Travellers would thrive if they were given the opportunity

You don’t need a degree to see there are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers. This is a legacy that must stop, writes Aisling Twomey

Mary Stokes leaves the Four Courts after the opening day of a Supreme Court action taken by her on behalf of her son, John.

WHY don’t Travellers have good education outcomes? Is it because they don’t want to go to school; they don’t want jobs; they don’t want to achieve?

No.

Is it because their parents don’t want them to achieve?

Of course not: All parents want the best possible outcomes for their children and Mary Stokes is a prime example of that.

There are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers.

First and foremost, there has been steadfast, consistent, appalling institutional discrimination levelled against the Traveller community in the education system.

For years, they have been variously segregated, ignored, and educated in an atmosphere of low expectations. The current stories around enrolment policies based on parent and older sibling attendance are just another chapter in the same disappointing story.

Traveller education outcomes have been consistently disappointing. None of this information is new and none of it is surprising.

After the economic crash, Traveller education funding was cut by 86.6%. It meant the end of the visiting and resource teachers for Travellers and the senior Traveller training centres. Mainstreaming was welcomed, but it was widely recognised that Travellers required additional support to participate in mainstream education.

These supports were simply never provided. Austerity hit Traveller children hard, adding new obstacles and undoing past developments.

Many Traveller adults did not attend and complete second-level education. According to the 2011 census, 55% of Travellers failed to complete senior cycle post primary education. The Our Geels: All Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) 2010 found that 38.5% of 30 to 44 year olds and 25.8% of 45 to 64 year olds had primary education only.

Those adults have children who face an automatic disadvantage as a result. No matter how hard those children apply themselves, even if they beg, the excuse of the “parent rule” will limit their access to education.

It’s 2015 and children can’t get into schools because their parents didn’t go. That’s intolerable.

Mary Stokes wanted her son to achieve great things. She sought the best education possible for him and was dogged in her pursuance of that goal. They were turned away at the door — victims of an enrolment policy that localises benefits, rewards privilege, and leaves those most at risk stuck on the margins.

The Supreme Court appeal of Stokes v Clonmel High School was legally complicated, littered with questions about equality law and new facts and, in the end, dismissed. This dismissal has been five years in the making but the story isn’t over.

European courts may beckon. Challenging institutional discrimination has never been quick and easy.

The shame for us is that institutional discrimination has been affecting families like the Stokeses for decades and we haven’t fixed that when the evidence is screaming at us that change is needed.

The dismissal of the Stokeses’ case isn’t the end of the world — it comes at the end of an extremely strategic piece of litigation which we hope will yet influence and change education access policies in Ireland.

It has shone a light on an unsexy topic that rarely hits the front pages. Some of our children are disallowed access to schools because they don’t have relatives who attended: Nonsense.

This organisation has long supported the introduction of legislation to prevent the implementation of enrolment policies that create barriers for children.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 might not address the inequality of these enrolment policies — but it definitely should. Policies that disproportionately affect children from accessing basic education shouldn’t be the norm.

These policies don’t just affect Travellers.

The same issue presents itself for migrant children, or for those families who relocate to a new area. These policies are unacceptable precisely because they make life harder for the children who need extra support.

These enrolment policies are proof, if you needed it, that Travellers are still subjected to a litany of discriminatory processes that directly inhibit genuine, tangible progress in education outcomes for the community.

In 2011, just 115 Travellers had completed third-level education — 1% of the population. In the settled majority, more than 30% of people attain a third-level degree.

Ironically, you don’t need a degree to see that something has gone badly wrong here.

This is a legacy that has to stop somewhere, and the time to stop it is now. How many more generations of Traveller children will we condemn to poverty, unemployment and social exclusion?

If we want Travellers to have better outcomes, we have to let them into schools without prejudice. Like everyone else, with opportunity they’ll thrive.

  • Aisling Twomey is communications officer, Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre

 

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