Building relationship between caravan park (trailer park) residents and school

An article originally published in the Boys in School Bulletin (2009). This article is about engaging students (boy and girls) and their families from a marginalised section of the community.  Caravan parks are similar to Trailer Parks in North America.

Between 2006 and 2008 the Caravan Project at the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle, received funding from the Telstra Foundation Community Development Fund to conduct an action research project supporting students from Mountain View Caravan Park who were attending Mountain View Public School*. This paper discusses the project, Stepping Stones: From caravan park to school, in particular the experience of the families from the park and attempts to improve relationships between the park residents and the school.

People who live in caravan parks because they have few, or no, other choices are a significant and often vulnerable group in the community (Wensing, 2003). A survey conducted by the Caravan Project (Stuart, 2005) of 142 residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks and manufactured home villages found that:

  • 68% had completed no higher than Year 10 at school
  • 85% relied on pensions or benefits from Centrelink
  • 30% had experienced mental health problems
  •  48% had no car in their household
  •  40% had experienced homelessness
  •  21% of the families with children had had contact with the Department of Community Services in the past 12 months.

The survey also identified that residents were much more transient than the general population. Forty eight percent of the residents had been living at the same address for more than one year compared to 92% nationally and only 15% were living at the same address for five years or more compared to 58% nationally.

While caravan parks can provide many challenges, there are also many strengths in caravan park communities. The Caravan Project survey found that of the 142 participants, most said they were satisfied (45.8%) or very satisfied (31.7%) with their current living arrangements and only 22.5% were not satisfied (Stuart, 2005). People who were living with their children were less likely to be satisfied than those who lived without children (Stuart, 2005).

In-depth interviews with 10 residents (all of whom moved onto a caravan park as a last resort) suggest that some of the strengths of caravan parks include the sense of community, friendships formed in the park and informal support networks.

The experience of students from Mountain View Caravan Park

The students from Mountain View Caravan Park generally experienced multiple layers of disadvantage. Most residents, but not all, were living in the caravan park because they had few, or no, other choices. Whilst it is set in a picturesque location, the caravan park is geographically isolated being 15 km from two town centres (in opposite directions). The main town centre included a fairly large shopping district, Centrelink, a library, a health polyclinic, law court, police, and a range of other services. The smaller town centre included the school and a few shops. The only shops within 10 km were petrol stations with a limited range of expensive goods.

At the time of the project, the only public transport was the school bus and only approximately a third of the residents had a registered car. In order to get to the main town centre by public transport, residents had to catch the school bus (out in the morning and back in the afternoon) then a train and bus (about 2 hours each way). The return trip by taxi was approximately $85. There was an informal arrangement on the caravan park that residents would sometimes give each other lifts for $10 return.

The park had no community facilities besides the toilet/laundry block and a picnic table. Although the park owner was attempting to improve the standard of the accommodation, most of the caravans were old and needed repair. There were no cabins and only a few of the vans had annexes. The park had plenty of open space for playing and there was bushland surrounding the park, which a few of the older children used for playing.

The residents provided each other with significant informal support and some of them spoke about the park having a strong sense of community. There were frequent examples of residents lending each other money or food, keeping an eye on each other’s children and sharing information. As one of the parents commented:

I didn’t think I would like it here, but I have actually fallen into the lifestyle. I like most of the people around here…. When you run out of sugar, somebody will have it, if you run out of money – money is not an issue on this park because there is always someone that will lend you money: as long as you pay it back. Things like that you don’t have in the outside world. (Parent 2)

There were also numerous challenges for families living in the caravan park, particularly when they first moved in. As one of the mothers said, “it was pretty bad when we moved in… [and] I changed the locks”. The children experienced or witnessed high levels of violence. Some of them came from families where there was domestic and family violence. All of them were likely to be exposed to violence on the park.

One afternoon Dave confronted John in the toilets claiming that John’s son had thrown eggs at their van. John was in the toilet cubicle using the toilet at the time and Dave broke down the door and assaulted John breaking the toilet in the process. John went straight to the caretakers and told them what had occurred, but they didn’t do anything. When he left the office Dave attacked John again in front of an after school group being run by the Caravan Project. Dave punched and kicked John while he was on the ground. John’s teenage children and Dave’s primary school aged children witnessed the fight. At one stage Dave’s children were lying on the ground, screaming and were clearly very frightened. When Dave stopped John got his children and drove away in his 4WD. On the way out he veered towards Dave and his family, nearly hitting a child. Both families reported the incident to the police but when they came to the park later that day, none of the park residents were prepared to make a statement. (Action research notes)

As well as exposure to violence, the park could be an unsafe place for children. The park was on a fairly busy road with cars and trucks passing at high speed and there was no fence at the front of the park. In the last two years there had been two fires in caravans, one of which lead to a double fatality and there had been a number of allegations of child sexual assaults.

Cramped conditions could have a detrimental impact on the students.

Staff at the homework club had noticed that when a Year 1 girl was very tired or there were problems at home, she would sometimes write backwards and her concentration was not as good. The staff asked her if she was getting enough sleep at home and she said “not really.” When asked where did she slept, she replied “well my uncle is staying with us, and I am sleeping at the end of mum and dad’s bed and my brother’s in his cot and my uncle has my bed.” There was also a teenage son in the van with his own bed. (Action research notes)

The children from Mountain View Caravan Park often faced numerous challenges in their school life. Most of the children did not attend preschool or other structured childcare and, as the principal commented, this placed them “behind the eight ball right from the beginning”. Some of the parents said they struggled with paying for the extra costs involved in going to school. One of the parents said, “they [the school] are always asking for money” and another said that in the past week she had had to pay $62 for excursions. Some of the families also found it hard to buy school supplies (e.g. school bags, colouring pencils), school uniforms and school shoes.

A fairly major issue was that students sometimes went to school without food or were kept home because they could not be given food to take to school.

There were reports from the school that Mason was being sent to school without his lunch. I spoke to his mother and she disclosed that her partner has not been receiving any income for some time and that she has been supporting the entire family on her parenting payment alone. The mother says that the father lost his wallet a year ago and has no identification but, because money is tight, they have not had the money to pay to replace it. (Action research notes.)

Residents of caravan parks tended to be fairly transient, which could have a negative impact on students’ education.

If they have been in a situation where their education has been disjointed from moving from place to place for any reason, in and out of houses or caravan parks it is very hard for the kids to maintain a continual education. Once they change schools the new school has to decide where they are up to and support them as best they possibly can, those kids that have been here a while have been able to maintain a continuum and we have been able to meet their needs successfully. (Principal)

There were some examples of the children from the park being labelled or being stigmatised. The parents generally felt that their children were labelled and teased by other children. Speaking about how some of the other students treated her children, one of the mothers said, “They call them trailer trash and stuff like that, they’re nasty because we don’t live in a house.” Some of the teachers agreed there was some stigmatisation but others believed the students at the school were generally pretty accepting.

There is sort of like a stigma, I would say sometimes there is a little bit. (Teacher 1)

I think that the children at Mountain View are a pretty accepting bunch; that is what I found. It is quite unique compared to other schools. I saw it at [name of school] as well; those lower socioeconomic niches are a dream to work at. (Teacher 4)

Complaints about problems on the school bus were not uncommon.

I went out {to the caravan park} to see a boy who’d been suspended from the bus. I was shocked to find he was in Kindergarten. The bus driver treated the private school students like they were above the caravan park students. Just that mentality of (I don’t like saying it) “they’re low life, they’re from the caravan park, they’re the ones causing all the problems” and the other students were pure and innocent. (Home School Liaison Officer)

The teachers tried not to label the students or to differentiate between children from the caravan park and other students. At the same time they recognised that students from the park faced numerous challenges and might require extra support. As one of the teachers said

I think there is a lot of pity [for the students from the caravan park], generally teachers are empathic with the kids. I haven’t heard any comments that put the kids down, I think that everyone is very accepting of their needs and anguishing over what they can do to help them academically and socially. (Teacher 3)

At times there was a risk that the visibility of students from the caravan park meant that they were more likely to get in trouble.

One time when I was at an assembly, as students were settling down and quite a lot of kids were still noisy, three of the children from the caravan park were singled out for being naughty. They were told to stand over to the side. There were still plenty of other kids who were still mucking around. It may have been a coincidence but it was the three caravan park kids who were standing to the side…. I wondered do these kids get this the whole time at school? (Action research notes.)

Mostly, however, Caravan Project staff believed that the teachers did not unfairly target students from the park and attempted to provide support. The parents also did not believe that the teachers labelled or stigmatised their children. One of the mothers commented:

“The times I have spoken to the teachers, they love the boys, they think they are great kids…. [and] the kids love them back.” (Parent 1)

The sense of community experienced on the park continued at the school. All the teachers interviewed commented on how the students from the park supported and “stuck up” for each other.

I notice they all stick together and stick up for one another, and very soon when a new child comes to school, they say he is in the park with us, so they have something that binds them together…. They have something in common and will stick up for one another. There is a very strong sense of community on the park, it makes sense. (Teacher 1.)

Relationships between the families and the school

A major focus of Stepping Stones was on improving the relationship between the families living in the park and the school, which were generally not very strong. The parents rarely came to the school and the teachers reported difficulties contacting parents.

They are very hard to contact, because they don’t have phones, they have mobiles, and if they are not charged you are not contactable. It is very hard to contact parents and get them involved in the child’s schools life. (Teacher 3)

Some park residents remembered negative experiences of school, felt intimidated at the school and could be quite suspicious of teachers.

I only went out there [to the caravan park] once, to take a child home who was sick, and I parked out the front, I got out of the car with the child Everybody came out and was eyeing me suspiciously until they saw the child, then they backed off. Other staff members who have had to go there for various reasons have felt the same. I wasn’t scared but I felt they were a bit hostile. (Teacher 3)

A range of strategies were attempted to strengthen the relationship between the school and families. The Stepping Stones project worker encouraged parents to go to the school for special occasions, a senior staff member came out to the caravan park, and the Stepping Stones project worker took parents for appointments at the school. Many of these involved major challenges.

We tried to get them down to the school for different things like sports days, grandparent’s day. None of them were going. There have been a few things that were coming up at the schools that I mentioned to them. I asked them if they wanted to come, did they want me to pick them up but there was always an excuse. “The baby is asleep”, “I have an appointment”, “I am not going.” (Action research notes)

[A senior staff member] did come out one time in the first year, early on. He seemed pretty uncomfortable, not because of them but the reaction. He had come straight from school, and had a shirt and tie on. We were doing the after school program and playgroup, we were all kicking balls. I had said to him stop in and you can see the kids. He parked out the front and he walked down through the park. As he walked down I was with the group and other parents. You could hear people saying who’s that, who is he, being really wary. They were thinking DoCs [Department of Community Services] worker or police or something. (Action research notes)

One parent did come [to the homework club]. I am sure she felt intimidated. She probably didn’t feel that – that she wasn’t on level playing field at all. Maybe she felt that people were judging her, that’s how I felt…. It was like she didn’t know how to act, didn’t want to be found to be silly, make a mistake or the kids to make a mistake. (Teacher 4)

The principal, however, felt that Stepping Stones had an impact on the teachers and that they used the Stepping Stones project worker to build links with the families.

Stepping Stones has helped us make a link with a number of the parents, through Dee especially. She has been able to communicate issues that maybe the parents wouldn’t have been able to communicate with us previously. They might appear to be very small issues, but they are obviously a priority to them so Dee has been able to pass those on to us and we have been able to address those issues. And that is establishing the link between the school and the home. Dee rang up and said she had a set of parents that wanted to come down and talk about the two kids. That is great. Another one that has indicated that she might be making a visit to our school. (Principal)

The Home School Liaison Officer (HSLO) believed her relationship with park residents had improved as a result of Stepping Stones. Prior to Stepping Stones, she said it was hard building a relationship with the park residents. “For them I was like a government department. They were very suspicious.” Once Stepping Stones started, she worked closely with the project worker and they would go to the park together. The Caravan Project’s existing relationships with the residents gave the HSLO the opportunity to get to know people and prove her trustworthiness.

We could walk in and say, “Hi, how are you going” to the caretaker, which was great. Then we could just go in and visit one family after another …. and they were quite open. We got to a stage where I could just turn up and if they knew I was coming, other parents would be waiting for me so that when I got through they’d be waiting, near the office to have a chat about issues. (HSLO)

One of the strategies adopted by Stepping Stones was to ensure the students had the things they needed for school in the hope of reducing one of the barriers to them having a positive experience of the school.

[The homework club (an important component of the project) often started with students picking a “Cars R Us” card (which showed various cars and trucks expressing different feelings such as being at a crossroad, going on holidays, up a tree, happy and excited.] When asked to pick a card about how they felt about their homework, one of the students picked one that was stuck in the mud and I said to him “Mm, why do you feel like that about homework at the moment” and he started to get quite teary…. I said, “What’s going on? Is there something upsetting you about being here” and he said, “No, I really like being here.” “So is it at home” and he said Yeah, yeah, it’s home stuff…. I haven’t got a pen at home so I can’t finish my homework.” And I said, “Oh! Really is that all it was. We can fix that so what we are going to do is go in now and I have a big bucket with all these supplies in so we are going to go in now we are going to get a pencil case out put your name on it fill it up with all the stuff and you can take that home….” So we went inside, made him this pencil case with wonderful stuff and he was just so happy and excited about it. I asked him to pick another card and he picked one of the happy joyful ones. (Action research notes)

On another occasion the project worker took the children from the park shopping to buy school bags, drink bottles, lunch boxes, pens, pencils, pencil cases and other school supplies. Once again the children were very happy and took them proudly to school the next day.

It is also important to recognise that the school was attempting to build relationships with the children. For example they sometimes provided breakfast to the children if they turned up to school hungry and one of the teachers spoke about trying to be someone to whom the students and their families could talk.

Sometimes it is just to say good morning. Just be there for them. Just say you are welcome I am glad to see you. (Teacher 1)

The groundwork done by Stepping Stones continued to be seen in 2008. Two parents from the park have volunteered with reading at the school and some of the parents help with the homework club (which is being continued in 2008).

Due to the nature of Stepping Stones, the project worker was at the park frequently (particularly in the early stages of the project) and, as the residents got to know her better and trust her more, she was increasingly asked to assist with a wide range of issues. These issues often had a direct impact on the education of children from the park, and so were addressed through Stepping Stones. The time required to address these issues was unsustainable (within the time limits of Stepping Stones) and so in mid 2006, the Caravan Project reorganised some of its workload to appoint a worker who could focus on providing more intensive support to residents of Mountain View Caravan Park and two other caravan parks. The appointment of the support worker, a direct result of Stepping Stones, has proved to be an important addition to the Caravan Project’s ongoing work.

Caravan Project staff now have access to enrolment packs for Mountain View Public School so that they can assist new residents to the park to enrol as quickly as possible. Prior to the commencement of Stepping Stones, children from the park were enrolled in a number of primary school. With the support of the Home School Liaison Officer, all the primary aged children from the park are now enrolled at Mountain View Public School. This means that building links between the families and the school is somewhat easier.

The homework club was established in term 3 of 2006 also helped improve the relationship between the families and the school. It was helped weekly at the school and included students not living in the caravan park. The school selected some students from years 5 and 6 who could do with additional homework support but who could also provide support and mentorship to the caravan park children. The attendance of children from the caravan park was excellent and they enjoyed going.

[Rachel] loves it, she cries if she misses it; if she forgets and gets on the bus. She comes home, and I ask her why she isn’t there. “I forgot.” She loves it. Thursday wouldn’t be Thursday without the homework club. (Parent 1)

In 2007, all the students from the park attended at least 89.9% of the weekly homework club sessions. Two of the students only missed one session for the whole year and two attended every homework club session while they were at the school. This was a significant improvement on 2006 where the best attendance was only 80%. Interestingly the attendance of the other students was generally not as consistent as the students from the caravan park, with their average attendance being about 60%. There are a number of potential contributing factors to the better attendance by students from the caravan park. The Stepping Stones worker actively reminded the children from the caravan park, the Caravan Project had a strong relationship with the children from the park through other activities they held on the park, transported home was provided or the children may have appreciated the homework club more.

The parents and teachers appreciated the homework club and it helped to provide the students with a positive experience of school, develop relationships with their teachers and helped reduced the tension between parents and the school over homework.

The Caravan Project recognises the many pressures placed on schools and the challenges they face in meeting broad social agendas. Stepping Stones demonstrated that by improvements can be made in relationships between marginalised families and schools. Schools and community services need to work in partnership so that students and families, whose needs may otherwise be unmet, are given the opportunity to thrive and succeed.

* Throughout this report pseudonyms have been used (including for the caravan park and school). Minor details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.


Stuart, G 2005, ‘In beats living in a tent: A survey of residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks‘, Parity, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 17-18.

Wensing, E & Wood, M 2003, On the Margins? Housing risk among caravan park residents: Work in progress report, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Sydney.

Originally published in:

Stuart, G, & Brooks, D. (2009). Stepping Stones: Building relationships between caravan park residents and schools. The Boys in School Bulletin, 12(1).

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. Supporting residents of caravan parks
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. Schools engaging families and the local community
  4. 10 Ways to build school-community partnerships
  5. Making parents feel welcome in schools

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting, Schools, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Building relationship between caravan park (trailer park) residents and school

  1. Hendwr says:

    Thanks for sharing this really nice and informative information….


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