Home by 10am: 'Misuse' of reduced school days leaving a generation of Traveller children 'lost'

Noteworthy and The Journal can reveal that many Traveller children are routinely put on ‘reduced hours’ at school – with at least one student on just 40 minutes a day.

By Maria Delaney and Michelle Hennessy

Noteworthy and TheJournal.ie logos with girl sitting at desk in the middle

“I FEEL THAT the schools have been failed, the children have been failed, we’re all failing as professionals and people are afraid to put their hands up and admit it.”

Anne Marie Quilligan – a social care worker for the Tipperary Rural Traveller Project - works with over 100 school children throughout Munster but said only a handful will go on to further education “because they don’t have the basic reading and writing skills”.

A lack of supports in school alongside systemic issues in the education system including the “abuse” of reduced school days – with some children being permitted to attend for just 40 minutes – are having a detrimental impact on Traveller children.

The gap in education attainment between Travellers and the general population has long been highlighted by Traveller organisations. The last census in 2016 showed that 13% of Travellers were educated to an upper secondary school level or above, but this was over 70% in the general population.

Numerous advocates told this Noteworthy and TheJournal project of the bleak outlook held by young people who observe their peers facing discrimination when later trying to get a job.

This is reflected in the recent EU Roma and Travellers Survey 2019 which found that 70% of young Irish Travellers (aged 16-24) were not in employment, education or training. This was the highest of all groups across the six countries surveyed and almost seven times more than young Irish people generally (11%).

“Obviously we’ve all dropped the ball somewhere and unless we all start having real, honest conversations, without pointing the finger of blame, there’s going to be no resolving of this and it’s the children who are the collateral damage,” said Quilligan.

School girl walking on a road with a red bag with quote by Anne Marie Quilligan, Tipperary Rural Traveller Project: I feel that the schools have been failed, the children have been failed, we're all failing as professionals and people are afraid to put their hands up and admit it.
Source: Photo - Dinks Design via Shutterstock

At Noteworthy and The Journal, over the past number of months, we examined supports for Traveller children in the education system as part of our TOUGH START investigation. 

We can now reveal:

  • The Department of Education does not have any data on the usage of reduced school days, hours or timetables on Travellers but hopes to correct this with the implementation of new guidelines in 2022
  • Research found Travellers are on the shortest school days, with reports of children attending for just 40 minutes and advocates calling for ‘an eradication’ of reduced hours for Traveller children
  • Traveller children told Noteworthy that their schools did not send work home and they were unable to participate in online classes as they had no internet access
  • Over 60 children on one halting site in Munster received no digital supports such as tablets and laptops during Covid
  • Both Traveller children and adults reported experiencing discrimination in school with teachers having low expectation of them and treating them differently
  • Advocates called on cultural awareness training to be rolled out to address the institutional racism present in the school system
  • Only one Department of Education policy document relating to teacher training mentions Travellers and in that, they are grouped with those with additional learning needs as well as diverse linguistic, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds
  • No date was provided by the Department of Education on the development of the promised Traveller Education Strategy

In part one, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy that “there’s ingrained institutional racism against the Traveller community”. In part two, we reported that Traveller health is ‘not being prioritised’ despite ‘shocking’ outcomes for children.

Over the next two weeks will also be investigating issues facing Traveller children in relation to housing and the justice system. 


‘Misuse’ of reduced school days  

No matter who the investigation team spoke to, one of the main issues that advocates and education workers raised was the use of reduced school days for Travellers in both primary and secondary school.  

For Bernard Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, “there is a generation of Traveller children who have lost out in terms of education, opportunity and further progression” due to the use of reduced school days. He called for “an eradication” of their use at a Children’s Rights Alliance event on the topic last month.  

Reduced school days are arrangements where students arrive after the usual start time or leave before the end of the school day. Some have a reduced school week where they don’t attend the full five days or reduced timetables where less subjects are taken. 

Joyce has a number of concerns about their use for Traveller children and the length of time they are being kept in place, in some cases for a child’s “full life experience” of school. He claimed that some are being put on reduced hours simply because of their Traveller ethnicity. 

It’s not the behaviour of the child, it’s the behaviour of the structures in the system. In this case, it can be in terms of that bias or low expectation of a Traveller student or pupil.

Research from 2019 which examined the impact of short school days on children with disabilities and their families found that “the State has failed to exercise its authority to prevent an abuse of power by many schools, which are excluding children in a hidden manner by placing them on short school days”. 

Since there were only a small number of Traveller children, results relating to them were not separated out in the study’s findings. However, lecturer Deborah Brennan from TU Dublin told Noteworthy that “there appears to be a pattern – as reported by parents – that would suggest that children with disabilities in the Traveller community are subject to unusually short days when compared to the overall group of children with disabilities”.

Brennan said this included “the shortest school day reported in the study which had a duration of 40 minutes”. She felt that “this pattern is sufficiently concerning to warrant further investigation”. 

Screenshot of Deborah Brennan - wearing a black top - and Bernard Joyce - wearing a red top - at an online webinar Deborah Brennan and Bernard Joyce spoke about reduced school days at a recent event

“An audit of the application of limited or reduced timetables for Traveller children” was one of the recommendations of the Interim Report on the Committee’s Examination on the Current Use of Reduced Timetables

Noteworthy asked the Department of Education if this had been done and for a copy of the audit report, but the Department’s spokesperson did not answer these queries directly, and instead pointed to their intention to “collect disaggregated data so that reports will inform policy” from next year.  

The number of Traveller children across Ireland on reduced hours is not known. We asked the Department of Education for this data through a freedom of information (FOI) request. The response stated that this has “not been reported by schools up to this and as a result it has not been possible to capture data and monitor their usage”.  

Information on the number of Traveller children in primary and secondary school on reduced hours / timetables / days during the 2020/2021 academic year is not held in this Department. 

The response continued: “The implementation of the Guidelines for the Use of Reduced Days in Schools will address this situation by requiring schools to notify Tusla Education Support Service when a reduced timetable is proposed.” 

These guidelines were issued last month “to ensure that this practice is limited to only those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary” – as it says in their introduction. They come into force in January when all schools must comply with them. 

At the launch of the guidelines, Minister for Education Norma Foley said that the Government has “committed to ensuring robust data collection in the use of reduced school days”. 

Noteworthy asked the Department of Education if data will be collected in a way that it can measure the number of Traveller children that are on reduced school days. A spokesperson said that “work is underway with regard to the data to be collected and the details have not yet been finalised” and added that “the Department envisages that disaggregated data collection will include Traveller ethnicity”. 

Robust monitoring of these guidelines was key for every Traveller advocate and education worker we spoke to and most felt without this, there would be little change.  

Social worker Quilligan told Noteworthy that only five out of the 100 Traveller children she works with do a full day at school. Currently, “there’s no accountability” of their use with “schools are not recording or documenting when these children are finishing school”. 

Can you imagine bringing your child in until 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock? The child doesn’t feel valued in the school. 

Schools in crisis ‘afraid’ to speak out

Quilligan felt that the new guidelines are“not radical enough” and added that “the situation has been allowed to get so bad, no one knows where to start”.  

She said a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue will not work as “it has to be done in a way that acknowledges the child’s feelings and additional educational supports they may need if they are staying in school for the full day”.  

Some children she works with told her that they would leave school completely if they were required to attend for the full day. “It would have to be a very holistic approach and something that would be very gradual. There would have to be a piece of work done where the child really wants to be in the school.” 

In some of the schools that Quilligan works with, students have been moved back to full days but “are not being engaged so are getting bored [and] say that they feel stupid because they can’t write the same way that settled children can”. 

Quilligan said she told one Traveller girl to ask her teacher for help if she didn’t understand. The girl did just that in Geography class but “the teacher said to her ‘that’s not my problem’”. 

Research by Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre found that Traveller education programmes were cut by almost 90% during the recession, which included cuts to Traveller resource teachers. This is blamed for the increased use of reduced days by many advocates we spoke to, who said they are being inappropriately used to deal with behaviour issues.  

When it comes to behaviour, Rachel Coffey, a Traveller education worker based in Cork city, felt that lack of resources led to staff not dealing with underlying issues, instead removing students from class.  

“Every behaviour has a feeling – if you sat down and asked the child ‘why are you upset’, instead of not dealing with them. A huge part of it is about communication.”

Quilligan said that an understanding of where Traveller children are coming from is also important. “In Ireland in 2021, we forget that children are living in these conditions. For a lot of children when they go into primary school, especially from a halting site, this might be the first time they have access to running water or a toilet. So the children might be a bit hyperactive because it’s such a new environment.” 

She said that her own family is massive, with over 100 cousins nearby and often 20 around when she visited her grandparents. “We were always so loud and so boisterous. It was natural to us, because if you’re surrounded by another 20 or 30 children and you’re playing, you just would be that way.” 

Quilligan also felt that the “focus is always on the shortcomings of the child due to ethnicity, rather than shining a light on institutional racism”. This leads to many parents feeling coerced into putting their child on reduced school days “because the principal tells them the child cannot cope with full days”. She added: 

The onus of responsibility and blame is far too often placed on the child rather than addressing the weaknesses within the Department of Education or school.

The funding cuts during the recession left schools in a crisis situation, according to Quilligan, who felt they are still having an impact today. 

She said that some schools are “afraid” to speak out and say that they are in crisis because “their backs are against the wall”.  

Minister Foley told Noteworthy that “in education we are committed to playing our part alongside parents and guardians to ensure that the school environment for Traveller and Roma children is a place where none are excluded or denied a voice”. She continued:

“My Department is committed to and will continue to work with other Government Departments, Agencies and Traveller Representative Groups to progress the various actions to support improved educational outcomes for the Traveller community.”

Lack of support during lockdown

Schools were again under significant pressure during the pandemic and while all children were impacted by school closures, experts have highlighted the disproportionate effects on disadvantaged children.  

A report compiled by Pavee Point in July 2020 stated that there were “potentially thousands of Traveller and Roma children around the country not currently receiving any education, with no access to proper IT facilities, and parents facing challenges in offering support given their own education experiences”.  

Most of the Traveller children who spoke to Noteworthy said their schools did not send work home to them and they were unable to participate in online classes as there is no internet access at their homes. 

Child working on homework in a copybook with quote my first year student, a Traveller girl in interview with Noteworthy: In primary school we didn’t get sent our homework, but everyone else did. Then when we went back to school we were sent to the office because we didn’t have any of our work.
Source: Photo - Nadzeya Kolabava via Alamy Stock Photo

“The teacher said ‘it’s okay, you don’t have to do it’, I was never invited, my mother and father were never called,” one boy said. “I wanted something to do during the lockdown.”

“My teacher got angry at me then for not doing the Zoom classes, for not doing the class online and I had to tell my mother to call because she was getting angry at me even though I was never invited.” 

Despite a commitment in April 2020 by then Education Minister Joe McHugh to provide funding for the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged students, Traveller organisations have said many children received no education at all during school closures.  

A total of €7 million in funding was provided in the post-primary sector and €3 million in the primary sector. However, social care worker Quilligan said she was “alarmed” by the lack of effort made by community and State services to ensure Traveller children received an education during the pandemic.  

“A lot of these children would be on halting sites so they wouldn’t be officially recorded or documented as homeless, but they are hidden homeless because they have no access to running water,” she explained. 

“Even during Covid, I’m still working with families now that still have no access to running water or toilets. They would live in overcrowded conditions where in some caravans or trailers there could be eight to ten children, so they wouldn’t even have the workspace to be able to do their bit of homework or a private space to read.” 

I found it very alarming that in one site where there are over 60 children, not one of the children was provided with digital supports, not one – tablets, laptops, internet, nothing.

According to the 2016 Census – the most recent national data available – just 34% of Irish Traveller households reported having access to the internet. This compared to 79% of homes in the general population.  

While some individual teachers or schools did arrange to send work home to Traveller children during the school closures, there was no consistent approach and Traveller organisations have said they were left to plug that education gap. 

Even in best examples, with schools that did manage to secure devices to send out to Traveller children, they said there was a lack of consideration of the fact that many of their parents did not know how to use them and could not help their children with their lessons. 

“One particular school was great – we had 16 Travellers and every young person got a device,” Coffey who is based in Cork City said. 

“I went and gave out the devices and I didn’t even think about how parents couldn’t set it up – one young person had it and the volume was down and she thought it was broken.”  

Rachel Coffey, Traveller education worker in Cork City - wearing a black dotted top, with quote: It was about going over in the middle of a lockdown showing them how the dongle works, setting up Microsoft Teams and Seesaw.
Source: Photo - Rachel Coffey

“It goes back to supporting the parents. You can’t hand out devices out to young people, if parents can’t set them up.  You need to be there with the young person setting it all up together – that came up with the Roma community as well.” 

‘Educational disadvantage has increased’ 

A report from the Economic and Social Research Centre (ESRI) in June last year noted that the March lockdown had strained the intense networks of support that students from disadvantaged backgrounds relied on. 

One respondent to a survey by ESRI researchers said they were worried any further closures would “run the risk of a minority of students never returning to school at all”. 

“The gap in their learning will be too great and the return may seem too daunting,” they said. This report was published before the second closure of schools in late 2020 and into early 2021.  

“The most stark learning from the whole episode is the level of educational disadvantage has increased since closure and it is very difficult for schools to know how to bridge that gap,” another respondent said. 

Last month, Noteworthy reported observations by Pavee Point that there had been an increase in the number of Traveller teens aged 14-16 not returning to school this year. 

Due to the cancellation of the Junior Cert for the past two years, this means that these teens have not been able to sit any State exams before leaving mainstream education. 

In one secondary school in Finglas, only one out of four Traveller boys returned to their education this September, Pavee Point education officer Tracey Reilly said. 

Minister Foley did not respond to requests for comment on measures specifically targeted at Traveller children to address the digital divide or the education deficit during the pandemic.  

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that it is receiving funding of €50m under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility “to issue as a once-off grant funding to recognised primary and post-primary schools in the free education scheme”. 

“The focus of this funding will be to enable schools to address the infrastructure needs of their learners who may be at risk of educational disadvantage arising from a lack of access to such digital infrastructure.”

They said that a scheme to distribute these grants is currently being developed and the funding will be issued before the end of the year.

Minister Norma Foley - wearing a red jacket with a stone building in the background. Minister Norma Foley was not available for an interview and did not respond to Noteworthy's questions
Source: File Photo - Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Given the stark contrast in education attainment in Traveller children compared to the general population and the ongoing issues in the education system – as highlighted in this investigation – Noteworthy felt it was important to ask Minister Foley for an interview.  

We requested this with a number of weeks’ notice but were told by a spokesperson, five weeks after our initial request, that Minister Foley was unavailable so instead we sent a number of questions to the Minister.  

Two weeks later, and at the time of publication, these remained unanswered despite numerous reminders. Noteworthy subsequently received a statement from the Minister and a number of responses from her Department a few hours post-publication and this article has been updated to reflect this. 

Minister Foley told the investigation team in this statement:

“As both a teacher, and as Minister for Education, I recognise the importance of inclusive education for all children. It is my primary objective to promote and support actions that will ensure that the school setting is a welcoming environment for all.

“The Irish research and census data shows that Traveller students are most likely to leave school early. As Minister for Education I am committed to doing all that I can to change that.”  

‘They didn’t want to hold our hands’ 

The glaring deficiencies identified during the Covid pandemic stem from inequalities ingrained in the education system and experienced by generations of Traveller children, advocates have said.   

Adult Travellers who spoke to Noteworthy said their own negative experiences at school as children had a significant impact on the way they, as parents themselves now, feel about schools. 

“I lived on a Traveller site and we were put on a bus – about 50 of us – and brought out to a school, out to a prefab at the back of the school,” one man, Martin*, said. 

Basically, all the Traveller children were put into that prefab. You were colouring and that’s basically what the school day was. It was more like a babysitting service. That’s probably late ’80s and that would have been the approach for a lot of Traveller children. 

Segregation of Traveller children, either in Traveller-only classes or entire Traveller-only schools, was commonplace in Ireland for generations and the last official Traveller-only secondary school in the country, St Thomas’s Special School in Coolock, Dublin, only closed in 2019.

This followed a commitment by government to phase out segregated education for Traveller children from 2006 onwards. However, Quilligan told Noteworthy that a type of segregated education still continues today with the use of reduced school days.  

“It’s important to note that schools are not just places to learn academically. They are also places where children build friendships and become active members of society. Children on reduced timetables are being robbed of this.”

The investigation team explored the link between childhood trauma – including segregation and discrimination – and poor mental health in part two of this series, with a six to seven times higher a rate of suicide in the Traveller community. 

In secondary school Martin was the only Traveller in the school, which he said left him feeling “very isolated”.  

Another parent, Rose*, said she remembers spending her days in school when she was 10 years old, minding her five-year-old nephew who was in the same classroom.  

Red schoolbags in the background with quote by Rose (pseudonym) - a Traveller woman in interview with Noteworthy: I was taught absolutely nothing. I left primary school without being able to read or write, maths or anything. I had to attend a Traveller Training Centre to learn some bits to do my Junior Cert.
Source: Photo - BlurryMe via Shutterstock

“It was appalling. It was just so, so bad when I look back on it. All my time was wasted in school learning absolutely nothing and it has a big impact now in my life.” 

In Rose’s primary school, she said the Traveller children were even separated from the settled children at play times.  

“We used to have to sit in our classroom until the settled children were finished playing, looking out the window. And when they were finished playing we could go out then, the Traveller boys and girls.” 

Kathy*, who is now in her mid 20s, said that when she finished second year her Spanish teacher “said goodbye and she hoped well for me in the future as she knows I’m not going to come back after the holidays”. 

Kathy did not leave secondary school until the end of fifth year and had not told the teacher she was leaving school at 14.  

“It was a build-up of being put to the back of the class with colours in Spanish, Geography and everything else,” she said. “At lunchtime, we were put into the cooking class to eat our lunches – we didn’t mix with the rest in the normal lunchroom. There were no [expectations] there.” 

Mary*, whose family was the first Traveller family in her school at the time, said she remembers that the other children did not want to sit beside her or play with her and her siblings in the yard.  

Two children in uniforms holding hands in the school yard with quote from Mary (pseudonym) - a Traveller woman in interview with Noteworthy:  In Irish dancing classes,  I remember how you would be holding each other’s hands. Obviously, they didn’t want to hold our hands.
Source: Photo - Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

Parents have said they still see parallels today in the way their children are treated at school. A 2019 report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that 27% of parents or guardians said their children were bullied at school because they are Travellers.  

In addition, the latest Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) Survey in 2018  found 42% of Traveller children reported being bullied at school “in the past couple of months” compared to 31% of all other children surveyed. This was an increase of almost 10% over four years, as in 2014, 33% of Travellers reported being bullied. 

‘Afraid of the school’

Discrimination among teaching and management staff at schools was also reported by parents who spoke to Noteworthy

Rose said her son was wrongfully accused of stealing another boy’s coat when he was in sixth class. She said there were five other boys in the class – all settled children – with the same jacket, but Paul* was the only child taken out of the class.  

“His teacher came out and told the principal that Paul came to school with that jacket in September and it was his jacket,” she explained.  

“The principal still wouldn’t have it. He got my child’s jacket, brought it down to the other boy, tried it on the other boy and said – ‘Paul, look it’s no harm you took the jacket, just apologise’. Paul got very upset and said ‘No, that’s my jacket and I want my mother rang now this minute’.” 

Rose said the other child’s teacher later found the missing jacket in the school computer room. This incident happened five years ago. 

“After they scandalised my child, accused him and treated him that way, it put him off school completely,” Rose said. “When he went to secondary school, he had no trust for school because of it.” 

She said Traveller parents can often feel intimidated by the school system because of their own poor experiences as children as well as their lack of basic education.  

“There should be more information days to make parents more aware of how to stand up for themselves and how to take part in a parent-teacher meeting in a secondary school,” she said.

School desks in a classroom with quote from Rose (pseudonym) - a Traveller woman in interview with Noteworthy: If you never had the education yourself, or you didn’t go to secondary school, like I didn’t, or didn’t know how to take part in the parent teacher meeting, it is very daunting.
Source: Photo - Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Quilligan said some Traveller parents she works with are “really afraid of the school” because of their own trauma and as a result they want to minimise their engagement with the system. 

“An awful lot of people from the outside looking in at that might think the trope, that Travellers have no interest in education,” she said. “But when I’m actually working with the parents and engaging with the schools on behalf of the parents, sometimes I can see the parent regress right in front of my very eyes, back to when they were a child and they had such negative experiences in school.” 

‘Teachers treat you differently’ 

Young Travellers, aged 12 and 13, who spoke to Noteworthy shared their own experiences and all said they had been treated differently by most of their teachers, both in primary and secondary school.  

“They (teachers) know we’re Travellers, they treat us differently to the other children in the class,” one girl said. “They give out to us more, they don’t give out to the other children as much. Travellers get in trouble more.” 

“The students in the class, they wouldn’t treat you differently, if you told them they would probably ask a lot of questions like ‘do you do this, do you travel?’,” another girl, now in first year, told Noteworthy. “But the teachers treat you differently to the other settled pupils.” 

Children who spoke to Noteworthy said that when they ask for help or have trouble understanding a lesson, they do not feel as though teachers offer them the same level of assistance or time as settled students in the class. 

“She (the teacher) would probably come over and explain but she’d say ‘you’d have to know that from primary school’ and probably you wouldn’t know,” one girl, a first-year student said. 

So she’d come over to explain about multiplication or whatever, but she’d only stay for like two minutes and she’d go over to someone else who’s stuck and she’d stay longer to help them. Some days I text one of the settled girls in my class to get the meaning of something she said because she wouldn’t explain it to me, but she’d explain it to someone else.

They also said they did not think their teachers would praise them for doing something well or believed they would succeed in their futures. 

“If I did something good in school they wouldn’t’ say ‘you did a good job, well done’. They’d say that to the settled children but not me,” one girl who is in second year told us. 

One boy who is in first year said: 

They expect me not to do well. When I was leaving primary school, for my graduation, she (the teacher) said to everyone else ‘I know you can make it in your career’ and when I was leaving she just said ‘have a good life’, she didn’t tell me she believed in me or anything like she did with the rest of the class. 

This boy told Noteworthy he wants to go on to university and become a solicitor, something he said he had also told his sixth-class teacher.  

One of the girls who spoke to Noteworthy also said she wants to be a lawyer – or a vet.  

“I’d get support from my Mummy and Daddy but I wouldn’t get support from the school,” she said when asked if she felt like she had the support she needed to achieve her career goals.  

‘Unwanted’ in the education system

Quilligan said this lower level of expectation among teachers with their Traveller pupils is something she regularly comes across through her social care work. 

She told Noteworthy that a principal in one school she worked in during the 2019/20 academic year brought all Traveller students to the gym and informed them that they could legally leave school by the age of 16.  

Quilligan said this incident had also been recorded by a social worker and another educator and is documented in a report she is currently working on.

Feeling unwelcome is not unusual. An unpublished government-commissioned report, titled Out of the Shadows, reportedly warned that Traveller children feel “unwanted” in the education system in Ireland and that their parents fear for them while they are at school. 

This report was conducted on behalf of the Department of Education as part of the  National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS) 2017-2021

Minister Roderic O'Gorman - wearing a navy suit with light blue shirt and blue dotted tie - talking at a podium with two microphones on it. With quote:  There's no question that there is ingrained institutional racism against the Traveller community in this country and that's a cycle that we have to break.
Source: Photo - Eamon Farrell via RollingNews.ie

In relation to the findings of the Out of the Shadows report, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy it was “deeply disappointing that any child feels unwanted in their own country”. 

We reported in part one of this investigation that the Minister said the way in which Travellers have been “marginalised in every engagement with the State” has seeped into the consciousness of the community.  

“This is one of the driving factors now, I assume, why the children are feeling this way as well,” he said. 

Noteworthy asked Minister Foley for her thoughts on the findings of the Out of the Shadows report, but did not receive a response. 

In relation to this, the Department of Education spokesperson sent the investigation team a statement that included references to their policy on wellbeing as well as a planned review of the 2013 Action Plan on Bullying and a prioritisation by the Department’s Inspectorate “on the implementation of anti-bullying measures in schools”.

The Department’s spokesperson did not comment on the findings of the Out of the Shadows report or list any Traveller-specific actions related to it. 

More focus needed on racism

Traveller parents and children are not the only people impacted by discrimination in the education system. Education workers Quilligan and Coffey have faced challenges at all levels in schools they work in.  

Quilligan recalled a meeting where a principal sat her down to “explain” to her about Travellers: “I had to stop him halfway through and tell him ‘what you’re saying is factually incorrect’. Once I explained to him then that I was a Traveller, he never again engaged with me. I have to say, I came out of that meeting and my knees were knocking.” 

Coffey told Noteworthy: “Even me, as a Traveller, as a worker going into schools, it upsets me the way some teachers and principals speak to me. I’m that small child again”.  

Though there are issues internal to the Traveller community which can’t be ignored, Quilligan said that equally there are challenges external to it.  

When I’m working with some schools, they’re very quick and more comfortable to highlight the challenges within the community; very different when it comes to what the school could do better or could have done better. 

Quilligan added that “schools have to feel safe to have those conversations, because the ball is really in their court”. Cultural awareness training is one of the ways that this can be addressed, according to every advocate that spoke to the investigation team.  

Coffey felt that Traveller workers delivering training to teachers and other school staff would set “good practice for working with minorities” and said that “if the system keeps going the way we are, it’s never going to change”. 

Noteworthy asked the Department of Education – through an FOI request – for all policy documents for primary and secondary education teaching courses relating to modules on Travellers. We were provided with one document: Céim – Standards for Initial Teacher Education published by the Teaching Council. 

Travellers were mentioned once in this document, in the ‘Inclusive Education’ section:

The Council’s view of a truly inclusive approach to professional practice recognises that teachers encounter a diverse range of needs in the course of their teaching, regardless of setting. This will include additional learning needs (e.g. autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia) and learning needs associated with diverse linguistic, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic (including Traveller community, Roma) backgrounds.

Noteworthy also sent FOI requests to a number of teacher training colleges and asked for module overviews of courses that have content relating to Travellers. All provided details of modules that incorporated Traveller culture or education.  

DCU provided links to three modules “designed around the UN definition of inclusivity” which a spokesperson said is “why the word Traveller is not specifically mentioned in the descriptor”. However, they added that they understood “that the modules deal with Traveller education as well as that of other minorities”. 

Mary Immaculate (UL), Marino Institute of Education (Trinity College) and Froebel (Maynooth University) all provided detail of the topics they covered in a variety of modules, which included guest lectures by Travellers. 

Froebel teacher trainees also took part in a half-day cultural exchange hosted by Kildare Traveller Action Project on a local halting site over the past number of years, with the exception of last year due to Covid. 

The response from Mary Immaculate included slides from a Traveller culture awareness workshop for education professionals from 2019 which delved into topics including culture, history, racism and barriers to education attainment. 

However, Coffey felt from her experience working in schools, enough isn’t being done. “Everyone wants to know about Traveller and Roma culture but we’re not talking about how racism and words impact young people.” 

She works with children who live in Spring Lane – the halting site that was the subject of the damning Children’s Ombudsman report on overcrowded and unsafe conditions.  

“When you go onto Spring Lane, it’s a sand quarry. When the weather gets bad, it’s just muck.”

Satellite image of the Spring Lane halting site depicting a sand quarry beside a road, with quote from Rachel Coffey - Traveller education worker in Cork City: If they (the children) go into school dirty, parents would be saying to them - ‘you’re full or muck’ - or teachers would be passing comments.

Many advocates we spoke to felt that the entire school body, including parents, should be included in cultural awareness training.  

As part of this, more focus needs to be put on social justice issues “rather than ‘Travellers like horses’,” according to Coffey. “Let’s talk about racism as we all have our own hidden biases whether we want to believe it or not.” 

When asked if the Department of Education has plans to further improve teacher training to ensure young Travellers feel more supported by their schools, a spokesperson said it “will continue to address the areas of anti-racism, identity-based bullying and cultural awareness through a suite of supports including the continuing professional development (CPD) to teachers at primary and post-primary level”.

“It will ensure that such programmes enable teachers to deal with teaching and learning needs of all students from all cultural backgrounds.” They also referenced the Teaching Council’s ‘Céim – Standards for Initial Teacher Education’ and said that this “includes strengthened provision regarding inclusive education”.

‘Seeing things slowly change’ 

A new approach that Coffey has seen “make a massive difference in young people’s lives in school” is the STAR – or Supporting Travellers and Roma – project.  

This pilot project began with three sites two years ago – Galway, Wexford and Dublin – and last year was also rolled out to Cork where Coffey is employed as the project’s Traveller education worker. 

“Expected outcomes of the pilot include improved attendance, participation and retention of Travellers and Roma in education and improved engagement with Traveller representative groups,” a Department of Education spokesperson told Noteworthy

“It’s a wraparound service that we give to the community,” explained Coffey who runs homework clubs, one-to-one supports in schools, group work, a mental health programme and literacy support for parents. They team also helped deliver medicine, food and education packs to children during the pandemic’s lockdowns.  

And they are already seeing results from this extra support. Some students are attending school after lunch – something they hadn’t done before while others who didn’t go to school in first year, have rejoined secondary school.  

Coffey said they have seen “a big change in behaviour patterns” with young people opening up and asking for help. Parents also come to the STAR workers for advice and support, often before talking to schools.  

The project had another first recently, as Coffey sourced work experience for all Travellers in fifth year – something that hadn’t happened before. “It’s massive to the young people – the girls were beaming and so proud to tell their teachers.”  

On top of all that, there has been an impact on the wider school community, said Coffey, who used the example of a workshop she ran in primary schools during Traveller Pride Week on the Cant language where “kids brought their posters around to all the classes and the settled kids were asking about the words”.  

Poster with images and Cant words in the middle, surrounded by the words: Taken, Comrea, Beag, Shades, Sublic, Mistle, Feen, Beoir and Wobs. Some of the Cant words taught by the STAR Project during Traveller Pride Week
Source: Rachel Coffey via STAR Project Cork

Coffey said that children wouldn’t have had that opportunity without STAR. “In Cork City, words like beoir and feen are looked at negatively as northside words. But they’re part of a beautiful language and our kids are getting in trouble for calling someone feen in school.”  

The pilot stemmed from a commitment in the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy that “access, participation and outcomes for Travellers and Roma in education should be improved to achieve outcomes that are equal to those for the majority population”.  

According to a recent report by the Children’s Rights Alliance, the pilot is estimated to cost €2.2 million and each pilot area is being provided with an additional educational welfare officer, home school liaison coordinator and two additional Traveller and Roma education workers. 

Coffey is the Traveller education worker funded as part of this, but only until June 2022 when the pilot ends. “We all have our fingers crossed that it continues because we’ve built up such good relationships with young people, it would be a shame for it to be gone.”  

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman brought up the four STAR pilots when he spoke Noteworthy and said that they are being evaluated at the moment.  

Noteworthy asked the Department of Education for an update on the future of the pilot and if it intends to roll the initiative out across Ireland. A spokesperson said that it “is extended for a third year in light of Covid-19″. They added:

“It is intended that it will inform future policy initiatives to support children and young people from the Traveller and Roma communities in their education. Plans for a comprehensive evaluation of the pilot are underway.” 

Curriculum has the ‘capacity to disrupt’ 

Another recent development that advocates welcome is the ongoing progress of the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill which is currently in the Committee stage where amendments are debated.

Traveller organisations have campaigned for this for decades. It was included as recommendations in numerous reports, including the 1995 Task Force Report on the Travelling Community which stated that “the curriculum at primary level is monocultural. As a result, Travellers frequently find no mention of themselves in school programmes or materials.” 

Recent research from DCU has found that making Traveller culture and history visible in schools has the “capacity to disrupt and challenge the historical subjugation and silencing of Traveller voices, norms and values”. 

The Bill was supported by the Government in July, where at the debate, Minster Foley welcomed it but also referenced the additional issues that need to be addressed, when she said “the question of improving Traveller outcomes and experiences in education cannot be answered by curricular change alone”.  

A whole school approach was also recommended in an audit by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of Traveller culture and history in the curriculum. 

The investigation team asked the Department of Education when it is expected that the Traveller culture and history curriculum will be taught in schools on the ground.

A spokesperson referenced the NCCA’s audit and said that “progression of the findings commenced with the appointment of a full-time NCCA education officer in September 2020″. They added that the NCCA’s work “arising from the audit will continue into 2022″.

Of this work, Minister Foley told Noteworthy that “the intention is to develop a range of supports and resources that will assist schools in educating all our young people on traveller culture and history”.

Strategy needed ‘with targets’ 

When it comes to tackling the systemic issues across the school system that Travellers face, many hope that the promised Traveller Education Strategy will help, if given the proper funding and resources to enable its implementation. 

Its development is in the Programme for Government and Minister O’Gorman told Noteworthy that it’s “really important” and can be used to address “structural issues”. He added that the Government can “also shape and design it in a way” that is cognisant of “the particular educational challenges that Covid has thrown up to Travellers”.  

Pavee Point’s Tracey Reilly said that the strategy “needs to happen immediately to address the disadvantages that Traveller children and young people face”.  

Legs of a school girl with white ankle socks and black shoes with quote from Tracey Reilly, Pavee Point: The strategy must include Traveller participation, education actions with targets, timelines and appropriate monitoring processes.
Source: Doomits via Shuterstock

A national rollout of supports given as part of the STAR pilot project should be included in the strategy, according to Coffey. She also said it should address key transitions in students’ lives that need extra focus – such as the move from primary to secondary school, Junior Cert to Leaving Cert and on to college.  

This will not be the first strategy to be written, with ‘The Report and Recommendations for a Traveller Education Strategy’ published after much preparatory work in 2006.  

The primary aim of this 2006 report “was to ensure a quality, integrated education for Travellers underpinned by the principles of inclusion and mainstreaming”, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Education. “Given the adoption of mainstream policy for education, many of the recommendations have been implemented and are included in current policies and strategies.”

However, Traveller organisations have criticised it for its lack of implementation plan, associated deliverables and deadlines. Ten years after its publication, the Irish Traveller Movement wrote that “progress on its implementation has been remarkably slow”, with a number of chapters with no recommendations implemented and others that were implemented since dismantled.  

That is why advocates spoke to Noteworthy about the need for dedicated funding and consequences if actions are not achieved by certain dates. Reilly summed this up when she said that it “must include Traveller participation, education actions with targets, timelines and appropriate monitoring processes”. 

Minister Foley and the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on when the strategy is expected to be published or if dedicated funding will be put in place to implement it.  

A spokesperson for the Department did say that “a final report on a review” of the 2006 report “is currently being finalised and will inform the development of a Traveller education strategy”.

Working collaboratively is key, according to Quilligan, with “the onus of responsibility” on everyone including parents, professionals and government. 

“We all have a duty of care to work together to meet the needs of the child. No one group can do that in isolation.” 

*Names have been changed. 


This article is part of our TOUGH START investigation being led by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and Michelle Hennessy of The Journal. It was updated post-publication to include responses from both Minister for Education Norma Foley and the Department of Education.

Over the next two weeks will also examine issues facing Traveller children in relation to housing and the justice system. 

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This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

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