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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Jul 2018

Vol. 259 No. 9

Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister and his officials. I call Senator Kelleher.

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, to the House on what I hope will be a good and historic day for a more inclusive Ireland. I welcome to the Public Gallery members of the Traveller community and Traveller organisations whom I thank for this Bill.

The proposal for a Bill emerged after consultation between Oein De Bhairduin from my office, Bernard Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement and other national and local Traveller representative organisations. The reasons for the Bill arose from, among other things, consistent reports and research highlighting the grossly disproportionate outcomes for Travellers in education as compared to the wider community.

As such, I present today the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018. It is a Bill seeking to right some of the wrongs in our education system which particularly affect people from the Traveller community. Hannagh McGinley is a PhD candidate, co-ordinator of the module on Travellers, rights and nomadism at UCD, a teacher in the school of education at NUIG and an Irish Traveller herself. As Hannagh puts it:

The times we are living in are momentous. This Bill has been a long time coming and it is wonderful to see our community at this juncture where they feel they have the right to demand a better quality of education for our children.

The proposed Bill seeks to amend the Education Act 1998 to formally include Traveller culture and history in education. Education is a key means to encourage social acceptance of diversity, fight discrimination and redress disadvantage. The inclusion of Traveller culture and history within the curricula of Irish primary and post-primary schools is a logical and necessary extension of the State's historic recognition of Traveller ethnicity in Dáil Éireann in March 2017. The content of the Bill is in line with the equality and education policies developed by recent Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led Governments, as well as with Ireland's international obligations. The report and recommendations on a Traveller education strategy, developed by the Department of Education and Skills under the then Minister, Mary Hanafin, in 2005, recommended that Traveller culture should be an integral part of the intercultural curriculum and represented positively in Irish primary schools. Similarly, the Department of Justice and Equality's National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 commits to developing education resources on Traveller and Roma culture and history for use in primary, post-primary and adult education settings. Including Traveller culture and history in the State's education system responds specifically to the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2009, including that Roma and Traveller history and culture should be appropriately reflected in the general curriculum of schools.

As Ireland's most long-term disadvantaged group, Travellers experience gross disparities in educational attainment compared with the general populace. According to a 2017 ESRI report, Travellers are over 50 times more likely to leave school without the leaving certificate than persons in the general population. Only 9% of 25 to 34 year old Travellers have completed second level education compared with 86% of all persons nationally. Including Traveller culture and history within the curricula of Irish schools would have a transformative effect on young Travellers' relationship with the education system. It would recognise and validate their distinct culture and work against feelings of exclusion and high rates of school leaving and towards greater levels of educational attainment. The potential to improve the educational attainment of minority students through the recognition of a minority culture within a school curriculum was demonstrated by the Te Kotahitanga project in New Zealand where the adoption of Maori-centred education for over 1,000 Maori students in selected schools significantly increased the retention rates and academic results of participants relative to Maori students in other schools. That project helped to encourage the New Zealand Government to adopt a large-scale policy at national level to give Maori culture and history a central place in education.

In recognition of the shocking disparities in educational attainment for Travellers in Ireland, we must legislate. We must also reverse the shocking 86.6% cuts introduced in 2011 to Traveller-specific education supports through the withdrawal of resource teachers for Travellers at primary level, teaching hours for Travellers in post-primary and of visiting teachers for Travellers generally, as well as the phasing out of senior Traveller training centres. A serious degree of discrimination is faced by the Traveller community in Ireland at all levels of the education system and it must be reversed. The disproportionate education cuts must be reversed.

As well as reversing the cuts mentioned, the recognition of Traveller culture and history within the education system through the implementation of the provisions of the Bill would also be of great benefit to all pupils and teachers, allowing them to learn about an important element of the rich mosaic of Ireland's cultural heritage. The uniqueness and depth of Traveller culture has led to academic interest in the Traveller way of life over time in the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies in Ireland and beyond. Learning about aspects of this culture, such as the Gamin language, Traveller music, the historical barrel-top way of life and Travellers' fight for inclusion and dignity would broaden the cultural and historical education of Irish pupils and students in the way Black History Month has for students in the UK and the USA.

Enacting this legislation would help to counter the discriminatory attitudes and negative myths regarding Travellers that exist among members of the wider community. It needs hardly to be demonstrated that these attitudes are all too common in Irish society. According to the Behaviour & Attitudes national Traveller survey in 2017, only one in ten non-Travellers said he or she would employ a Traveller. These myths have caused the perpetuation of a cycle of victim blaming, as described by psychologist William Ryan, whereby members of a dominant community see features of the social life of a marginalised community that are the result of poverty and marginalisation as essential features of that community's culture and use this observation to justify racist attitudes that cause this cycle of poverty, exclusion and marginalisation to continue. It is common in Ireland today to blame Travellers and as such to blame the victims of discrimination for discrimination. In 2018, we can no longer afford to blame victims. We can do better than that and we need to act.

Since the launch of the Traveller Oireachtas group and the launch of the Bill last week, I have received many positive messages and correspondence. However, I highlight a particular email I received which has convinced me more than ever of the need for and merit of the proposed Bill. The correspondence was from a person working in a school, possibly even a teacher, who wrote:

I am outraged to read your article stating how Traveller Children are 'discriminated against and bullied' in Irish Schools [...] forget introducing the history of the traveller culture as mandatory in Irish Schools. We have enough of their culture. Perhaps introducing a mandatory code of practice/behaviour class for travellers to take before their acceptance into mainstream education would be a wiser option or else provide them with education facilities in their own communities and stop their discrimination against us.

I am horrified that a person with such beliefs and prejudice has any role in the education of children, let alone Traveller children. This person is not fit to work in a school in any capacity. Faced with such naked prejudice, is it any wonder that Travellers have such high rates of mental ill-health? The rate of suicide in the Traveller community is six times higher than in the wider population. Faced with such bile, is it any wonder Travellers leave school early when met on a daily basis with such ignorance and such prejudice?

The Bill proposes to amend sections 9 and 30 of the Education Act 1998 to provide that the Minister shall prescribe that Traveller culture and history is taught in recognised Irish schools. Given that previous Government education strategies regarding the Traveller community did not culminate in an implementation plan, including the 2006 Traveller education strategy, the adoption of legislation by the Oireachtas is the best way to ensure that the Department of Education and Skills honours its commitment to develop primary and post-primary curricula which include Traveller culture and history as mandatory elements of primary and second-level education.

Enacting this legislation would also allow the Minister to consult with representative bodies, including the Irish Traveller Movement and other Traveller community groups, to establish in what way Traveller history and culture could best be introduced in school curricula. As community bodies representing a large number of Traveller parents, groups such as the Irish Traveller Movement are legally entitled to participate in the development of elements of the national curriculum covering Traveller culture and history. This reflects Article 42 of the Constitution, which gives parents the primary role in determining their children's education. The Bill would therefore make it mandatory for recognised schools to promote and teach Traveller culture and history.

It should be noted that the Minister does in fact have the power under current legislation to provide for the inclusion of Traveller culture and history in the curricula of recognised schools. This power is found in section 30(1) of the Education Act 1998 which provides that the Minister may prescribe the curriculum for recognised schools. While the Minister has enjoyed this power since 1999 and, as such, had this power for 20 years, Traveller culture and history have not been included in curricula. Under the provisions of the proposed Bill, the Minister would be required to make an order under section 30 of the Education Act 1998 to stipulate the precise content to be included in curricula. In other words, the Bill requires the Minister to act. Currently, any reference to Traveller culture or history is left to the discretion of the individual teacher. The inclusion of a unique element of Irish history and culture should not and cannot be left up to the decision of individual teachers. Teachers should be provided with a basis in the curriculum to educate a more diverse school-going population on Traveller culture and history. Teachers should be provided with the necessary training, skills and cultural awareness to carry out this work sensitively, confidently and affirmatively.

The provisions contained of the Bill represent a strong tool to create a fully inclusive curriculum that values all of Ireland's rich culture and heritage; a culture and heritage that recognises and includes Travellers. This legislation can help us to create a more respectful, inclusive and fair education system which can combat long-lasting and deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination and lead to a more respectful and equal society in Ireland. The Bill is also about implementing existing Government policy in commitments in policy guidelines issued by the Department of Education and Skills in 2005 and by the Department of Justice and Equality in 2017. The Bill will bring Ireland further into line with international obligations and standards regarding Traveller education and conform with recommendations issued by the Council of Europe in 1989 and 2009 and with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989.

Enacting the Bill will give Travellers a real stake in the education system. Similar initiatives in countries such as New Zealand have shown that curricula inclusive of minority group cultures can have a positive effect.

The Bill would also assist in the process of redress for internalised oppression and combat against related future mental health issues faced by Travellers and associated with the educational and cultural repression they have endured. The Bill will foster a real enrichment of the Irish education system, developing a more open, inclusive and diverse curriculum which is inclusive of Traveller traditions of language, music, oral culture, nomadic lifestyle and community activism. The Bill will be a positive step forward in combatting one of Ireland’s most shameful and widespread forms of discrimination. It will help realise the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar’s aspirational statement following his election that, “Prejudice has no hold in this Republic”.

I ask the Minister and my colleagues in the Seanad to support the Bill. The Bill’s passing into law would be a strong and unequivocal message in favour of a more inclusive Ireland, an Ireland that welcomes and celebrates diversity, an Ireland that respects all its citizens, an Ireland that nourishes, promotes and protects its diverse set of cultures and histories, and respects the unique Traveller culture and history that forms part of Ireland’s heritage. The inclusion of Traveller culture and history in the curricula of Irish primary and post-primary schools is the logical and long-awaited next step following on from the historic recognition of Traveller ethnicity by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in Dáil Éireann on 1 March 2017. I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Minister and all my colleagues for the support. I commend the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.