Commencement Matters

Traveller Education

I thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing my Commencement matter and thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking the time to come into the House to deal with it. I wish to ask him about the levels of educational attainment among Travellers and specifically what is in place to address the stark figures that have been published. I start by restating that the position for Travellers is dire when it comes to education and that action is urgently needed. The same applies to health, housing and employment. I wish to focus on education and employment.

Less than two weeks ago, on 12 October, the CSO released the 2016 census data for Travellers. Shockingly, they show that 60% of Travellers have received a primary education only. Just 13% of Traveller women and girls have been educated to upper second level or above compared with 69% of the general population. The figure that really stands out for me and which I feel is staggering is that 167 out of a total of 30,000 Travellers have a third level qualification. These statistics are intrinsically linked with the rate of employment among Travellers, of whom 80% are listed as unemployed. If one has not received or only received a primary education, if very few complete second level and only 167 have a third level qualification, it comes as little surprise that the rate of Traveller participation in the labour market is so low.

Findings by the ESRI show that Traveller participation in the labour market increases sharply as levels of educational attainment increases, rising from 9% among those with only a primary education to 57% among those with a further or higher education. In the Behaviour & Attitudes Traveller community national survey recently published, 85% of Travellers stated that unemployment among Travellers has got a lot worse or no better over the past five years. This is very disappointing, particularly because when the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton was in his previous role, the creation of jobs in Ireland was a great success story. It is a real pity that many in this particular group of people, because of poor education, are also unemployed.

Education is key to improving the employment and life outcomes for the Traveller population and I want to know what measures the Minister is working on or what new measures he will introduce to increase Traveller participation. The State's track record on this issue is very poor. As the Minister will be aware, in 2011 all addition educational supports aimed at Travellers specifically were eliminated. The Travelling with Austerity report shows us that State spending on Traveller education fell by 86% between 2008 and 2013. This should be compared to the overall reduction in Government spending of 4.3% over the same period. I struggle to think of any other section of society that has suffered such a high level of withdrawal of resources. It is a stain on the record of the previous Administration. The cuts included abolishing the visiting teachers for Travellers posts, additional resource teachers and resource hours for Traveller children and closing specialised training centres for teenage and adult Travellers.

The 1995 Report of the Task Force on The Travelling Community acknowledged that few initiatives in the area of Traveller education have been as successful as the appointment of visiting teachers, a scheme that was introduced in the bleak 1980s. These visiting teachers worked across the generations, from adults to toddlers. They had a range of roles, from providing support to encouraging attendance, acting as an advocate and ensuring progress from primary to secondary and beyond. We need new initiatives similar to this to support the Traveller community through education. Some 60% of Travellers are aged under 25. The time for action to help these young Travellers is now.

What are the current measures in place and can the Minister give an update on the education points included in the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, which was published in July? The strategy includes very specific education orientated actions. In light of the CSO findings that the educational attainment among Travellers continues to lag very significantly behind that of the general population, I want to know what the Minister is doing now and any new measures he might propose.

I thank Senator Kelleher for raising this issue. No doubt this is a challenging and complex area. As the Senator will be aware, in June-July of this year the first National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy was published and the education committee within that has met in the intervening period. The strategy involves, as the Senator stated, a number of important education elements. At a general level, it proposes the need to support in areas including education, employment and economic development.

The Senator raised the issue of the extent to which the Traveller population has participated in the fall in unemployment from 15.1% to 6.1%, which is a dramatic improvement. I do not have data on that. The Intreo offices of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have been very successful. It was one of the successes under the former Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, that the work of the then Department of Social Protection was reoriented to help develop the unemployed to get into employment positions. Long-term unemployment is now down to 3%. We have been very successful in that area. I do not know to what extent Travellers have benefitted from that change, but certainly the focus of that policy is to assist the unemployed in finding pathways back into work.

Another element was to ensure that the curriculum resources gave consideration to the culture and history of the Traveller and Roma population for use within the education settings and work is under way on that by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA.

In the area of SOLAS and the ETBS planning for the needs of disadvantaged groups, including Travellers, that is very much a part of what is being done. As the Senator can understand, with unemployment very high, there was a huge emphasis on delivering a scale of opportunities. Now there is greater focus on identifying needs and pathways and ensuring that those programmes are of benefit. The latest figures I have show that there are 500 persons who declare as Travellers who are in programmes such as VTOS and Youthreach, and those programmes have in the past reported very good impact. We will be conducting a review of each of them shortly. We will look specifically at their success in bringing along groups, such as the Traveller and Roma groups, and successfully finding pathways for them.

The other area was to focus, in particular, on attendance. A two-year pilot programme is being initiated, mainly driven by Tusla, which is responsible for the home school liaison and the school completion policies. That two-year pilot programme will target attendance and participation by Traveller and Roma children. It will involve the appointment of additional home school liaison teachers and other supports to try to achieve high levels of attendance and completion. As the Senator correctly stated, there is a real problem with the fall-away as Traveller children progress through the education system. I attended the recent meeting that the former Taoiseach held in the context of the recognition of the ethnicity of the Traveller community and there was uniform support for education as being a key gateway. This pilot programme has built on the work there and it will be very much embedded with the Traveller community to try to achieve a big step up in the participation.

Another element obviously is trying to address what the Senator correctly pointed out was a very poor level of third level participation, with only roughly 1% of the adult Traveller population having third level education. Our performance framework for the higher education system has for the first time included an explicit target for enrolment of Traveller students. Obviously, we will be looking to see if can we use the programmes that we have rolled out, which include particular college bursaries worth €5,000 for 600 students from non-traditional backgrounds, as a gateway for Traveller students to come through. We have, as the Senator will probably be aware, a call out to the higher education institutions at present to develop their access policies and we will be keen to see that there are explicit attempts by the third level sector to ensure that its access policies include Traveller students.

There is work in progress and there is a new policy being developed, but I share the Senator's view that this is an area of very substantial challenge. The figures for education progression are, as the Senator correctly states, dismal and they are ones that we have to address. There is a determination in the committee that has been recently established in the education area to progress that.

We were all delighted to be part of the Traveller recognition but that is not worth anything unless Travellers begin to prosper. Education is key. The Minister correctly stated it is dismal. I referred to the levels of participation right across the system, but particularly in third level. The baseline is so low that we surely can raise our game. It is good that there is a committee looking at it.

However, I was also looking at the measures in the strategy. A network of peer support and mentoring is one of them. That is a great idea, but what is happening? The strategy includes good practice initiatives but again they are pilots. These are all aspirational. There are few concrete proposals here.

On school enrolment, are schools discriminating against Travellers?

We have had some high profile cases. I noted that No. 11 in the strategy states that a review will be published in early 2017. I do not know if the review has been published. If not, it would be helpful if the Minister came back to the Seanad in this guise, as a Commencement matter, or as part of our debates to consider this matter further. This is a matter of urgency.

Go raibh maith agat. I call the Minister.

I agree. The two-year pilot will be rolled out shortly. I think it is in a position to go live very soon and it will involve Tusla. It will enhance Tusla education welfare supports and additional home, school, community liaison co-ordinators, which we will fund. In addition, it will also fund the Traveller community workers in pilot areas to work with Tusla staff where Traveller children are enrolled. It focuses on the biggest thing, namely, retention within the school system. If we cannot develop policies that work in that area, then we will not achieve anything.

The policy position is that Travellers should not be educated separately. It is an established policy that Travellers should be in mainstream education and not separated out. The old system of visiting teachers and so on, which the Senator referred to, was a separate strain. To be fair to the Department of Education and Skills, over those years the investment in resource teaching, which is designed to meet the needs of children who come to school with particular difficulties, has been increased by 50%. We now have close to 14,000 teachers in resource teaching. They are available to pupils, be they from a Traveller background or any other background, who exhibit particular difficulties in dealing with the education programmes. That is a very substantial resource that has gone in. Funding was increased by 50% even in those very difficult years.

It is hoped that this integrated model, if we can improve attendance, will mean that the resources are available within schools to address some of these needs. That is why the focus has been on attendance, in particular. Also, it is the first time that targets have been set for progression to third level. We are trying to ensure that a coherent pathway is developed over time.

I note the Senator's concern. I will ensure that reasonable progress reports are provided to the Oireachtas so that we can see how we are progressing in this area, which is rightly a matter of considerable concern.

I thank the Minister and the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.