‘We’re worried these children will fall out of the system’: Traveller school to close

Dublin school fears students will drop out of education system without proper supports

 Fifth-year students Michael O’Donnell,  from Finglas, and Steve Andrew McDonagh, from Darndale,  at St Thomas’s school in Dublin. Photograph:  Alan Betson

Fifth-year students Michael O’Donnell, from Finglas, and Steve Andrew McDonagh, from Darndale, at St Thomas’s school in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

For the first time in the history of St Thomas’s school on Dublin’s north side, two of its students are due to sit the Leaving Cert this summer.

It might not sound a big deal for most secondary schools. But, for a school attended exclusively by Traveller boys who are up to 50 times less likely to complete secondary school than their contemporaries in the wider community, this represents a major success.

“We also have three students in fifth year, with a potential for five students to follow after their Junior Cert in June,”says John White, the English teacher at St Thomas’s, a targeted educational initiative for Travellers. “We’re having tangible success.”

But, last week, teachers and parents at the school received troubling news: the Department of Education is planning to withdraw funding from June this year.

The department says young Travellers should be integrated into a mainstream school and St Thomas’s falls outside its policy of integration.

The school, however, says that while it fully supports inclusion and integration, its problem is with the timing.

Bernie McCloskey, the school’s principal, says the first official communication the school received that it was due to close came last week.

Vulnerable

She said she fears existing students, who in many cases are vulnerable and have built trusting relationships with staff, will now drop out of the system if transferred to mainstream schools.

A planned wind-down over a few years is far preferable, she says, to ensure students who have flourished so far can finish school.

“We’re absolutely for mainstreaming – but we are very concerned that supports won’t follow the students,” says McCloskey.“They need specific resources to meet their needs. This is about putting the needs of students at the centre.”

Michael O’Donnell (16), from Finglas, is one of the students affected. No one in his family has completed second-level education.

He is in fifth year and hopes to go to college or become a mechanic – but says he can only see himself sitting his Leaving Cert if St Thomas’s remains open.

“They know you here . . . There’s great support. It would be too hard anywhere else,” he says.

His guardian, Ann Mongan, says: “The support he’s gotten here is the only reason he’s still in school. There are small classes, they all feel equal. There’s no stigma here.”

Michael McDonagh (16), from Ballymun, who is also due to sit his Leaving Cert this year, says the relationship with teachers and staff has been crucial.

Smooth transition

“I left a few months ago, but Phil and Steven [school completion officers] encouraged me to come back. They said it was for the best . . . I just couldn’t cope in another school.”

A spokeswoman for the department said it had been engaging with the patron of St Thomas’s – the Archdiocese of Dublin – for “many years” to progress the transfer of its students to the mainstream school system, in line with national policy.

She said that in order to ensure a smooth transition for existing students to other schools, officials from the education and welfare services would be available to work with parents to source school places. It said the final decision in relation to school closures rested with the patron body.

Separately, sources say a recent “incidental inspection report” by the department found that arrangements for the delivery of education did not meet the needs of students.

McCloskey says staff feel the inspection report was unbalanced and quoted from extracts from a larger inspection report which took place more than a decade ago, most of which have been addressed.

Labour Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the students were vulnerable young men who need support. “If this was any other school in any other part of the country, there would be a phasing-out period,” he said.

“We feel this is a justice issue,” adds McCloskey. “We’re talking about students who are gifted, honours-level students. They don’t have role models who have completed the Leaving Cert. Should their futures be put in jeopardy?”