Nailing the future
Richmond Housing Partnership has found a handy way to engage with its Traveller community and help them improve their employment prospects. Emily Rogers reports
Nothing much has changed over the years for Travellers living on the Chapter Way Caravan Park, which has been nestled in the leafy south west London suburb of Hampton for more than three decades. And the mood on the site this damp midweek day offers no suggestion of anything new on the horizon.
But inside the site’s community centre, four of its young female residents are leaning forward attentively around a table of small bottles and jars which could hold the key to a first-time source of money-making independence for them, opening up new horizons beyond the confines of this tight-knit cluster of mobile chalets. These young women are just hours away from receiving a diploma in manicure.
The four trainees are in the final four-hour stretch of their eight-hour training, delivered by the company Tranquility Beauty and accredited by the Guild of Beauty Therapists. They appear to hang on every word from trainer Nita Patel, dutifully removing their bangles and rings as instructed, and conscientiously setting to work on each other’s already pristine-looking nails. Watching is Shola O’Grady, community engagement manager at Richmond Housing Partnership, the Travellers’ landlord, which has organised and paid for the £800 course which covers training for up to six people.
Tapping into interests
This is the latest in a series of recent initiatives made by the social landlord to engage its 12-family Traveller community. The manicure course was triggered by two sessions of employability training held on the Chapter Way site over the past few months, covering CV writing, interview skills and presentation. As a reward, a hair and make-up session was thrown in for the girls, at which they voiced their interest in manicure.
Ms O’Grady says the session ‘went down a treat’ and opened up a fertile path for engaging them.
This manicure course is the first accredited training RHP has provided for Travellers and head of community services Caroline Hand believes accreditation provides an important motivating factor in this tough economic climate.
This course appears to be the perfect fit for the young women of a community Ms Hand has built up a strong relationship with since she joined the organisation in 2004. It is short, provides a passport to flexible working opportunities which can fit around their all-important family commitments and, most crucially, taps into their interests.
‘One of the issues we’ve found through working with Travellers is that we can’t get them to sign up to anything long-term because of travelling and family commitments,’ she says. ‘But one of the things they do enjoy is hair and beauty.
‘This training gives them the option to become entrepreneurs and run their own business. Travellers don’t always have trust in the wider community and these skills give them the opportunity to initially work within their own community and expand to the wider community, offering real opportunities to increase understanding [between Travellers and the settled population].’
The RHP-owned community centre where these young women are learning plays an increasingly important role in their families’ lives. The centre, which costs the housing association around £650 a year to run - excluding building maintenance costs - provides the base for drop-in health checks and mobile library services, as well as housing a supplementary school for young people over the age of 14 three mornings a week.
Richmond education authority supplies a specialist teacher who knows the families well, which Ms Hand says plays a vital role in stopping the young Travellers falling out of education completely. ‘They all go to primary school and love it, but at some point in secondary school, they tend to drop out,’ she says.
Margaret, 17, who is immersed in nail painting with her younger sister Mary, 15, gained five GCSEs when she left school two years ago. She is interested in childcare but says she ‘really loves’ manicure too, adding that she’d like to get a job ‘now, before I get married’. She acknowledges that any jobs the girls get will have to be ‘women orientated’ ones. But she and the others seem accepting of the gender roles expected of them. When asked whether they harbour any desire for traditionally male jobs, they respond with ludicrous shakes of the head.
Margaret’s sister Mary, who is in the midst of her GCSEs and has already passed the maths exam, says she’d love a job like this. ‘It’s something I really enjoy,’ she enthuses. ‘We [Traveller girls] don’t really get jobs, but I’d like a job now. I’ve always felt I wanted a job, so I could have my own money to do my own things.’
In describing their school lives, the girls portray a fractious ‘us and them’ relationship with fellow pupils from the settled community, in an environment which they perceived was unfairly biased against them. Mary says she’s had more help from the teacher here than she ever had at school. ‘I didn’t really like school,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of name calling.’
‘We’d get blamed for things and it wouldn’t be us,’ chips in 16-year-old fellow trainee Martina. ‘They knew we’d say something back and that we’d have to have the last word,’ remembers Margaret. ‘They knew how to get us started.’
But Margaret and Mary are among the young Travellers here who have started to ease these fraught past relationships by mixing with their settled peers, thanks to another service which RHP runs from this community centre. The housing association has secured £4,500 of Department of Health funding to run a crèche for under-fives, which opened last month for two afternoons a week.
It plays an important role in freeing up the site’s teenage girls, who are generally relied upon to look after their younger siblings. These include Margaret and Mary, the oldest of eight siblings, who are now able to join in a nearby youth project.
‘It has brought down barriers between the community and the girls,’ says Ms O’Grady. ‘The feedback I’m getting from the youth club is that they’re really loving it.’
A toddler in ringlets and ribbons wanders in. She turns out to be two-year-old Priscilla, one of the children from the crèche and Margaret and Mary’s youngest sister. She is followed in by their mother Ann-Marie, who says RHP’s activity on this site is making a ‘big difference’.
‘When they come out of school there’s nothing else for them usually, but here, they’ve got more,’ she says. ‘The teacher here comes to get them from their caravans if they don’t turn up. If it wasn’t for this, they could’ve just got cut off. I want them to get better jobs when they’re older, not just Traveller jobs.’
Back at the training table, the four girls - one of whom did not wish to be photographed while the others did not wish to give their surnames - are showing they are much happier in front of a camera than a reporter’s notebook. They burst voluptuously out of their shells for a quick photo shoot, adopting model poses and relishing every camera flash.
This is the first course that manicure trainer Ms Patel has delivered on a Traveller site, but she sees a market for more. Her trainees, she says, have picked things up ‘amazingly quickly’. They all chorus their approval once the course comes to an end. Mary says she will pursue her new dream to get work as a manicurist and run her own salon once she turns 16 in August. ‘It’s good, because I’ll always have an option now [in manicure],’ says her friend Martina. ‘We could go into business together.’
The girls walk back to their mobile chalets clutching their manicure kits, which Ms Hand hopes they will soon carry out of their site for jobs elsewhere. She is already planning their first paid assignment, a manicure day for staff at RHP’s offices, which she hopes could be the first step towards them turning their new skills to the wider community. She sees an RHP-run older people’s accommodation block around the corner as a possible source of their next batch of customers.
The housing association’s head of community services views the course as a small step forward in her ongoing efforts to strengthen the Travellers’ relationship with the wider community and to give them a leg-up into the world of work.
‘We just want to be able to give these young people more choices and this is our window of opportunity,’ she says. ‘It’s important that we give them skills to become more self-sufficient.’