An Irish Traveller’s path to higher education

Chantelle Cawley discusses the barriers to education that the Travelling Community face

Chantelle Cawley is a 21-year-old Irish Traveller studying at Mary Immaculate College, Thurles. She is in her third year, working towards a degree in post-primary education with Business and Religion. Speaking about her experiences growing up as an Irish Traveller in school, Cawley remarks: “I did at times feel that my teachers never understood my culture. For example, they were so conscious of other students with differences but not Traveller students.”

As an ethnic minority group in Ireland, numbering less than 45,000, Travellers face discrimination from society. The Irish Government has resisted extending support to this community, only recognising their status as an ethnic group in 2017. Many barriers exist for Irish Travellers, especially in higher education. Much of this comes from structural and cultural obstacles that prevent Travellers from flourishing in education in the same way as non-Travellers. Within the EU, Ireland has one of the highest number of students that attend third level education. However, according to the 2016 census, just 0.5% of Irish Travellers continue onto higher education and graduate with a qualification.

In the 1970s, children from the Irish Traveller community were put into segregated, Traveller-only schools. Traveller-only classrooms were in use up until 2000. In a submission made to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills, Travellers shared their experience of these institutions. They recounted being washed before they were allowed into the classroom each morning. Traveller children were given separate lunchtimes so that they could avoid interacting with their settled counterparts. An issue that many of these children had to deal with was teachers refusing to educate them, as there was a perception that as Travellers they did not have the capacity to be taught. Consequently, many did not learn to read or write. 

Teachers are important in the lives of students, Cawley says, pointing out the positive impact some teachers have: “I just think as a teacher you have so much potential to make a difference in students’ lives, especially when they are going through so much.” She cites this as a reason that made her want to become a teacher.

Even today, in parts of Ireland, some schools are labelled as Traveller schools, where children from this community will be sent. Reportedly, 70% of students in an unnamed school in Tuam are Travellers.

This is one of many issues faced by Irish Travellers today, something the Irish Travellers Movement (ITM) want to change. This organisation was founded in 1990, and they represent Travellers and Traveller organisations. Their objective is to challenge the racism that Travellers face in Ireland, with the goal of promoting integration and equality in society.

Stereotyping and profiling are problems for Irish Travellers as there is often a lack of understanding on the part of educators. “I often felt like they didn’t like me and were quite hard on me in both primary and post-primary. It’s funny because I loved school and I would have considered myself a well behaved student,” Cawley explains. The ITM has recommended that intercultural awareness training becomes a mandatory component of continued teacher professional development. This would help to remove the negative stereotypes and anti-Traveller racism in the school environment.

The incredibly low number of Travellers in higher education is partially a knock-on effect from people in the community leaving education at early ages. The national average for people that reach Leaving Certificate is 73%, but among working age Travellers it is 8%. In the same vein, nationally 86% of people aged between 25 and 34 have achieved a second level education, whereas only 9% of Travellers have. The outcome of this data must be traced back to primary and early secondary education. 

Travellers in school can often feel isolated, Cawley explains, indicating that the lack of a sense of belonging is a primary barrier. Cultural differences can separate them from non-Travellers, as there is a lack of education and understanding: “I feel as though many Travellers do not want to progress because they feel isolated and want to be with people like them, who are people in the Travelling community.” Cawley mentions that in school people would ask her about Irish Travellers, curious to know more. The ITM has been advocating for the inclusion of Traveller history and culture in school curricula.

The ITM states that schools have failed to acknowledge Traveller culture and history, which leads to those from the community feeling invisible. They also noted that non-Traveller children are deprived of learning about Traveller culture in a positive light which increases “the chance of their views being formed by the negative stereotypical views of Travellers that persist in wider society”.

The Yellow Flag Programme delivers an 8 step series dealing with interculturalism, equality and diversity into the whole school programme. The ITM pioneered it as a way to promote greater understanding and respect of cultural diversity within school communities. The need for this programme was noticed when teachers voiced their apprehension about discussing the Traveller community. Feeling underinformed and unaware of the correct terminology, many feared that they would be perceived as racist. 

I would be late for school sometimes because I had things to do at home, like chores and getting my siblings ready for school, and my teachers used to make such a big deal out of it, they used to make me feel so embarrassed.”

According to Cawley, it was normal to feel as though teachers did not understand Traveller culture: “I would be late for school sometimes because I had things to do at home, like chores and getting my siblings ready for school, and my teachers used to make such a big deal out of it, they used to make me feel so embarrassed.” Teachers do not realise the pressure that many Travellers are under in school. “I never felt like any of my teachers were empathetic,” Cawley said, emphasising how this really affected her as a student.

The National Traveller Survey 2017 found that 4 out of ten Travellers said they or their children had been bullied in school because of their identity as a Traveller. Cawley specifically remembers “the amount of times I heard people refer to Travellers as knackers or pikeys, and there was nothing done about it”.

In 2013, the Department of Education & Skills Action Plan on Bullying was established. It recognised that some children, especially Traveller children and children of immigrant parents, are more vulnerable to racist bullying due to their identity. It was recommended that preventative strategies were put in place by schools to address this. The ITM was supportive of this, with the Yellow Flag Programme providing expertise on specific forms of identity-based bullying. It was established that Traveller children are more likely to report being bullied at school and to leave school early specifically because of these negative experiences.

In 2011, when large scale budget cuts were made, Traveller-specific educational supports were struck, losing 87% of their funding.”

Funding is a major barrier faced by Travellers when entering higher education. In 2011, when large scale budget cuts were made, Traveller-specific educational supports were struck hard, losing 87% of their funding. This included the withdrawal of the Visiting Teacher Service, the loss of many Resource teachers in primary schools, and cuts to allocated teaching hours in secondary schools. ITM stated that these cuts were made when Ireland had the highest retention of Traveller students continuing from primary to post-primary. The lack of funding devastated the support infrastructure and had a detrimental effect on Travellers’ educational progression since then.

Traveller-specific objectives were set out by the National Action Plan for Education 2016-2019. One of these was to increase the number of Travellers that continue onto higher education. The plan aimed to target full and part-time undergraduate new entrants, of which there would be 80 in 2019. The ITM found that there was no data available for the bursary scheme that was meant to be provided to third level institutions in 2016. This funding was intended to “promote participation for underrepresented groups, including Travellers”. Currently, the Traveller Education Strategy remains inactive, as there was no implementation plan available when it was published. It set out to achieve its goals within five years; that was 10 years ago.

Speaking on the evolving perception of education within the Traveller community and culture, Cawley noted that while it is becoming more acceptable for people in the Traveller community to attend higher education, it is not appealing to most: “education does not have a high value within the Travelling community.” This is changing though and older generations are becoming interested in young Travellers attending higher education. Cawley explains: “they have become wise of the benefits of it. My grandparents are very interested in my education, and they are always asking me about my assignments.” As the eldest among her siblings, Cawley has two younger sisters, both of whom left school at fifteen: “I just always knew that I wanted to go on to higher education. They have different views on higher education than me; it doesn’t really appeal to them.”

“The Traveller Education Strategy remains inactive, as there was no implementation plan available when it was published. It set out to achieve its goals within five years; that was 10 years ago.”

Mobile counterparts of the Travelling community have further complications when it comes to education compared to settled Travellers. Cawley says that often “children don’t feel secure in one school” when they have to keep moving schools in order “to keep up with the tradition”. She adds: “they also may be affected by what other students will say about their living conditions because they live in trailers and mobile homes. Students need to be made aware of different living conditions.” Traveller students would benefit if there was an assigned teacher or a Resource teacher who they could go to for advice and help, according to Cawley. She believes that the curriculum should be broadened to cater for Irish Travellers and all students of diverse backgrounds. 

“My grandfather has very little literacy skills but can do long division, multiplication, change measurements and so on in his head,” says Cawley. She explains how even though Travellers may have minimal schooling, the community continues to defy the offensive stereotype that Travellers cannot be intelligent. She also notes that Travellers are talented craftsmen and have great entrepreneurial skills: “the list goes on, it’s just a shame they never got to tap into their real potential.” 

People are predisposed to have assumptions about different groups, but that does not mean it is right to have one singular view. “I really feel like all Irish Travellers get painted with the same brush. Every Irish Traveller or family are different.” There should be greater consideration for the Traveller community and a more nuanced understanding of their culture. “They deserve as much attention as anyone else in education,” Cawley believes. “Teachers can make a really big difference in young people’s lives. So, I hope that teachers with Irish Traveller students will encourage them to consider further education.”

Shauna Bannon Ward

Shauna Barron Ward is a staff writer at Trinity News. She is a Junior Sophister Law student.