Learning about Traveller history and culture will benefit all

Learning about Traveller history and culture will benefit all
Dr Sindy Joyce, the first Traveller in the country to graduate with a PhD, and David Stanton, the minister of state with special responsibility for equality, immigration and integration. Picture: Marc O’Sullivan

A bill to make the teaching of Traveller culture and history mandatory in schools will be a step towards preventing persistent discrimination against Travellers, writes Colette Kelleher.

"It would be a good idea to have settled people and Travellers together in books in schools...That might make them stop calling us names, reading about how Travellers lived in the old days...”

This quote from an 11-year-old girl in 2010 perfectly captures what the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 is trying to achieve.

Through two amendments to the Education Act 1998, the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 will make teaching Traveller culture and history mandatory in schools across Ireland — with the aim to prevent the persistent discrimination that, sadly, is the reality for Irish Travellers.

Many of the statistics speak for themselves.

Travellers are more than 50 times more likely to leave school without the Leaving Certificate in comparison to non-Travellers.

In 2016, just 13.3% of female Travellers were educated to upper secondary level or above, compared with 69% of the general population, and 57% of male Travellers were educated to primary level at most.

It is universally accepted that education is a key pathway to address disadvantage, but the education system is currently not a welcome place for Traveller children.

It is not just Traveller children that would benefit from learning about Traveller culture and history.

I introduced this bill in the Seanad in July 2018, in response to the levels of discrimination and prejudice Travellers face — prejudice which was sadly confirmed over the course of last year’s presidential campaign.

There is a very real and very dangerous anti-Traveller bias in Irish society.

This is having an extremely negative impact on Irish Travellers.

The Irish Traveller Movement estimated that 30 Travellers have died by suicide from January to the end of August this year.

There have been accounts of families losing six, seven, or more relatives to suicide.

Education can begin to end the cycle of racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

Teaching all of us about all of our history will create a more connected and more just society.

Nomadic groups and peoples have lived in Ireland for centuries, and Irish Travellers have a long and proud history.

Ensuring that this history is honoured by inclusion within the history curriculum in primary and second level schools would be transformative to both Traveller children and young adults who rarely find their history reflected by the education system, but also those of the wider community who have not had the opportunity to learn about the diversity and wider context of Irish history and culture.

A young historian and Traveller, Patrick McDonagh, believes that by encouraging the study of Traveller history we will “deepen and complicate the nuanced story of the inhabitants of this

island”.

He adds that there are many groups who called Ireland home, all with their own histories and stories, all of which impacted each other and influenced the creation of modern Irish society.

The richness of the craft, music, and oral traditions of the Traveller community is a resource for all students to know about and cherish.

The value of the study of history in combating prejudice and racism is well recognised and the importance of diverse points of view is central to all history curricula.

This longstanding understanding is in fact contained in the Department of Education’s Guidelines on Traveller Education in Second Level.

This bill is not the first of its kind; similar initiatives are in place in New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Canada.

The European Union has made a number of recommendations stressing the importance of teaching minority language, history, and culture in schools.

The Spanish education minister just a few weeks ago recognised that it is fundamental that Roma students feel included and welcomed in school, as well as the important role of education in combatting negative stereotypes.

The Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 will create a mandatory direction to include Traveller culture and history within the State-sponsored primary and secondary school educational curriculum.

Currently, in the absence of such a requirement, there is little to no teaching of Traveller culture, heritage, or their unique position as Ireland’s only indigenous minority group.

In primary or secondary schools, any reference to the Traveller community is at the will of the teacher.

The passing of the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 will instil, among all children, pride in and respect for the diversity of our shared Irish heritage.

However, its benefits reach far beyond just that.

The bill would affirm positive Traveller culture while contextualising Traveller history within Irish history.

The bill would aid the redress of internalised oppression and combat related mental health issues by promoting positive self-esteem.

Furthermore, the bill would require schools to create a learning environment conducive to educational progression and attainment, where school is a welcome and validating place for all.

The Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 yesterday went before the Seanad in its final stage. Once it passes this stage it will go through to the Dáil.

It is so necessary that it passes — to foster a more welcoming school environment for Traveller children and to be a means to begin to end the myths and lies that underpin racism, prejudice, and discrimination that Travellers experience on an everyday basis.

The young girl quoted at the beginning of this article would be 19 now.

I wonder if she is part of the mere 1% of Travellers who have continued to third level education?

Or is she another bright young person that the current school system has left behind and let down?

Colette Kelleher is an independent politician who has served as a senator since May 2016, after being nominated by the Taoiseach. She previously served as the CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.

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