They were among several suggestions made at a national seminar in Cork yesterday to break down the barriers Irish Travellers face while progressing to higher education.
Hilary Harmon, Pavee Point’s education co-ordinator, said there are just over 36,000 Travellers living in Ireland today — with almost 74% living in a house and 42% under the age of 15. However, just 13% of Traveller children complete second-level education, compared to 92% in the settled community.
Of those who drop out of second level, Ms Harmon said 55% have left by the age of 15, and the number of Traveller children who progress to third level represents just 1% of their community.
She said among the barriers to progression are the fact that around 70% of Traveller children live in families where the mother has no formal education, or has primary level education only, almost half have difficulty reading instructions for medications, there is a distrust of the routes society provides for progression to third level, and Traveller history and culture is virtually ignored, not valued or supported in the school curriculum. These combine to create a situation where Traveller children are eight times more likely to be unemployed, she said.
The recently launched National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-19 aims to more than double the number of Traveller students attending part-time or full-time third-level courses — from 35 today to 80 by 2019.
Ms Harmon said a number of measures could be introduced in the short-term to help reach those targets, including:
- Traveller-specific scholarships and the ringfencing of places on specific third-level courses for members of the Traveller community;
- The provision of clear, accessible information on the range of available finance, creche, and library supports which are available;
- Clarification of and promoting the awareness of routes into third level;
- More proactive measures to be taken by universities to engage with local Traveller groups and culture;
- Peer-to-peer mentoring and support.
However, in the long-term, Ms Harmon called for sustained, consistent, and regular engagement with Traveller children attending primary schools to support them through second level, more targeted work with career guidance teachers, and increasing Traveller community interaction with third level institutions.
Anne Looney, of the Higher Education Authority, said building on the partnerships between schools, further and higher education institutions, and Traveller representative groups would be vital to reach the targets.
‘College is very open and accepting. I never felt I had to hide my identity’
Three proud young Travellers have spoken about how third level education has changed their lives.
TJ Hogan, Chrisdina O’Neill and Leanne McDonagh all told the seminar in Cork yesterday that key supports at crucial times ensured they finished second level, sat their Leaving Cert and then secured places on third level courses.
TJ, 21, from Fairhill, Cork, a National Traveller Pride award-winner for his educational achievements, is now in the final year of his three-year Community Development BA degree in Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), and is hoping to introduce a 12-week horse welfare course in primary schools.
Chrisdina is a second-year arts student in UCC who wants to become a teacher to “tackle the system from within”.
Leanne who completed an art degree in CIT, was among 30 of some 300 applicants to secure a place on a HDip programme, and she is now using her art as part of a second-level schools programme to support Traveller children in school.
Chrisdina and Leanne praised teachers at second level who encouraged and supported them, and the UCC Plus+ and Deirdre Creedon of CIT’s Access Office for their continuing support.
But TJ said because his dyslexia wasn’t picked up until his first year in CIT, his primary and second level education was very difficult.
“Education was a horrible place for me. I was marginalised, I was constantly being put down the back of the classroom. I felt I wasn’t good enough,” he said.
Thanks to his parents, Tim and Josephine, and youth worker Noel Kelleher, he stuck it out and passed his Leaving Cert — just.
He said handing his father his Leaving Cert results was one of the worst experiences of his life. But he secured a place in the College of Commerce which ultimately led to his place in CIT.
He added: “College is very open and accepting. You can be who you are. I never felt I had to hide my identity.
“All my classmates and lecturers know who I am.
“I love student life. And I love college life. If I had my way I wouldn’t leave. It’s so relaxed — there’s the engagement with lecturers, the extra help and supports after lectures.”
He is now working with Traveller students in Terence MacSwiney College, where 10%-15% of the student body is drawn from the Traveller community.
“The lads are so brainy, their talents are incredible. They could all go into an engineering course in the morning, but they just don’t have the confidence,” he said.
Once finished college, TJ hopes to get involved in developing and shaping social policy, and in youth counselling.
Inspired by those who encouraged her, Chrisdina said: “Every child has potential, and as a teacher, I want to bring that out and show that no matter who you are, where you come from, every child has potential.”