Traveller children feel ‘unwanted’ in education system, says report

Young people tell of name calling by peers and sense of being ‘ignored’ by teachers

The report refers to ‘institutional and structural discrimination and racism within the education system’. Photograph: iStock

The report refers to ‘institutional and structural discrimination and racism within the education system’. Photograph: iStock

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Traveller children do not feel included, wanted or safe in school – especially at second level – while their parents fear for them while they are in school, a report on the community’s experience of the education system warns.

The Government-commissioned report, Out of the Shadows, conducted on behalf of the Department of Education as part of the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS) 2017-2021, remains unpublished.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 says.

The report refers to “institutional and structural discrimination and racism within the education system” and says Traveller children feel “ignored” by some teachers when not asked for homework and given easier work than their peers.

The children described being called names such as “pikey”, “knacker”, “dirty” and “smelly” by their peers, and how other children refused to sit beside them. But when they raised such treatment with teachers, they often felt they were not taken seriously.

Others described feeling “sad” and “alone” at school, though some said they enjoyed aspects of the experience. Some said teachers or principals who were “interested in learning about Traveller culture” and had “zero-tolerance” policies on racist language had “very positive” impacts on them.

Cultural identity

On education, NTRIS says “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”.

The 124-page report, by sociologist Dr Maria Quinlan, draws on detailed consultations with 104 Traveller and Roma parents and students, and 28 teachers and principals between November 2019 and January 2020. It aimed to establish a “baseline” of the communities’ “lived experience” of the education system.

Participating parents who had felt “isolated and overlooked” in school themselves were “passionate about wanting something different for their children”, it says.

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

They felt talked down to by teachers, who they felt “can often have low expectations of their children”. The lives of Travellers, including accommodation challenges and poverty, as well Traveller culture, beliefs and identity, were ignored by many schools, making the education system seem “a ‘settled’ system . . . which Travellers must accept, and assimilate to, even if it does not meet their needs”.

Teachers and principals described “deep frustration” that they were doing their best to support Traveller families but said education was “not valued” in “Traveller culture”. Many believed Traveller children wanted to leave school at 16, for girls to “get married” and boys “to work”.

‘Discrimination’

Others felt the education system did “not deliver the same benefit for Traveller students as it does for settled students”, adding that discrimination when seeking to access employment could “make progressing to the Leaving Certificate and . . . third level seem like a waste of time for Traveller families”.

While a sense of “belonging” is key to full engagement in education, for the Travellers in the report “belonging is severely undermined by both wider societal racism and discrimination experienced within the education system”.

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.”

Asked when the report would be published, a spokesman for the department said: “Work is ongoing on a suite of reports on the theme of Traveller education. It is hoped to advance to publication the NTRIS baseline report as part of this work in the near future.”