Travellers and Access to Education
Travellers, recognised by the Irish government as an indigenous ethnic group in 2017, have been victims of systemic and structural barriers to education that have seen them experience some of the lowest rates of participation in third level education of any demographic in Ireland. In December 2018, The Irish Times reported that only 1% of Traveller children go on to third level education. By comparison, in the same year, The Irish Times published an article entitled, “Are we sending too many young people to third level?” in which the education editor, Carl O’Brien, opined that there may be too many students (over 60%) from the settled population of school-leavers attending university. This dichotomy was how things stood back in 2018 and, perhaps not unsurprisingly, this disparity between settled and Traveller students has been exacerbated by the recent Covid-19 pandemic. An entire ethnic group left out of the Irish education system begs the questions, why and what needs to be done to tackle this inequality?
The lack of access to third level education arises from historical discriminatory processes of educational segregation of Travellers from their settled counterparts at the primary and post-primary level. Throughout the 1960s, and right up to the 2000s, Traveller-only schools were an accepted norm. A common belief throughout this time, and one that prevails to this day according to Bernard Joyce, Director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), is that Travellers had no interest in education. The reality, as Mr Joyce points out, is that this is a harmful stereotype, externally imposed upon them, and that attitudes towards education are overwhelmingly positive, with all levels of education being valued within their community.
Government-sponsored and independent research into segregated educational institutions have repeatedly stated that it would be beneficial to integrate Traveller students into mainstream schools. Some progress was made towards this goal in the 2000s, which saw efforts to integrate and desegregate education with the introduction of resource teachers and visiting teachers into mainstream schools. Resource teachers assisted schools in meeting the needs of Traveller students and visiting teachers advocated on behalf of Traveller students and aided parents and communities with enrolments and entitlements. However, progress ground to a halt when funding for these positions was decimated during the post-2008 recession and the ensuing austerity, with spending on specific Traveller educational needs cut by 86.6% between 2008 and 2013, as outlined by Pavee Point in their report, Travelling with Austerity.
An entire ethnic group left out of the Irish education system begs the questions, why and what needs to be done to tackle this inequality?
More recently, there has been financial support for Traveller progression to higher education. In 2021, €300,000 was provided by the government through the Dormant Account Fund to Higher Education Institutions for “Traveller progression to and retention in higher education”. Further financial support is on the horizon in 2022, specifically €450,000 is being allocated to HEIs for similar purposes of transfer to and retention in higher education. Now that it appears funding is returning to the project of Traveller integration, it is appropriate to discuss with experts in the field such as Mr Joyce, as well as Ms Grimson, coordinator of the Trinity Access Programme (TCD), both of whom agreed to be interviewed, what the best use of this money will be.
On the face of it, it may seem that a return of financial investment ought to lead to considerable improvements in the welfare of Traveller students and result in growing numbers making the progression to third level. However, both my interviewees agreedwere in agreement that the amount of investment is still not sufficient to current needs and as Mr Joyce made clear, it is not enough to target third level institutions as by that time many Traveller students have already left the education system.
The stated goal of the funding for HEIs reflects an inclusive agenda but by the time Traveller students have reached third level they have already endured years of social exclusion and torment from their peers, teachers, and schools at both the personal and structural levels. Tackling the apathy of the education system towards Travellers must begin at a younger age and must involve a greater amount of cultural and social investment in Traveller students, not just the economic. “From the leaves and branches to the grassroots, Traveller children don’t feel comfortable or welcomed [in schools] as not only have they to contend with the schoolwork but they also have to contend with not being happy” Mr Joyce said.
For many Traveller students it may seem that they are actively being pushed out of the educational system by having low expectations imposed on them by their teachers and schools, leading to an insecurity on their part in relation to their abilities. Mr Joyce pointed to instances where Traveller students were given textbooks of lower academic levels and were not expected to keep up with the same standard as their peers. This is further rendered problematic for the students in question as they fail to see their culture reflected amongst their peers, or within the school curriculum. Traveller students note that there is even a lack of Traveller-focused representation on the school’s cultural walls (which are a feature of most primary and many secondary schools in the country), further compounding the sentiment that they are not in an institution which is welcoming to either them or their culture. These exclusionary elements have a negative impact on school performance and attendance. And all of this assumes that Traveller students are being encouraged by the school itself to attend, even when enrolled. Mr Joyce highlighted that in 2021 it was discovered that many Traveller students were being targeted for reduced-hour timetables, a practice that ITM argues must be eradicated since it is an overt example of structural discrimination.
The stated goal of the funding for HEIs reflects an inclusive agenda but by the time Traveller students have reached third level they have already endured years of social exclusion and torment from their peers, teachers, and schools at both the personal and structural levels.
Another aspect of this debate that Mr Joyce outlined was the difficulty for Traveller students in separating the struggle in school with the struggle they face at home. “Traveller accommodation is often isolated from schools and may lack working showers, etc, so children are having to contend with school with fewer resources at home than their settled counterparts.” In 2019, the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance condemned Ireland for the amount of funding being provided for Traveller accommodation. This disparity between at-home resources has become more apparent with the onset of the 2020 pandemic and at-home schooling where access to wifi and technology was of paramount importance, as Mr Joyce observed “many Traveller students have not returned to school since the reopening of schools.”
Returning to the question of the number of Travellers making it to third level, what can be done to tackle this culture of discriminatory disinterest in Traveller students? It is evident that the core issue is the necessity to increase the numbers of those completing second level education and all solutions must occur in tandem with primary, post-primary, and third level institutions.
The lack of representation at the primary and post-primary level was presented in the Government’s National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017/2021 (NTRIS). This report acknowledged the lack of Traveller and Roma history and culture being discussed at the primary and post-primary level which contributes to a poor school retention rate on the part of students from both communities. Despite this explicit acknowledgement, implementation of the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018, has been unbearably slow. Representation, is a vital tool in combating racism and discrimination but, as Deputy Thomas Pringle pointed out in a Dáil debate on the 2018 Education Bill, “only if it is taught by teachers who are trained and culturally competent.”
This raises a point regarding the necessity for an increase in anti-racism education, workshops, and talks for teachers and students at all levels of education. Organisations such as ITM and each equity, diversity and inclusion office within the nation’s HEIs must ensure that environments of bullying or alienation are eradicated in lecture theatres and classrooms through anti-racism and cultural awareness teaching, echoing the calls of many student unions around Ireland. Speaking with Christine O’Mahony, DCU’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer who has long campaigned for anti-racism training in universities, she said “Anti-racism training is essential for universities. It should be aimed at the staff that don’t fully understand racism and microaggression… and help them realise that things that they are doing could be offensive to minority groups. Anti-racism training assists in making universities a safe space for minority students.”
Once the environment is comfortable enough only then can programmes such as the Trinity Access Programme look to increase capacity building in schools and allow for a return of the resource and visiting teachers, bolstering mentorship programs to handle the logistics of third level for students who may have no prior information about how to navigate registration, module enrolment, joint honour systems, etc as Ms Grimson said TAP wished to do.
The €750,000 made available by the government in recent years is merely the right amount to tinker around the edges of the educational system but is not the overhaul of a pervasive dismissive culture that leaves Traveller children behind from the youngest age, with long-term negative repercussions not only for the individual and community alike, but also for the nation as a whole.
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