I thank the committee and, indeed, Senator Kelleher, who I have met on a number of occasions, who has a particular interest in Traveller education.
My name is Catherine Joyce. I am one of the managers of Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group. Our area is Dublin 15 but we serve the surrounding areas such as Meath, Cavan and Fingal County Council.
As Ms Maria Joyce and Mr. Nevin have already said, education is not a luxury. It is a right that all children have in this country. However, it is as important to have the right to be treated equally within the education system and that cannot be achieved if the lived experience, culture and identify of Travellers is not reflected positively within schools. For that to happen, we must look at the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, how books are developed in relation to promoting aspects of Irish culture and identity within the system, and not being able to do that and reflect Traveller culture. They are looking at it now but it is way overdue. It is badly needed in terms of making sure that the curriculum reflects Traveller culture.
Every statistic one ever hears about education is a child, like my child, Johnny, who is 14 years of age, or the child belonging to those who are in this room. It is the next generation that we are talking about in the Traveller community who are children, who are pupils, who are life-long learners and who are going through an educational system that, as Ms Maria Joyce stated, is racist towards our culture, identity and, indeed, community. When we are thinking about it, we have to think about the individuals who are involved in these statistics that are getting thrown out left, right and centre.
In my catchment area, there are Travellers who live in a range of different types of accommodation. There are Travellers who live in Traveller-specific accommodation - halting sites and group housing schemes. There are Travellers who live in the private rented sector who live in mainstream housing. There are also Travellers who, like a lot of people in this country, are homeless. These Travellers have an added challenge of trying to get to school - when they might be in the geographical area of Dublin 15 but are travelling from Swords and other areas - to make sure that they adhere to their commitments in relation to their child's education. They are detached from their extended family and community but they also have a logistical difficulty in terms of finances and distance in trying to get their child to school and in getting him or her to stay the correct school hours. That causes great difficulty without schools forcing reduced hours on Traveller children and stating that, because one is a Traveller child, it is okay to miss a subject such as English, Irish or mathematics. Whatever the subject, that limits their opportunities of being able to progress in education and into second-level education. It also limits their employment opportunities in this country. Projects, such as my own, spend a lot of time and energy trying to undo a lot of damage that was done in the educational system in this country where we are trying to re-educate Travellers who left at an early school age or who were forced into segregated classes in this country. We spend a lot of time and energy educating people who have only had a limited number of years, if any, in mainstream education. Considerable financial resources of the State have gone into doing that through a number of Traveller projects, such as our own, around the country.
When we are looking at education, we must look at the cuts. We cannot go any further without saying that the cuts have been detrimental to education. Up until the cuts in 2008 and 2009, we had 100% transition of Travellers in Blanchardstown from mainstream primary school education into second-level education. We had all the challenges of trying to keep children in education. We ourselves provided homework support clubs. Other people provided breakfast clubs. We had the resource teacher for Travellers, RTT. We had the visiting teacher services. We had all of those services, including transport, to maintain that 100% transition. It only lasted for two years. As soon as the cuts occurred, it was no longer the case that we had transition.
If one looks at the possibilities that could be open to Travellers if they transferred into second-level education and the opportunities they might have if they go on to college and further education or learning, that has been limited because of the State's cuts in Traveller education.
We have also got a situation where all of those people have gone through a school system that does not reflect their culture, identity or lived experience.
We have a position whereby the Traveller children are being taught by their parents and extended families. When they are taught in that environment, they are also being taught to be guarded about how they expose their identity to people who are not Travellers. They are taught to be guarded in how they conduct and present themselves to settled people in schools. Travellers do not want their children to have to face racism and discrimination just because they are proud of their Traveller identity, their culture and their way of life. We must ensure education is not just about educating Travellers about Traveller culture but also about educating settled people about Traveller culture.
Unfortunately, the State has neglected its duty in this area in a big way. Projects like mine are trying to undo much of the damage with the education programmes we provide to schools and teachers, as well as some of the development work we do locally. We are doing work that could have been done by the State 20 years ago in order to ensure that interculturalism would have included Travellers in the space where we could talk about different cultures and identity. It is particularly important given the announcement in 2017 where the State recognised Traveller ethnicity that schools would start to take on that responsibility in a real way and ensure they teach all children in schools about the identity of Travellers, as well as the important role that Travellers have played in the economic survival of the country and in the area of traditional music. There are also other elements of their contribution to consider, including the landscape of the country, farming, etc. That is not reflected but it could be in the whole school curriculum rather than just one subject.
Travellers might have to endure teachers who do not know anything about Travellers teaching a subject in one class or one year. Children like mine have excused themselves when the subject was taught and did not go into school for the day. Other children belonging to me who sat in those classes when the topic was taught had to endure racism and discrimination from the other children in the classrooms and had to come to their own defence in challenging it. Sometimes they got into physical arguments in the yard because of comments made in the classroom setting because a teacher was not able to handle the information coming through. It was one subject and one piece of a curriculum. It is a lot of responsibility to place on a 14 or 15 year old from the Traveller community if they must educate Travellers and settled people, including their friends, as well as teachers of the subject in the first place.
None of the Travellers in our area lives in a DEIS area so they do not have any special resources or significant support going into the schools. They are treated the same as everybody else. In an ideal world, we would like it to be the case that no other resources are needed but when people are targets of racism, discrimination and cultural erosion, there is an important need for DEIS schools to be expanded where there is a significant number of Travellers who could access such additional support. As I stated, the visiting teacher service is gone and the loss of posts for RTTs has had a significant impact on Travellers. There is also the question of significant other supports, including capitation grants to help Travellers in schools.
The national survey in 2017 indicated that four out of ten Travellers stated that their Traveller children had been bullied in school because of their identity. I know that is the case as my children were bullied in school to the extent that they were called "knackers" in the school yard. They were asked to pick up a tissue paper and this and that. When a teacher tried to respond to the incident in the yard, the response was to ask my child to explain who Travellers were; my child had to come up with the solution when the other person should have been reprimanded. It is an awful indictment of our school system if we are asking children to be judge, jury and executioner when a racist comment is made against Travellers.
Interculturalism is important and it is vital the whole school learns about Travellers. It is important that non-Traveller children learn about different cultures that make up society and that we look at the historical context of Travellers. We must also consider the contemporary context of Travellers and we do not want people learning about Travellers who lived in wagons 40 years ago. My children do not even know what it is to live in a wagon. We must look at contemporary Traveller culture and trying to reflect that in the school curriculum. Any negative stereotypes or views in the wider society should not be reflected in either the delivery of teaching or books used in that delivery.
Some good programmes, such as the Yellow Flag programme, deal with interculturalism in school but, unfortunately, in some cases Travellers are a tag-on. The programme looks at other cultures and new communities but does not necessarily put Travellers to the forefront.
A programme could be developed to ensure that the schools have a role in prioritising the Traveller culture within programmes, specifically where they are about cultural identity and look at the native culture of Travellers in this country. Traveller culture and history are not visible in the preschool, primary school and post-primary curricula and there are no mandated guidelines for schools on this matter. Schools can teach what they want. Even in the Yellow Flag programme they can leave it to the pupils, the teachers or the parents of the children who are in the school to teach it. Very often much will be hidden because they do not want to expose Traveller culture and identity and they do not want that to be a reflection on their children who may be attending the school. We must get it right and use the experts who are there for doing that, and it must be across the school setting and not just in one area.
Many Traveller groups are doing this work ad hoc through music, theatre and dramas. My husband is involved through a play he wrote about it. It is a cultural thing and he has contacted many people, but it should not be the responsibility of Traveller organisations. It is the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills to ensure that the educational system is at least reflective of the native Irish people who live in this country, if not ensuring that we include the new people who have joined our society.
There is a need to monitor the data relating to Travellers in schools and, in particular, on why Travellers are leaving school early, the locations of those schools and what the impact is in terms of the user of the school. There is a need to establish a new education strategy. I was involved in the last one and I am sure it is a door stop for a room somewhere in the Department of Education and Skills because I have not heard it quoted by many Ministers or people who are involved in education. It took a great deal of time to do that. It is not about spending another five years on an education strategy. It is about a strategy that has targets and goals and adequate resources to implement it. The last time I was involved in a discussion about education with the Department, when the cuts took place in 2008, the first thing it did was cut Traveller training centres. While Traveller training centres categorically needed to go, they did not need to go as the first port of call when cuts were sanctioned. The impact of that must be addressed in terms of the adults who have gone through a system where there are no adult learning spaces available. They are coming back to us on community employment, CE, and other programmes, but they are not suitable for adult learning. We must examine that.
We must resource Traveller organisations in respect of picking up the tab for education. We have picked up the visiting teacher service and the roles of the after-school programmes and breakfast clubs, yet we do not have an education worker or a youth worker. Our project is left with the fallout from the cuts and we are trying to respond and deal with that.
I realise I have gone over time so I will finish quickly. The intercultural awareness programme should be mandatory for trainee teachers and all teachers, regardless of whether they are teaching Traveller children or children from other communities. There must be a situation where there is mandatory intercultural and anti-racist teaching for the teachers who are teaching in these schools. It does not matter who the pupil is. They should be educating everybody who comes through the door about interculturalism and anti-racism in school life and in the school setting.
The Department of Education and Skills has called for the inclusion of Traveller history and culture. I welcome that. I realise many people are questioning why they must learn about Travellers and not all the other cultures. They are questioning why Travellers are so important and asking why Travellers cannot teach their own children. The reality is that Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic minority group. The State did that after much campaigning on behalf of Traveller organisations. There is a responsibility on the State to educate its pupils, regardless of whether they are in preschool, primary, secondary or third level education. If it is a private school one can look at the logistics of doing that. Regardless of the type of education, the State has a responsibility to ensure that whatever is taught in schools does not damage the life of the young person who is going through that educational system.
I am speaking as a mother and a grandmother. Some of my grandchildren are of Traveller extraction and some are of settled extraction. When they are going through the school system they will be further disenfranchised by a situation where a teacher does not know how to teach the pupils in the school who come from a different culture or race or come from two cultures or identities. There will be more of that, and not just in respect of Travellers. We will have it in respect of people who come from Africa, China and elsewhere in the world to live in this country.
It is vital that we do not do the same wrongs we did to Travellers to other settled people or people from other cultures. Traveller children and young people should be as important to the State as they are to me and our community. If I am forced to put my children into mainstream second level education, the least that I can expect is that the Government will out for my child and not damage their health or mental well-being by telling them that it is not good to be a Traveller.