, and the sword in particular is an easy way of engaging attention. I was relieved to find that the Sheriff of Nottingham is still a familiar figure, and if the Wild West generally is not as popular a cultural theme as it once was, the figure of Sheriff Woody from ‘Toy Story’ is familiar to most. So the link to law and order (of a sort) was made and they asked enough questions to convince me that their good behaviour was more than just politeness.
The afternoon visit to Crays Hill Primary School, just to the north of Basildon, could not have been more different: from an ‘Outstanding’ school with over 400 pupils to a ‘Good’ one with 103. But the reason for the visit was not to meet the children but to attend a meeting of the Traveller Health and Wellbeing Group that is organised by Basildon Council. Of the 103 pupils, 101 are children of Irish Travellers from the nearby Oak Lane and other sites, and the main reason the school is rated Good rather than Outstanding is that the children miss out on so much of their education while they are travelling with their families, for weeks or months on end. It’s a sad fact that almost none of the children go on to secondary education, largely because the expectation is that boys will start working with their fathers and the girls will start looking after the home. It is not that the children end up lacking skills, but they are not the skills that are currently considered the norm in the wider community. Bullying at secondary school – where they are very much the minority – does not exactly help. Crays Hill does a wonderful job with its pupils but the fact that only two children are not Travellers is a sad reflection on the general state of prejudice; young children are generally more accepting of difference in all its forms than their parents.
Those at the meeting included representatives of Basildon Council, the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit, and Essex Child and Wellbeing Family Service, and also Father Dan Mason, parish priest in Billericay, who is a governor of the school as well as being the National Catholic Chaplain to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Essex Police and the Fire and Rescue Service are regular attenders, although not on this occasion – this was an extra meeting that had kindly been convened to fit in with my timetable. Much of the discussion was concerned with Southend YMCA’s SOS bus, which will be resuming visits to the Oak Lane site in March following a gap in funding that has now been filled (with a little help from the High Sheriff). The bus is staffed by a mix of agencies that provide social welfare services and health promotional outreach, and there is no reason to doubt that it will prove as successful when it resumes as it has been in the past. A degree of trust has been built up which helps to bridge the gap between the Travellers and the wider community, and the hope is to secure more funding to provide a similar scheme across Essex, under the auspices of the Countywide Traveller Unit. It’s an initiative that deserves the widest possible support.