TRAVELLER ADVOCACY organisation says it has observed an increase in the number of teenage Traveller students not returning to school this year.
Tracey Reilly, education officer at Pavee Point, said the challenges experienced by teenage Travellers in being able to do schoolwork remotely meant that they missed out on a disproportionate amount of their education during the pandemic.
Reilly, speaking at an event highlighting educational disadvantage in Ireland by the Children’s Rights Alliance earlier today, said that many young Travellers “are not returning to school and will miss out on so much of their education, including doing their Leaving Cert”.
She told Noteworthy after the event that though leaving school early is an ongoing issue for Travellers, this year has been worse.
Teens between 14 and 16 are not returning to school, according to Reilly. Due to the cancellation of the Junior Cert for the past two years, this means that these teens haven’t been able to sit any State exams before finishing their education.
In one secondary school in Finglas, said Reilly, only one out of four Traveller boys returned to their education this September.
I think that’s scary as we have a big loss as it is within education. We don’t want it even bigger. We need the numbers up and progressing, not dropping out.
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.
Remote learning blamed
Nancy Collins from Finglas has a grandson who got good results in his Junior Cert but didn’t want to go back to school “because they were too long out”. He is getting help for an apprenticeship now.
However, Collins felt that “after all the years trying to keep [children] in school” not finishing education because of the impact of Covid “is hard”.
She said the virus really knocked back children in the community. “The teachers would Zoom and they were trying their best, but some of the children are in very small spaces in mobile homes or small apartments.”
Reilly blamed the “implications associated with remote leaving” which she said exposed the digital divide and was an issue for Travellers in terms of access and participation at all levels of education.
[Young people] felt they missed out on so much of their education that there was no point in going back to school.
Concerns over the impact of the pandemic on Traveller and Roma education have been highlighted by Pavee Point since the start of the pandemic. A report from organisation in July 2020 recommended immediate engagement with pupils, families and Traveller organisations on “urgent issues of transfer, progression and retention and enhance support at all levels”.
Reilly said that this report also showed that “Traveller students were left at extreme disadvantage” with issues including access to IT facilities, high cost of broadband, lack of access to devices, resources, books, libraries and private quiet spaces to study.
Lack of support and outreach
Even if young people had access to laptops or other equipment, Reilly explained that schoolwork was impacted due to a lack of access to WiFi, in particular for those living on halting sites, as well as low literacy levels among parents who are often early school leavers themselves.
Internet access among Travellers was also highlighted as an issue in the last census with 60% having no access, compared to 18% of the general population.
“There was no additional support” given to students on the ground, Reilly told Noteworthy.
At the talk today, Reilly criticised the education system for its lack of outreach supports to encourage those who haven’t returned to school to go back to education. She added:
If no action is taken with these children, they will not have the opportunity to complete their education and meet their full potential.
Leavers not helped by new scheme
Earlier this month, the Government launched a new programme – the Covid Learning and Support Scheme (CLASS) – in place “to help schools mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on pupil/student learning loss and wellbeing arising from the periods of school closures in 2020 and 2021″.
Though Reilly welcomed this scheme, she said it “does not address the issues of children who have disengaged from the education system and who do not plan to return to school”. She told Noteworthy:
“We need people that are on the ground that will engage and support families through different pathways.” Reilly said they are missing out on people visiting families and trying to get children back to school.
When asked if the Department of Education is aware of Traveller children not returning to school and what it was doing to address this, a spokesperson gave Noteworthy a response on overall actions and extra spending on education supports.
Though the Department acknowledged “that school closures have had a greater impact on the education of some students”, in its statement to Noteworthy Travellers were not specially mentioned and no Traveller-specific actions were detailed.
The spokesperson said that “over €100 million the total package for enhanced educational programmes aimed at supporting learners on their return to school” and listed actions by Tusla Education Support Services (TESS) “to promote connectedness to schools for children who are at risk of educational disadvantage”.
“Where schools have a concern about a child’s attendance they are required to make a referral to TESS Education Welfare Service (EWS),” according to the spokesperson.
Referrals decreased in the 2019/20 academic year while schools were closed but early “indications from last year were that the level of referrals were not significantly different” from 2018/19.
Education officer Reilly also called on the urgent development of a National Traveller Education Strategy, a commitment in the Programme for Government.
“This needs to happen immediately to address the disadvantages that Traveller children and young people face. The strategy must include Traveller participation, education actions with targets, timelines and appropriate monitoring processes.”
TOUGH START Investigation
This article is part of the upcoming TOUGH START investigation – to be published next month – which is examining if sufficient supports are being provided to Traveller children in terms of healthcare, education and other crucial factors for a good childhood.