State Report: Traveller children feel ‘unwanted’ in education system

A new report commissioned by the State has found that young travellers feel ‘unwanted’ in the Irish education system, The Irish Times has reported. In the ‘Out of the Shadows’ report on the Travelling Community’s experience of the education system, young members spoke out, describing instances of name-calling by peers, exclusion, and a sense of feeling ignored by teachers.

Traveller children described being called names such as “dirty”, “smelly”, “pikey” and “knacker” by their classmates, and how other children would refuse to sit beside them. However, when the Traveller children raised such treatment with their teachers, they said they often felt they were “not taken seriously”, the report states.

Young Travellers do not feel wanted, included or safe in school – especially at second level – while their parents worry about them while they are at school, the report warns.

The 124-page report was compiled by sociologist Dr Maria Quinlan who based her findings on detailed consultations with 104 Traveller and Roma parents and students, and 28 teachers and principals between November 2019 and January 2020. The Government-commissioned report, conducted on behalf of the Department of Education as a component of the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS) 2017-2021, remains unpublished.

“Rather than feeling a strong sense of belonging, the predominant feeling amongst the parents and students from the Travelling community . . . is one of being unwanted – both in school and by the settled community more generally in society,” it reads.

The report reveals that Traveller children have experienced instances of not being asked for homework and given easier work than their non-Traveller peers, causing them to feel “ignored” by some teachers. The report refers to  “institutional and structural discrimination and racism within the education system”

When asked about their views on school, some said they enjoyed aspects of the experience but also described feeling “sad” and “alone” at school. Some Travellers, however, said that their teachers or principals were “interested in learning about Traveller culture” and showed a “zero-tolerance” policy on racist language which had a “very positive” impact on them.

On education, National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS) said that “access, participation and outcomes for Travellers and Roma in education” must improve and that “there should be a positive culture of respect and protection for the cultural identity of Travellers and Roma across the education system”.

While primary schools were generally welcoming spaces for Traveller parents, they found secondary schools “less welcoming”.

Teachers and principals on the other hand described “deep frustration” that they were doing everything they could but said that education was “not valued” in “Traveller culture”. Many staff were of the view that Traveller children wanted to leave school at 16 so that girls could “get married and boys “to work”.

Improving Travellers’ experience of education would be “complex” and require a “multi-layered response”, says the report.

“The education system has a key role to play but needs to be supported with wider cultural awareness, recognition and discussion of racism and discrimination at a societal level,” the report states.

The report comes as an Irish Traveller claimed that young Traveller children are pulled out of school because their parents dictate who they can be friends with.

In a TikTok video, Bridget Wall, a traveller now in her late twenties, revealed that in her experience, traveller children are often not allowed to be friends with non-travellers.

When asked “Are you allowed to be friends with non traveller girls?” she said in the video: “No we’re not supposed to have friends that are not travellers, that’s another reason why we get pulled from the school early when we’re young,” Bridget explained.

“They say when we’re mixing with kids who are not travellers they say they’re a bad influence on us and take drugs and drink alcohol and all that s**t.

“That’s basically why we’re not supposed to be friends with people who are not travellers but obviously there are. There are lots of people that have settled into houses and become friends with their neighbours.

“In reality, we’re not supposed to be friends with people who are not Travellers,” she said.

The video has since gone viral, causing an enormous reaction on social media. More than 560,000 people have viewed it with hundreds leaving comments. Many were divided, sharing their disapproval.

“The fact that women aren’t allowed a proper education is sad,” someone wrote, while another person asked Wall, “Do you realise what you are explaining is brainwashing?”

A third person said: “Every Traveller I’ve come across, especially children, have little to no social skills and I think this is why. It’s doing more harm than good.”

Others however shared their support for the traveller community.

“Travellers are perceived to be so bad but realistically they have their heads straight. They make there own money, they got their homes in order,” one person wrote.

Another commented: “We have a couple of Traveller children at my daughter’s school. The mums are really lovely, really polite.”

Responding to the ‘Out of the Shadows’ report, Ennis Traveller and prominent campaigner Kathleen Sherlock, of the Minceir Whidden group, called on schools to ensure education facilities remain safe and accessible for children in ethnic minorities.

Speaking on Clare FM, Kathleen Sherlock said: “We [travellers] all would have had very bad experiences within mainstream education. You think it’s isolated incidents…but the more you look into it [over] the last 40 years, these are not isolated incidents.

“These are a pattern of behaviours that are happening all over the country. They [non-traveller pupils] seem to be on a mission to drive traveller children out of school…they are continually getting harassed, getting called names.”

Sherlock said that “Schools aren’t addressing it properly” and there are “no consequences” for calling a Traveller child names. She also pointed out that, “55% of traveller children will have left school by the age of 18. Only 1 percent of children will continue on to 3rd level education.”

Asked “How do we fix the problem?”, Sherlock said that Traveller history and culture should be taught in the education system because “most people [know] very, very little” about their background and fail to understand them.

She said that travellers “had a very, very rich history” and that those from the Travelling community “made contributions everywhere”.

Sherlock said that the education system, the school board and the school unions “have to be looking at how traveller children are treated within the school system” and that “[Bullying] has to be addressed in the same way as for any other ethnic minority.

“If you have a teacher that is consistently treating traveller children badly, it needs to be targeted. You cannot be protecting bad behaviour…that’s the only way forward.”

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