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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 20 Apr 1994

Vol. 140 No. 1

Adjournment Matters. - Rathkeale (Limerick) School.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter on the Adjournment. I want to point out the need for the Minister for Education to sanction the appointment of a home/school liaison officer at St. Anne's girls' school and St. Joseph's boys' school in Rathkeale, County Limerick, in view of the large number of traveller children attending the schools. I raised this problem in May 1993 and I am extremely disappointed to learn that I must raise it again as no appointment has been made in the past 12 months.

Rathkeale town, as I have expressed on numerous occasions in this House, is unique in that 45 per cent of its population consists of members of the travelling community. There is also a large number of transient travellers who come to the town. There are many social problems generated because of the presence of two quite different cultures in the town. It is important that there is more communication and understanding between the travelling and the settled communities in Rathkeale. Much work has been done in the area. While the settled community should do what it can to address the problem, I think it feels threatened by the growth of the traveller community in the town.

At present, both St. Anne's girls' school and St. Joseph's boys' school do everything they can to encourage the travelling community to educate their children. Tonight, I am asking the Minister for Education to provide a home/school liaison officer to liaise between the school and the travelling families to assist them in their role as parents of school going traveller children.

There are over 200 settled children and 40 travelling children attending St. Anne's school; 22 of the travelling children are placed in ordinary classes and 18 attend ordinary classes but are on a special roll. These children and their parents need a great deal of counselling and advice before they are placed in ordinary classes. Of the 22 travelling children enrolled in ordinary classes, after three-quarters of the school year, 20 are still attending school while two left. Of the 18 who are enrolled on the special roll, six have, unfortunately, opted out of school. Four of these came for a short period, dropped out, returned when the garda visited their homes but eventually dropped out altogether. A school liaison officer is the key person needed to advise those families and to encourage the children to return to school.

At St. Joseph's primary school 12 boys were enrolled for ordinary classes. One left and two others are expected to leave shortly because they are going travelling. The other nine are settled in and will be there for the entire school year. Ten more boys will attend classes in this school in early September. It is also expected that between ten and 12 extra girls will enrol in St. Anne's primary school.

Every effort is being made to assist the travelling children in Rathkeale to obtain a basic education. This includes the provision of pre-school classes for traveller children which vary from 12 to 18 children. Last November, the special section of the Department of Education gave St. Anne's primary school permission to employ a temporary teacher for these 12 traveller children. These children were found to be extremely difficult, disruptive and almost impossible to work with.

During the school year the teachers plan to meet the parents of traveller children at the end of each month. This has proved to be very worthwhile. It is a very informal way and a friendly atmosphere has been created and a relationship has been developed with this small group of traveller parents. It is a small beginning but a very valuable one from the aspect of home/school link up. The principals and managers of both schools are encouraged by the rapport between the traveller parents and the teachers. A school liaison officer is urgently needed to develop this to involve more parents and to involve parents of traveller children who do not attend school at all or who drop out of primary school at an early stage, which is occurring.

I would like to outline some of the problems which the principals and managers of the schools have highlighted with regard to traveller children in the schools. Although attendances of traveller children in Rathkeale schools have improved, punctuality and taking unnecessary half days are causing real difficulties with their education. The level of disruptive behaviour in schools is unacceptable, especially in the girls' school. The children have special needs to which the schools must respond. It is difficult to keep a balance when a school is doing its best to help two communities in the same classroom.

The teachers strongly believe that a home/school liaison person should be appointed to link the two communities in every possible way and to assist both schools in doing so. We are disappointed that such an appointment has not been made to date as it is a necessary appointment. The Minister should understand the special needs and problems of such schools, the need for the school to encourage the traveller parents to continue their children's education and the importance of primary education to the children of the travelling community. That is why I ask the Minister to appoint a school/home liaison officer.

People outside the area and members of the special task force on travellers, when they hear about this problem, cannot understand why the Department of Education will not respond to such a glaring need. I should not have to come to the Seanad to press the case — it should be an automatic appointment. Teachers work hard in liaising with traveller parents. If there is hope for the future development of the town — and nobody is suggesting that we destroy the culture of the travelling community — the travellers must understand the difficulties which arise between the two cultures. It should be highlighted in school that unique cultures should be recognised. It should also be highlighted that basic literary and numeracy skills are necessary.

Every parent, including travellers, has the right to choose their children's education. However, counselling is necessary in making such choices. Discussions with teachers of pre-school classes, special classes and ordinary classes should determine when a traveller child is ready to participate in standard class-work. Counselling should take place between the parents, the school and the child to determine when the child should no longer be in a special category.

Traveller children usually cope well when placed in ordinary classes, especially in junior classes. However, they start to lose interest when they reach senior classes. There are various reasons for this, and some of them are cultural. One of the most important reasons is that parents are often illiterate and cannot assist their children with homework. There is an obvious need for counselling in this area.

If Rathkeale schools had the service I am seeking tonight there would be opportunities for full participation by traveller children in ordinary classes. There could be full integration with ordinary classes in selected subjects such as music, art, crafts, physical education, reading and so forth. Pupils from senior special classes in the school, who have achieved a good standard of reading, might benefit from one or two years in the ordinary senior classes even though they would be a little older that the other pupils.

In view of the unique problems in Rathkeale schools there should be a better teacher/pupil ratio. As is the case in schools in similar towns, deprived children who are not travellers attend the schools. Sometimes such children might be more deprived than the traveller children. Rathkeale schools are unique and should be treated as such by the Department so that they can effectively carry out their unique role. The pupil/teacher ratio in the ordinary classes should be reduced to 25:1. This will allow teachers to help deprived children from both communities to perform better. The home/school liaison officer is urgently needed to work with parents and children for the benefit of the settled and travelling communities.

I hope the Minister will look favourably on the application. I read last year's response and I will compare it to the response tonight. The case stands on its merits and I look forward to a comprehensive reply from the Minister.

I compliment Senator Neville on making a comprehensive case on behalf of St. Anne's primary school in Rathkeale, County Limerick. I understand the position with regard to the traditional indigenous traveller population in Rathkeale. I compliment Senator Neville and the people of Rathkeale on their positive attitude in ensuring that equality of opportunity prevails for the travelling community at all levels. That is most important in primary education where young children from both communities can be integrated and work together through the education system to build a community that accepts each person's culture and diversity.

Senator Neville has outlined the problems in the community. It is obvious that in a large school with 200 pupils, 40 of whom are traveller children, the difficulties of children from the settled community are compounded if additional services are necessary for the traveller children. It is incumbent on the Department of Education to provide support and back-up services. The disruption of classes does not help the school environment nor does it create a settled environment in which children at a very formative age can study and benefit from teaching. It is vital that back-up service is provided and our efforts should seek to ensure that it is made available. It is also important that the pupil/teacher ratio takes account of the problems in the school and of the environment it serves.

This matter is once again under consideration in the Department of Education. I regret that neither the Minister for Education nor the Minister of State at the Department of Education is available. They are engaged in other Government business. They asked me to deputise for them and to assure the House that they are cognisant of the situation. I will speak with my colleagues in the morning and I will impress on them the importance of this appointment. I will wholeheartedly recommend it based on the case made by Senator Neville.